Introduction to Paleontology

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course; would like more by Sutherland I was really pleased with the scope and presentation style of this course. Prof. Sutherland did an outstanding job in the delivery, mixing just a bit of occasional humor in with the technical. I grew up reading my father's historical geology text books from the 1940's, I took geology classes as electives in school, supplemented by more recent references specific to my local geography and visits to museums, including the better part of an entire day at the Smithsonian just looking at the trilobite collection, but I still learned an awful lot in this course about not just the latest advancements in our understanding of the evolution of the biosphere, but the methods used, as well. Very well done.
Date published: 2020-08-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Everything excellent except... Sutherland is an excellent and engaging lecturer, despite lame humor. The course is relatively challenging even with my spotty prior education in paleontology. I have enjoyed it greatly. However, I depend on closed captioning as a supplement to listening to the lectures and the closed captioning of this course is sloppy to say the least.
Date published: 2020-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great introduction to the Subject Very interesting overview of world history through the story of life, as uncovered by paleontology research over many years. Very entertaining lecturer.
Date published: 2020-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging Professor! I have other courses (one by Professor Sutherland) because I am intrigued by the origins and evolution of life on our planet. Prof. Sutherland is passionate about his topic and his injecting of his personal experience and commitment make the course more informative through that engagement. I highly recommend this course to anyone
Date published: 2020-06-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and enjoyable. This was one of the best course I have watched. I am going to miss Professor Sutherland. He added humor and insight to the presented material. I feel I have greatly expanded my knowledge of the evolution and advancement of the natural world.
Date published: 2020-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Remarkable amount of information I initially suspected discussion on bones. Instead I became entranced by lecture after lecture full of remarkable history of our world or wildlife and our own species. This built to a final lecture that was consuming. I will need to review these several times.
Date published: 2020-05-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Filled in some important gaps My knowledge of Paleontology was a patchwork of information gleaned from science magazines, references in books, and documentaries. There were large gaps in my understanding of the field as a cohesive discipline. Thankfully, these lectures supplied the necessary information I needed to bridge those gaps and enhance my understanding of the field as a whole. One of the biggest gaps in my awareness was my complete lack of information regarding micro fossils. Since that area is generally not considered media worthy, I never considered how much more knowledge of early biology is gleaned from this area as opposed to the more romantic and media friendly larger fossils. Now I understood this was only a survey course, but it piqued my interest enough that I want to dive deeper into some topics this course covered. The lectures were quite substantive and easy to digest for a novice like myself. The presentation was excellent and the graphics were fine, however I was annoyed about the number of graphs and their short duration onscreen during the lecture. It was almost impossible to read the graphs and listen to the lecturer concurrently. I had to back up or pause numerous times just to study the graphs. Other than that minor annoyance the flow and progression of the lectures were very pleasurable. The only reason I gave this course four instead of five stars was because of the endless promotions of the Smithsonian brand. It got to the point that every time I heard the name Charles Wolcott (that name is forever branded in my brain), the Burgess Shale, and his association with the Smithsonian that I started yelling at lecturer. Talk about hype! I suppose since the Smithsonian was behind this course they are allowed a little shameless self-promotion, but there was nothing subtle about it. There was enough of it that it somewhat over-shadowed all the other individuals and institutions who are involved in furthering the field. Definitely a negative.
Date published: 2020-05-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Utterly absorbing set of lectures The course was so good that it was like watching an unfolding drama. The professor truly regrets the extinction of the trilobytes, several times expressing sadness. The stories of extinctions and bottle necks in evolution are a wonderful antidote to self pity in an age of coronavirus epidemic and social distancing. Everyone should watch this course.
Date published: 2020-05-03
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Introduction to Paleontology
Course Trailer
History on a Geological Scale
1: History on a Geological Scale

Take an exciting virtual walk from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capital to explore the 4.54 billion-year history of Earth, with each of your strides representing 1 to 2 million years. Along the way, fossils will paint a picture of life on Earth, from the earliest known bacteria to our world today....

33 min
Life Cast in Ancient Stone
2: Life Cast in Ancient Stone

Learn about the fascinating individuals and showmen whose curiosity about the Earth and its fossils led to the development of the science of paleontology. But how easy is it to find fossils? Learn about the geographic, climatic, and chemical requirements for a living organism to leave behind its fossilized record....

