nl en

Crises in Biology - Animal Life from the Late Precambrian to the Emergence of Land Life


For this Honours Class there will be additional costs (€ 450) for the excursion.

Admission requirements

This course is an Honours Class and therefore in principle only available to students of the Honours College, and the BSc curriculum of LUC The Hague. There are a few places available for regular students.


Life in all its diversity evolved in the marine environment. In this course taught at Leiden University and at the Marine center of the University Pierre et Marie Curie, France, in Roscoff we teach aspects of the Tree of Life, we focus on the transition from mono-cellular life to animal life conquering the continents in the early Paleozoic, and we address Earth history from the time of the origin of life to the environments that made the emergence of land life possible.

We bring together a multi-disciplinary team of marine biologists, ecologists, physicists and geophysicists, isotope geochemists, astronomers, mathematicians, paleontologists and geologists to teach a course in geo-biology with special interest in the Tree of Life, the origin of life, and the environments in which life evolved.

Course objectives

After completion of the course the students will be able to:

  • Identify key fossils from the Paleozoic era;

  • Identify marine organisms as can be found along the coast of Normandy near Luc-sur-Mer;

  • Recognize geological structures in the field;

  • Read a geological map;

  • Identify a range of sedimentary and magmatic rocks.

After completion of the course the students will know:

  • The evolution of continents since the early Archean era;

  • The radiation of life in the Eocambrian and early Phanerozoic;

  • Adaptation of life to living on land in the Paleozoic era;

  • The major Bauplans of marine organisms;

  • The basic structure of the Tree of Life.

Students will:

  • have an understanding of the relation of land forms and underlying geological structures;

  • have an understanding of different taxa of the Tree of life, both in the paleontological record and in the modern marine environment;

  • develop a holistic view of earth processes occurring at the earth surface through time from geophysical and geochemical view points on the origin and evolution of life.


6 June – 9 June and 12 June – 15 June, 17.00 – 20.00 hrs, and 2 weeks excursion from 19 Augustus until 3 September 2017.
Note: For this Honours Class there will be additional costs (€ 450) for the excursion.


6 June – 15 June: Gorlaeus Lab, Einsteinweg 55, Leiden, Room 06.
July or August: Brittany and Normandy, France (there will be additional costs (€ 450) for the excursion.)


Theme 1: Geology: setting the stage for life

  • Lecture 1: From planetary accretion to continents. Earth history in the early stages of the earth.

  • Lecture 2. Timescales in Geology. From isotopic dating techniques to division of Earth history into different periods.

  • Lecture 3. The origin and significance of the earth’s magnetic shield.

  • Lecture 4. The composition of the early atmosphere, the oceans, and the sea floor, how this composition changed with time, and its relevance for the origin of life on earth.

Theme 2: Young Earth, young life- Lecture 5. Stable isotope systems as tracers of life: - Si and Fe isotopes as indicators of metabolism in the Archean. - 13C/12C fractionation through time, biological and inorganic causes.

  • Lecture 6. Exo Life.

  • Lecture 7. Origin of Life: The history of theories on the origin of life or biogenesis. Comparison of chemical and physical approaches to biogenetic theories. Biogenesis will be placed within the ecological framework of a development of reducing -> oxidising conditions.

  • Lecture 8. The thermodynamics of photosynthesis and its role in the development of the biosphere and its import on the atmosphere.

Theme 3: Crises and opportunities

  • Lecture 9. Life, but not as we know it. The first fossils of multicellular organisms, known as the Ediacara fauna, represent life forms very different of anything living today. After the Cambrian explosion, fossils show more familiar Bauplans. However, deposits like the Burgess shale revealed that in that period too, organisms thrived in the oceans unlike anything living today.

  • Lecture 10. Crises and opportunities. During the Palaeozoic, two mass extinctions occurred. The third major extinction wave, the largest ever recorded, signified the end of the era. About the possible causes of the various mass extinctions, the devastation they caused, and the opportunities provided during the aftermath.

Theme 4: Tree of life

  • Lecture 11. Genealogy of living organisms. From single cell to higher organisms.

  • Lecture 12. Stromatolites, a singular visual portal into deep time on earth, the emergence of life, and the evolving of the beautiful forms of life of modern time

  • Lecture 13. Modelling gene-regulation and cell-movement in early development of the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis and the scleractinian coral Acropora mellipora.

Theme 5: Evolution towards land

  • Lecture 14. A Tree of Plants: From a blue to a green planet

  • Lecture 15: on the emergence of insects from crustaceans

  • Lecture 16. Evolution of Chordata: there is something fishy about us.

  • Lecture 17. To boldly go where no vertebrate has gone before. During the Devonian the vertebrates started exploring and exploiting the land. A massive change, leading to a number of adaptation to deal with the hostile environment outside the water.

Course Load

This course is worth 5 EC, which means the total course load equals 140 hours.

  • Lectures: 16 lectures of 1.5 hours in 8 evenings

  • Excursion: 2 weeks

  • Literature reading & practical work: during the excursion

  • Assignments & final essay: to be completed at the end of the excursion

Assessment method

  • 10% Active in-class participation

  • 20% Blog reports via Blackboard (100-200 words)

  • 30% Final reports on geology assignments

  • 40% Final reports on biology assignments (3,000 words max.)

  • 10% Final report on biology experiment (Photosynthesys, DNA).

Blackboard and uSis

Blackboard will not be used in this course. Information about the course will be distributed via Dropbox.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally.

Reading list

  • Marine biology, Jeffrey S. Levinton, Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2008, ISBN13: 978-0-19-532694-9

  • An Introduction to the Earth-Life System, edited by Charles Cockell (Charles Cockell, Richard Corfield, Neil Edwards, and Nigel Harris). ISBN: 9870521729536, 2007.

  • The world’s beaches. A global guide to the science of the shoreline, O.H. Pilkey, W.J. Neal, J.T. Kelley and J.A.G. Cooper. University of California Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-520-26872-2.

  • Excursion guides.

  • Library books, covering the various aspects of the excursion, will be made available during the field course.


Enrolling in this course is possible from Monday November 7th until Sunday November 20th through the Honours Academy, via this link


Prof. dr. J.R. Wijbrans


In case of extra available places, this course will be open to interested students from the Faculty of Science who are not enrolled in an honours programme. The maximum number of students is 25.