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Extinctions: Past and Present

Discover the diversity of life on earth, the impacts of five past mass extinctions and the prospect of a sixth extinction today.

22,862 enrolled on this course

Extinctions: Past and Present

This free online course explores how life on earth has been shaped by five mass extinction events in the distant past. At present, biodiversity is facing a crisis, with the prospect of a sixth extinction event today.

Explore the five mass extinctions of the past

Each week there are discussions with scientists about how their research informs us about the biodiversity of our planet including the very first life forms; fish and tetrapod diversification; the radiation of reptiles and dinosaurs; and the rise of mammals.

We focus on the five previous mass extinction events that have shaped the biodiversity of our planet. The fossil record reveals evidence of species that went extinct during these mass extinctions and the new opportunities created for the surviving biota to diversify.

The threat of a “sixth extinction” today

Turning to the present and the anthropocene period, we look at how human behaviour is now beginning to impact the Earth’s ecosystems.

We consider the threat of the so-called ‘sixth extinction’, finding out how our actions are reducing biodiversity and threatening the survival of many species.

Learn with one of the world’s leading paleontologists

‘Extinctions: Past and Present’ is created by the University of Cape Town, and filmed on location at South Africa’s Iziko Museum, West Coast Fossil Park, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, and the Table Mountain National Park.

You will learn with Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan – an acclaimed paleobiologist, author of a range of academic and children’s books on fossils, and former South African Woman of the Year. In 2013 she was awarded The World Academy of Science’s Sub-Saharan Prize for the Public Understanding and Popularization of Science.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds Hello I’m Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan. I’m a paleontologist based in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Cape Town and I’m interested in reconstructing the biology of extinct animals. Most of what remains of these prehistoric animals are their bones in teeth. Most paleontologists study the anatomy and the biology of these bones, but my research involves looking within the bones - that is the microscopic structure of the bones. I’m standing here in the cycad garden of the National Botanical Gardens at Kirstenbosch in Cape Town. These cycads are really special. These plants were around even before dinosaurs ruled the planet. Interestingly enough they survived three of the five big mass extinction events that rocked this planet.

Skip to 1 minute and 5 seconds We know also that these plants survived the extinction events and yet today their resilience for survival is again being tested. We know also that it’s not only the cycads that are these relics of a bygone time that are facing extinction threats but many other organisms around the globe. The mounting extinction threats that biodiversity on our planet is facing suggest that we are currently living in the sixth extinction. Join our course and come and learn about the five big mass extinction events that our planet faced and come hear also about the sixth extinction that biodiversity is currently facing. And how the sixth extinction is threatening biodiversity and ecosystems for the future.

What topics will you cover?

  • The five past mass extinctions and their impact on life on earth
  • What we know about the past from the fossil record
  • The earliest forms of life
  • From simple to complex life forms
  • Extinction and radiation as drivers of change
  • Likely causes of mass extinctions throughout earth’s history
  • Current threats to biodiversity
  • What we can do to reduce the risk of a ‘sixth extinction’

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and learn at your own pace. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

You can take this self-guided course and learn at your own pace. On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Identify how the five past mass extinctions have impacted life on earth by looking at changes across the fossil record
  • Debate the prospect of a sixth extinction today drawing on knowledge from past extinction events
  • Investigate how understanding the past extinction events helps us respond to contemporary environmental challenges

Who is the course for?

The course is suitable for anyone with an interest in science or environmental issues. No previous experience is required. While scientific names are used, to for example identify extinct life forms, knowing these is not required to follow the course. We do offer glossaries and explain terms as we go along so you will be able to follow the themes of the course.

What do people say about this course?

"The course was incredible. The evolution of Life (and death) on Earth in five weeks. Anusuya’s communication and presentation was brilliant. I was able to follow all the material and it was enjoyable."

"So informative, so understandable, and so positive in its drawing together of its learners, who all exchanged information and discussed matters in a helpful and considered manner."

Who will you learn with?

I am a paleobiologist based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. I have worked on a variety of extinct and modern animals. and I have published many research articles, plus four books.

Who developed the course?

University of Cape Town

The University of Cape Town is one of the leading higher education and research institutions on the African continent and has a tradition of academic excellence that is respected worldwide.

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