34 min
Tools of the Paleontological Trade
3: Tools of the Paleontological Trade

In addition to the basic mechanical tools still used in the field today, paleontologists now have an exciting digital tool chest. What can we learn from dispersive x-ray spectroscopy and x-ray computer tomography when they are used to examine fossils from the size of pollen to the bones of Tyrannosaurus rex?...

33 min
How Do You Fossilize Behavior?
4: How Do You Fossilize Behavior?

While we rarely if ever find the fossilized remains of certain types of organisms, we can find evidence of their existence as they interacted with the environment. Learn how these trace fossils-e.g., fossilized burrows, tracks, ripples, nests, feces-help us understand the early evolution of the biosphere and the diversification of animal life....

31 min
Taxonomy: The Order of Life
5: Taxonomy: The Order of Life

How much does the scientific name of an animal, past or present, really matter? From Carl Linnaeus' Systema Naturae to the modern system of cladistics, you'll be amazed how much we can learn about the history of life on Earth simply from our ongoing efforts at classification....

29 min
Minerals and the Evolving Earth
6: Minerals and the Evolving Earth

Paleontology provides a different lens to view how our planet's 4,400 minerals developed over billions of years-both influencing and being influenced by our evolving biosphere. Learn how Earth's few primordial minerals interacting with liquid water, plate tectonics, and eventually photosynthesis would create an explosion of mineral species seen nowhere else in our solar system....

31 min
Fossil Timekeepers
7: Fossil Timekeepers

Our planet's fossil record reveals that the natural cycles we take for granted today were previously quite different. Learn how biostratigraphy, sclerochronology, Carbon-14 dating, and other tools reveal a historic Earth with a day as short as six hours and a year as long as 455 days....

33 min
Fossils and the Shifting Crust
8: Fossils and the Shifting Crust

Why do we find life on Earth exactly where it is today? Why are some species found only in isolated pockets while others are spread across multiple continents? Learn what fossils tell us about our planet's exciting historic migrations-of flora, fauna, and the continents themselves....

34 min
Our Vast Troves of Microfossils
9: Our Vast Troves of Microfossils

When we think of fossils, we tend to visualize large shells or bones. Microfossils, though, can reveal a more complete and dynamic picture of the past, including some of the most ancient history of life on Earth and details of climate change over 100's of millions of years with a resolution just not possible from large "macro" fossils....

32 min
Ocean Fire and the Origin of Life
10: Ocean Fire and the Origin of Life

For centuries, scientists believed all life on earth was powered by the sun via photosynthesis. That was before ecosystems, powered by chemosythesis, were found at volcanic oceanic ridge systems. Paleontologists have now found examples fossilized vent systems over a billion years old and the life that lived around them. These exciting fossils and their modern equivalents may help us understa...

31 min
The Ancient Roots of Biodiversity
11: The Ancient Roots of Biodiversity

What is the Cambrian explosion? Why did Charles Darwin find the apparent sudden emergence of complex life so puzzling, and what have paleontologists today revealed about this period of Earth's history? Learn what the very latest findings tell us about how the stage might have been set for such rapid adaptation and diversification of life on Earth....

30 min
Arthropod Rule on Planet Earth
12: Arthropod Rule on Planet Earth

Arthropods live successfully all around the Earth today, but it was an extinct group of arthropods, the trilobites, that dominated the globe following the Cambrian explosion. With the benefits of exoskeletons and their well-developed eyes, trilobites were a significant presence in earth's oceans for 250 million years, evolving into more than 20,000 species with a variety of life styles....

31 min
Devonian Death and the Spread of Forests
13: Devonian Death and the Spread of Forests

Today we look at forests as a sign of a healthy biosphere. But is it possible that the earliest forestation of our planet-as plants became larger, developed seeds, roots, and wood and expanded away from the shoreline-could be responsible for mass extinction towards the end of the Devonian period?...

30 min
Life's Greatest Crisis: The Permian
14: Life's Greatest Crisis: The Permian

What could have caused the Permian mass extinction, when around 90 percent of all species became extinct in the geological blink of an eye? Learn what paleontology reveals about the cascading series of events that led to runaway global warming and the greatest catastrophe faced on earth since the evolution of complex life....

32 min
Life's Slow Recovery after the Permian
15: Life's Slow Recovery after the Permian

Although after most mass extinctions, the biosphere is well on its way to recovery within several hundred thousand years, recovery took many times longer after the Permian extinction. Eventually though, life adapted and diversified into a wide variety of exciting new plants and animals. Enter the dinosaurs....

