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Introduction to Paleontology

Explore the latest paleontological discoveries and what they reveal about life on Earth with the Smithsonian and an award-winning professor.
Introduction to Paleontology is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 145.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course This course was Excellent. I learned a great deal about the subject. Never bored; always engaged.
Date published: 2023-12-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Each Lesson Gets More Fascinating I was not sold after watching the first lesson. I thought it was going into so much detail that I was going to get lost. But I stuck with it, and by Lesson 3, I was hooked. Dr. Sutherland is whimsical, engaging, and boy, does he know his stuff. There are some rabbit holes he goes down, but this is more than a "surface" overview of paleontology, and I'm grateful for that. And it is entirely relevant today, because of climate events, wildfires, and things that can scare us but that have explanations rooted in history from millions of years ago. If you want to understand what's happening to our planet today, Dr. Sutherland is a great guide.
Date published: 2023-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from There is A LOT to learn here!!! Though this is not a detailed review, I mainly wanted to add my '5 stars' to overall rating. Sutherland is great presenter. He covers many related topics and delivers a very enjoyable & educational course. While I quickly reviewed some of the negative reviews, I respectfully must say that I don't understand their complaints (e.g., boring, too many topics covered, his British accent, a few jokes, etc.). Rather, I strongly recommend this course! It is roughly in the 10%-15% of the +200 courses I have thus far watched.
Date published: 2023-07-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from FINALLY! DARWINIAN EVOLUTION: Though Darwin’s idea was useful to "get the ball rolling”, the field of “survival of the fittest" as THE driver of evolution has been bothersome for many years. As Sutherland’s course masterfully documents, reality is much more complex. Those of us familiar with complexity theory, (see TGC “Chaos" by Strogatz) have difficulty with “phyletic gradualism” (changes in evolution due solely to Darwin’s ideas) as evolution’s prime mover. Rather, we see multiple causes of DNA change including environmental input (see the Great Course Epigenetics by Mykura) and “random walks" not driven by selective pressure but nonetheless available within existential boundaries. Micropaleontology (the subject of much of this course) is also a player. Lecture 9 (=L9) discusses Hunt’s study of “251 data sets of the morphological characteristics from 53 different evolutionary lineages…” Directional trends (chance and/or Darwinian mechanisms) accounted for a tiny 5%, 45% remained static, and 50% were random (i.e.: non-linear, chaos driven) “random walks”. Thus paleontologically observed “punctuated bursts" of rapid evolution have “just a minor component of…(chance and/or Darwin-style) directed phyletic gradualism”. QED. As Sutherland puts it: “A simplistic (descriptive driven) view of the world will obviously miss the bigger picture." HIGHLIGHTS: L8’s is a marvelous review of how minerals evolved beyond the 60 expected (after meteors) to 4400 due to everything from tectonics to plants. It might make science fiction writers pause when considering the statistical chances of extending humanity beyond its present confines. L17 shows, in case doubt remains, that the common ancestor of humans did not evolve from chimps. L19 discusses the efficiency of CO2 conserving (and therefore water conserving) pathways of C4 (4-carbon) grasses vs. less efficient metabolic pathways of C3 plants. This chapter will explain why humans could expand and why there was initially concern about the world food supply because of the war in Ukraine. The chapter also includes that mountain up-thrust increased soluble CO2 erosion effects by forming sedimentary clays and decreasing atmospheric CO2. (See also Great Course “Nature of Earth” by Renton L8 if this is unclear). EXTINCTIONS: This course has a more nuanced view of climate change than most. L14 summarizes the Permian extinction by saying that it had no single cause. While L23 ignores the Novarupta volcanic eruption in Alaska (so powerful it was heard in the Caribbean), Sutherland posits that even the huge 75,000-year-old CO2 spewing Toba eruption may NOT have induced significant climate change as its timing did not correspond with climate change or loss of human populations. This concept is worth following in future courses. POLITICAL BENEFITS: As certain governmental bodies are now trying to divide our nation into African vs, non-African descent, the reality is that we are all Africans (Lecture L22 = L22). If our society demands black slavery “reparations", L23 suggests a genetic test for anyone with 3% Neanderthal DNA might be a clear dividing line. Unfortunately, TGC’s “African Experience by Vickery" L13-14 demonstrates there were no whites in central Africa to enslave anyone until after the Civil War. Chief Nzinga, later King "Afonso" (not Alfonso), of what is now the Congo was among the first of many West African coast black enslavers. Nzinga nearly emptied out his territory selling his own people for rifles, an African castle, and recognition by a Portuguese King. CONCLUSION: Early and late in this course, Sutherland refers to the Great Course “Origin and Evolution of Earth" by Robert Hazen. It is one of the most important courses in TGC's repertoire. I'd recommend doing that course first as it provides a background to the mineralogy and earth history of this course. But Sutherland’s course has groundbreaking material, not found in other courses. A Transcript might be more useful than the good 194-page Guidebook in reconstructing the intricacies of Sutherland’s groundbreaking arguments.
