BI2EV45-Vertebrate Zoology

Module Provider: School of Biological Sciences
Number of credits: 20 [10 ECTS credits]
Terms in which taught: Autumn / Spring term module
Non-modular pre-requisites:
Modules excluded:
Current from: 2018/9

Module Convenor: Dr Graham Luke


Type of module:

Summary module description:

This module incorporates aspects of traditional comparative zoology with the modern field of evolutionary-developmental biology and palaeontology. Within this remit, students will undertake a broad and in places detailed look at the morphology of a wide range of vertebrates. The Autumn term of this module focuses heavily on the evolution of crucial and defining adaptive features (both morphological and physiological) in non-mammalian vertebrates. The Spring term focusses more on Mammalia. The module considers the factors that have led to the diversity of vertebrates that exist today, and the demise of those that lived in previous epochs. Observational and deductive skills are an important part of this module. 


  1. To provide a grounding in, and overview of, the multidisciplinary nature of zoology in the 21st century (in particular the relevance of palaeontology, zoogeography, phylogenetics and developmental biology to traditional comparative morphological zoology).

  2. To provide students with an account of the zoology of the vertebrates, viz. (i) The organisation of the main vertebrate taxa. (ii) An outline of non-mammalian vertebrate evolution from its Chordate ancestry, (iii) A study of selected adaptations of vertebrates to their ways of life, (iv) An account of the origins, functions and significance of some key mammalian features, (v) An introduction to a key driver of evolution, energetics.

  3. To give students a wider appreciation of the complexity and diversity of vertebrate morphology and physiology, and the exquisite nature of their adaptations to their life styles and their environments.

NB. This course will complement the Birds: Diversity, Behaviour and Conservation module BI2EY5. 

Assessable learning outcomes:

By the end of the course, it is expected that students will be able to describe and explain:

1. The main morphological and physiological features used in vertebrate classification.

2. The evolutionary history of the main non-mammalian vertebrate taxa.

3. The key morphological and physiological adaptations of vertebrates to life in water, on land and in the air

4. The general anatomical organisation of chordates and vertebrates.

5. Selected examples of vertebrate adaptive radiations.

6. Contrast and compare a range of mammalian life styles and strategies and morphologies with those of the non-mammalian vertebrate taxa.

Also students will:

7. Have developed observational and deductive skills associated with investigating and recording vertebrate structure/function by observation, dissection, and accurate drawing and note-taking.


Additional outcomes:

Students will have the opportunity to:-

1. Gain experience of teamwork delegation and responsibility within a team.

2. Develop skills associated with library information retrieval, gaining information from the WWW and journals.

3. Develop time management skills in a practical setting.

4. Develop written and graphical communication skills. 

Outline content:

Autumn. Lectures will cover the defining features, origin, organisation, evolution and radiation of the major groups of non-mammalian vertebrates. In this context, the biology of dinosaurs, other extinct vertebrates, and the evolution of birds will be covered. Anatomical and physiological differences between the Synapsid and Sauropsid taxa will be contrasted. Respiration and homeostasis.

Spring. Lectures will cover a) the origin, evolution, morphology, physiology and function of the defining features of mammals {e.g. placentation and lactation}, b) the evolution and morphology of locomotory specialisations of mammals, c) vertebrate adaptations to life in extreme environments (e.g. Cetaceans), d) zoogeography, e) digestion and energetics.

Underlying themes of the course will be:-

  1. The relationship between, and the evolution of, morphological form and function within vertebrate taxa (especially in regard to locomotion, feeding and respiration, and the water/land/air transitions).

  2. The contrast between the different morphological and physiological adaptations and strategies employed by different taxa (e.g. ectothermy contrasted with endothermy, and altriciality contrasted with precociality).

  3. The relationship and relevance of other disciplines to zoology (e.g. developmental biology, evolution, palaeontology, behavioural biology, geology).

  4. The role of energetics in shaping morphology and function in vertebrates.

Brief description of teaching and learning methods:

Contact hours:
  Autumn Spring Summer
Lectures 16 10
Practicals classes and workshops 13 12
Guided independent study 71 78
Total hours by term 100.00 100.00
Total hours for module 200.00

Summative Assessment Methods:
Method Percentage
Written exam 50
Written assignment including essay 12.5
Practical skills assessment 37.5

Summative assessment- Examinations:

A 2 hour examination. 

Summative assessment- Coursework and in-class tests:

Practical report books form the basis of in-course assessment. Crucial factors in this assessment are: the accuracy and depth of observations, answers to set questions, effectiveness of written and graphical content communication skills, and the overall usefulness of the notebooks in terms of an aide memoire for revision purposes.

Examination of preserved specimens from the Cole Museum and practical class dissections of specimens comprise almost 50% of the formal teaching of this module, and thus are an integral part of this course.


Formative assessment methods:
The first practical class is formatively assessed. Lab books from this class are handed in a few days after the practical and marked and returned in time for the second class. This is to give students an understanding of the standard and style of work that is acceptable.

Penalties for late submission:
The Module Convener will apply the following penalties for work submitted late:

  • where the piece of work is submitted after the original deadline (or any formally agreed extension to the deadline): 10% of the total marks available for that piece of work will be deducted from the mark for each working day[1] (or part thereof) following the deadline up to a total of five working days;
  • where the piece of work is submitted more than five working days after the original deadline (or any formally agreed extension to the deadline): a mark of zero will be recorded.

  • The University policy statement on penalties for late submission can be found at:
    You are strongly advised to ensure that coursework is submitted by the relevant deadline. You should note that it is advisable to submit work in an unfinished state rather than to fail to submit any work.

    Assessment requirements for a pass:
    A mark of 40% overall

    Reassessment arrangements:
    Re-examination in August/September

    Additional Costs (specified where applicable):

    Students will be expected to read relevant chapters of the recommended text by Pough et al., ("Vertebrate Life" 7-10th Editions) and other texts.

    Excellent books to read to supplement the recommended text, and as a background/introduction to this module are “The Evolution of Vertebrate Design” by L.B. Radinsky, 1987 and the material covering vertebrates in "Integrative Animal Biology" by Fenton, Campbell, Dumont and Owen, 2014.

    Students are encouraged to visit the Natural History Museum in Oxford during the course. 

    Last updated: 20 April 2018


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