31 min
Dinosaur Interpretations and Spinosaurus
16: Dinosaur Interpretations and Spinosaurus

Learn how a recent discovery might answer "Romer's Riddle" and give us a new picture of Spinosaurus, the largest carnivorous dinosaurs to have ever lived. With an elaborate sail on his back and an interpretation that this dinosaur may have been semi-aquatic, Spinosaurus is at the center of much debate in the paleontological community today....

32 min
Whales: Throwing Away Legs for the Sea
17: Whales: Throwing Away Legs for the Sea

Learn how descendants of a small raccoon-sized animal that lived in India evolved into modern marine whales. From this small herbivore, within the geological blink of an eye, the power of natural selection would generate a whole array of wonderful creatures including the blue whale, possibly the largest animal to have ever lived on Earth....

30 min
Insects, Plants, and the Rise of Flower Power
18: Insects, Plants, and the Rise of Flower Power

We owe a lot to the angiosperms. Not only do their flowers create a world of beauty, but their fruits helped drive human civilization. But did flowers first appear in water or on land? And what is the history and origin of the wonderful partnership between insects and flowering plants?...

31 min
The Not-So-Humble Story of Grass
19: The Not-So-Humble Story of Grass

With the evolution of grasses came the grassland biomes-the prairies, pampas, and steppes that cover almost 40 percent of Earth's land surface today. Learn how this biome impacted animal evolution, including our own ancestors as they moved out of Africa and around the planet, facilitated by a carpet of grasses....

30 min
Australia's Megafauna: Komodo Dragons
20: Australia's Megafauna: Komodo Dragons

Meet the Komodo dragon, a 200-pound lizard found on several relatively small Indonesian islands today. Paleontologists now know these specimens are a relic population of a lineage of giant monitor lizards once common in Australia. But exactly how did these animals make that trip? And how much longer is their species likely to survive?...

28 min
Mammoths, Mastodons, and the Quest to Clone
21: Mammoths, Mastodons, and the Quest to Clone

When the Mastodon became the first extinct species to be discovered, much that the Western world knew to be true-i.e., the Biblical description of the creation timeline-was suddenly called into question. Today, the Mastodon offers us another major ethical challenge: Would it be possible for scientists to use their DNA and "bring them back?"...

30 min
The Little People of Flores
22: The Little People of Flores

Although little folk are common characters in mythology, scientists had never thought they actually existed-until a team of archaeologists made a fascinating discovery on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003. But exactly who exactly is Homo floresiensis? And through what lineage could we be related?...

29 min
The Neanderthal among Us
23: The Neanderthal among Us

For years, we thought of Neanderthals as brutish, ignorant, distant cousins we could mostly ignore. Not any longer. As revealed by The Neanderthal Genome Project, modern humans and Neanderthals were sufficiently similar to have interbred and produced viable offspring. As much as 30 to 40 percent of the Neanderthal genome may be spread the human population today....

31 min
Paleontology and the Future of Earth
24: Paleontology and the Future of Earth

What paleontologists have learned about Earth's history so far reveals that change is just about our only constant. Given that only a minute fraction of the information held in the Earth's crust has been discovered so far, paleontology will continue to be a significant gateway to understanding the past and present, and perhaps provide insight into the future of our planet....

41 min
Stuart Sutherland

I love investigating life's story and how major geological events have colored that story. I am also passionate about helping people 'read the rocks' so they can peel back the pages of Earth's history for themselves.


University of Leicester


The University of British Columbia

About Stuart Sutherland

Dr. Stuart Sutherland is a Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at The University of British Columbia (UBC). Raised in the United Kingdom, he earned an undergraduate degree in geology from the University of Plymouth and a Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from the University of Leicester for his studies on Silurian microfossils called chitinozoa. Professor Sutherland discovered his passion for teaching during an appointment at Brunel University in London. He went on to postdoctoral research at the Natural History Museum in London, working with other paleontologists to understand the Devonian organic-walled microfossils of the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain. During this time, he completed a postgraduate teaching degree at Sheffield Hallam University. Since 2000, Professor Sutherland has been on the faculty at UBC's Vancouver campus, where his interests center on Earth history and paleontology. He is a three-time winner of the UBC Earth and Ocean Sciences Teaching Award. He also received the Faculty of Science Teaching Award and the Killam Teaching Prize, and he was named a "popular professor" in two editions of Maclean's Guide to Canadian Universities.

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