EAE3552 - Evolution of life through geological time - 2019

6 points, SCA Band 2, 0.125 EFTSL

Undergraduate - Unit

Refer to the specific census and withdrawal dates for the semester(s) in which this unit is offered.



Organisational Unit

School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment

Chief examiner(s)

Associate Professor Jeffrey Stilwell


Associate Professor Jeffrey Stilwell

Unit guides



  • Second semester 2019 (On-campus)


EAE2522, ESC2111


ESC2032, ESC3232


This unit investigates and explores the evolutionary patterns of life on planet Earth throughout 3.8 billion years of 'deep time' geologic history from its simple beginnings to advanced, multicellular life in the fossil record. How palaeontology developed as a discipline is presented as an overview of the global impacts of the discipline on science and the major players from its earliest origins in Medieval Europe to much later 19th Century researchers in Australia with associated discoveries of megafauna, dinosaurs, early fish, metazoans, and other major finds, that persist with active research to the present day. Significant milestones in the history of life covered include the early origin of life, metazoan origins in the late Precambrian, Cambrian 'explosion' of organisms with hard parts (both invertebrate and vertebrate), evolution and mass extinctions and their outcomes, biodiversity patterns through time, biologic effects from extraterrestrial impacts, biotic outcomes from volcanism, changing climate and geography (impact of developing aridity on biota, 'Snowball Earth' metazoan origins), the coevolution of plants and animals, the influences of the plant biosphere with the global environment, and the origin of major animal groups (e.g., molluscs, echinoderms, fish, marsupials). Emphasis on strengths/weaknesses of interpretive methods and how complex science can be presented to a wide audience is also explored. Palaeontology has developed from a more descriptive science of documenting ancient organic remains and their affinities to become also a significant applied field in the quest for global economic resources, such as petroleum (oil and gas), coal and even gold (e.g., graptolite fossils used to date rocks in the Lachlan Fold Belt and associated goldfields of Victoria). Furthermore, the fossil record has been shown to have remarkable explanatory power for global and regional environmental and ecological changes across a deep time perspective. As such, lectures and practical's will integrate fossil and many other types of geologic data sets to reinforce how palaeontology endeavours have become 'big picture' science. A field trip to study richly fossiliferous rocks aims to synthesise knowledge of the fossil record gained from the unit in a practical way to arrive at high level interpretations of ancient biotic communities and their geologic and biologic contexts.


On completion of this unit students will be able to:

  1. Recount some detail of the course of life on earth from 3.8 billion years to present.
  2. Interpret the effect that tectonic plate movement and the waxing and waning of continents and ocean basins have had on the biosphere, climate and environments through time.
  3. Summarise the background to the formation of the modern biosphere of Australasia - that modern environments and climate in Australia are very atypical, and how this has impact on the future predictions of climatic and environmental change.
  4. Appraise how the fossil record can be used in the dating of rock sequences.
  5. Elucidate how the biosphere interacts significantly with the physical environment;
  6. Outline the history of research in palaeontology on the Australian continent.
  7. Illustrate how to present a research paper at a scientific meeting in both the written form and in the form of an oral presentation, how to interpret scientific research to a public audience and also how to deal with the media.

  8. Apply palaeontological and geological field knowledge to read ancient ecosystems and their relationship to earth's environmental evolution.


NOTE: From 1 July 2019, the duration of all exams is changing to combine reading and writing time. The new exam duration for this unit is 2 hours and 10 minutes.

Essay (2000 words): 10%

Oral Presentation: 10%

Field trip report: 15%

Examination (2 hour): 30%

Laboratory work: 35%

Workload requirements

  • Two 1-hour lectures per week
  • Eleven 3-hour practical sessions throughout the semester
  • One field trip (normally in the mid-semester break)

See also Unit timetable information

This unit applies to the following area(s) of study