Course Notes

Invertebrate Paleontology is the study of ancient invertebrate life. It is an exciting field at the overlap of geology and biology and animated by the process of organic evolution. My primary goal in this course is that you learn the basic theories and methods of paleontology, and enough of the applications so that you can later pick up a fossil anywhere and know its identity, preservation style, evolutionary history, age, and depositional environment. (Or at least know where and how to look all this up!) Very few (if any) of you will become professional paleontologists, but all of you will confront at various times and in various ways the issues raised in this paleontology course. It could be as a working geologist, a teacher in school, or simply a visitor to a museum. While paleontology is the specific topic, this course is also one in “natural history”. Beyond the geological significance and application of fossils, you will learn about the extraordinary adaptations life has made to the diverse environments on Earth. Watching a clam burrow in the sand or a dragonfly winging through the air will never be quite the same after studying the history of life. The single lesson I will expect you to recall five, ten, twenty or fifty years from now is that life is a geological process! The Earth is the way it is because it has harbored life for almost four billion years.

This course is limited to the fossil record of invertebrate organisms, which are informally defined as all life except bacteria, fungi, plants and vertebrates. Invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on Earth and among the most numerous. (I don’t know how we count bacteria.) Their fossils are by far the most useful to geologists, and they present the best record of organic evolution. We will approach the invertebrates systematically, starting with the most “primitive” and “simple” (you will see how those terms are problematic) and ending with the most “complex”.

Laptop, tablet and phone policy.–Research has conclusively shown that the use of laptops and other digital devices in the classroom actually interferes with learning. (One study says bluntly: “Our results showed that nonacademic Internet use was common among students who brought laptops to class and was inversely related to class performance.”) Use of laptops, tablets and phones is thus not allowed in our classroom. There can be exceptions in special circumstances — please talk to me first.

Writing Assignments —

Paleontological essays.–Two of these, each 3-4 pages long. Together they count as 10% of your final course grade. One of them will be an analysis of a recent scientific paper (which you will receive in class), and the other will be about a recent paleontological news event. The paper and the news story will be chosen from what appears during the semester of interest to the class, so I cannot give you due dates now.

Research Paper.–This is a paper covering a topic of your interest in invertebrate paleontology (and not covered in class). It will be roughly 10-15 pages in length, plus illustrations. We will discuss potential topics early in the semester so that you can get started quickly. The paper is scheduled in four assignments: first you turn in a topic and a couple primary references, second is a title with more references, third is a preliminary draft you can optionally share with me, and fourth is the final research paper itself. Be sure to use our Departmental Writing Webpage. This year we will be using an online system for constructing your papers that is designed to have everyone on the same page (literally!) for the required format, scope and purpose of the papers. The creativity and writing skills will be yours, of course! Here is our Sample Paleo Research Paper. Your final paper is now due in your Dropbox folder by FRIDAY, December 7, 7:30 a.m.

Field Studies Report.–Our class field trip will be to the immensely fossiliferous Cincinnati Group of the Upper Ordovician, one of the most famous paleontological localities in the world. It is a one-day trip on Sunday, September 9. (Arrive at Scovel by 6:45 a.m.) You will each prepare and study your individual field collections during the semester. The field studies report will be your assessment of your collection, along with paleoenvironmental and paleoecological analyses. We will discuss these collections throughout the lab program. Here is a sample field studies report generously given to us by Alexis.

Testing —

Lecture Examinations.–Two of them. They will be short-answer essay questions, morphological identifications, and problems to solve. The material will be taken directly from the lectures, but the laboratory exercises will help you understand and digest it. Sleep through any test, by the way, you’ve missed it and will earn a zero.

Laboratory Examinations.–Two of these as well. Each examination will be centered on fossil specimens. You will be asked to identify fossils, discuss their morphological features, and place them in their contexts of environment and time. For each lab test you can use your Systematics pages (the “yellow book”) and the notes you have taken on them. There is thus less direct memorization, but you still must know how the names, dates and descriptions are applied.

Preparation questions/pop quizzes.–Before each class lecture I will post online a list of Preparation Questions. These questions serve two purposes: (1) they are designed to prepare you for that particular lecture; and (2) they are among the questions which will be used for that day’s pop quiz, if there is one. You are thus encouraged to have answers for them — at least in your head! — before each class meeting. (What a bonus — some of the pop quiz questions in advance!) You will have twelve pop quizzes by the end of the course, with the lowest two grades dropped. If you are absent for any reason when a quiz is given (other than a scheduled college event), your grade will be recorded as a zero. Occasionally a lab exercise will be graded as a quiz.

Final Examination.–This will be an examination which will cover lecture and laboratory material. Most of this test will be from what we have studied since the last lecture and lab tests, but some of it will be over summary concepts from the whole course. I will expect by then, for example, that you will be able to identify any invertebrate fossil and discuss its paleoenvironmental and paleoecological relationships. You can use your Systematics pages and notes here as well.

Laboratory —

Lab exercises.–Your graded assignments in the lab are the two lab tests, the lecture and lab final examination, and the field studies report. We will, though, have several exercises in the lab over concepts and methods which will be either later tested or will be part of the field studies report. Some lab exercises will be graded as quizzes. Our projects will include dissections of modern invertebrates. We will supply all the necessary tools and, of course, the critters. The Systematics summary (the yellow book you’ll receive in class) will be very useful because it will not only serve as a template for your notes, you’ll be able to use it on both lab exams and on the final lab-lecture exam.

Grading summary —

Paleontological essays (2): 10% total; due as stated on assignments
Research Paper (final): 15%; due on December 6, 7:30 a.m.
Field Studies Report: 10%; due on November 20, 7:30 a.m.
Laboratory Exam #1: 10%; September 27, 1:00 & 2:30 p.m.
Laboratory Exam #2: 10%; November 8, 1:00 & 2:30 p.m.
Lecture Exam #1: 10%; September 20, 8:00 a.m.
Lecture Exam #2: 10%; November 1, 8:00 a.m.
Quizzes (Pop!): 10% total; twelve given, lowest two scores dropped
Final Examination: 15%; Monday, December 10, noon – 2:00 p.m. (lab & lecture combined)

Textbook —

None! I expect you to find additional information through the web links on our home page and your own curiosity and ingenuity.

Teaching Assistant —

Alexis Lanier will be our Teaching Assistant. She will help in the labs and serve as a course  tutor.

Schedule conflicts —

The faculty of the College has a uniform policy regarding conflicts between extracurricular and academic events: “The College of Wooster is an academic institution and its fundamental purpose is to stimulate its students to reach the highest standard of intellectual achievement. As an academic institution with this purpose, the College expects students to give the highest priority to their academic responsibilities. When conflicts arise between academic commitments and complementary programs (including athletic, cultural, educational, and volunteer activities), students, faculty, staff, and administrators all share the responsibility of minimizing and resolving them. As a student you have the responsibility to inform the faculty member of potential conflicts as soon as you are aware of them, and to discuss and work with the faculty member to identify alternative ways to fulfill your academic commitments without sacrificing the academic integrity and rigor of the course.”

Course Instructor —

I have a weekly appointment schedule posted on my office door (Scovel 120). Please sign up for an appointment if you have any questions about the course schedule or material. The labs are also great times to talk.

Mark A. Wilson
Department of Geology
The College of Wooster

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