Date published: 2023-07-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Great lecturer but course was a bit disappointing I bought this course hoping it would give me current, detailed information on life forms that existed previously on our planet. There have been profound discoveries and advances in paleontology over the last few decades in both vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology so I was hoping to be enlightened especially with respect to dinosaurs. I was shocked to find out that there was only one lecture each devoted to dinosaurs and arthropods, two of the most widely and worldly popular fossil groups! So very little on trilobites despite the amazing and important discoveries in Morocco (as well as dinosaur and reptile discoveries there!) and one lecture on dinosaurs that was almost entirely devoted to Spinosaurus with some side notes on dinosaurs in Thailand and Malaysia based on fossil fragments?! The lecture on Spinosaurus was, however, incredibly interesting and it would have been great to hear similar information on other dinosaurs. And I’m sorry, I did not buy a course on paleontology to have one entire lecture devoted to mineral evolution!? Dr Hazen has performed incredible research on this topic but it was totally out of place here! And an entire lecture devoted to grasses?! Coverage of the Devonian and Permian extinctions was good. It essentially ended with a lecture on Neanderthals which I’m sorry belongs in a course on anthropology not to mention they, and Homo sapiens, are only an insignificant blip in the fossil record. The course overview says that it was developed as a partnership with the Smithsonian and how their curators “helped shape the structure and content of the course” then shame on them for omitting so much about dinosaurs (the most successful animals ever on the planet!) along with details on so many other important and interesting fossil groups. Their own Smithsonian magazine recently stated that “there’s never been a better time to be a dinosaur fan” yet only one lecture devoted to them. Dr Sutherland is a great lecturer and really made made this course! He has excellent presentation skills and made all of the lectures worth listening too…even though several lectures/topics were out of place or were of little interest to me. Pretty disappointing overall except for Dr Sutherland.
Date published: 2023-05-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Paleontology Well done. Good use of diagrams, charts and graphics. Explanations clear and concise. He is very knowledgeable about his subject matter and presents it well. Did have some difficulty with use of Latin species names that sometimes went on forever. Interesting concepts.
Date published: 2023-01-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from More Than You Need to Know Be aware that this is a technical approach to the subject as opposed to a “survey course” for general learners. It goes into some detail about mineral formation, the Big Bang, plate tectonics, taxonomy, microfossils, geology, and more. This was a rare occasion when I skipped chapters and didn’t feel guilty. Dr. Sutherland obviously knows his stuff in depth. He uses a chatty, energetic, engaging style. His graphics are many and first-rate. His subject on the face of it is certainly interesting. He gets sidetracked, however, by all the extra alleyways he travels through. Maybe the prof had to stretch to make the presentation into 24 chapters. He wouldn’t be the first to do that. In any event, there is a ton of related but subsidiary information. It’s like asking a carpenter how to drive a nail—who tells you how minerals were formed, how they are mined, techniques of galvanizing, the timeline of square nails in medieval carpentry, and how nails are put to use today. So . . . how do you drive the nail? This course would be quite beneficial to anyone at a university beginning to study paleontology, who needs its web of details. The rest of us must slice through them to find the essence of the course. With that warning, I’d recommend it for listeners who tolerate and respect a rather large web of extraneous facts.
Date published: 2022-12-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Delightfully Informative I have had a lifelong "amateur's" interest in paleontology and found this course to be a delight to view. The information was presented in a very organized and easy to understand manner and the visual aids terrific. There was enough depth to the information presented to maintain interest throughout and encourage a desire to delve deeper into specific areas for more details. Well presented throughout.
Date published: 2022-09-12
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Introduction to Paleontology is a thrilling journey through Earth's history-from a lifeless planet to initial bursts of life, from extinctions to recovery, and ultimately to our world today. Relying considerably on the National Museum of Natural History's curatorial expertise and extensive collections and taught by award-winning Professor Stuart Sutherland, this course reveals how paleontology helps us better understand the extraordinary history of life on our constantly changing planet.


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.


The University of British Columbia

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.

By This Professor

A New History of Life
Introduction to Paleontology
Introduction to Paleontology


History on a Geological Scale

01: History on a Geological Scale

Take an exciting virtual walk from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol 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

02: 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

03: 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?

04: 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

05: 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

06: 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

07: 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

08: 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

09: 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 chemosynthesis, were found at volcanic oceanic ridge systems.  Paleontologists have now found examples of 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 understand the beginning of life on Earth and point us to life elsewhere in our solar system.

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 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

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