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Welcome and introductions

Introduction to the course
Welcome to Extinctions: Past and Present. I am Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan. I’m a paleontologist based in the biological sciences department at the University of Cape Town. As a biologist and paleontologist, I am fascinated by the biodiversity around us. I’m really intrigued by how this biodiversity came about. The fossil record tells us that life extends about 3.8 billion years ago. Through this immense period of time we see that there’ve been many radiations and many extinctions but what stands out is that there were five big mass extinction events that affected biodiversity on our planet, and we know today that these extinction events shaped the biodiversity that we see today. In the next five weeks on our course
Extinctions: Past and Present we will talk first about the emergence of life and we’ll see what the fossil record tells us about the origin of life and how life diversified. In the second week we’ll begin to talk about the big five extinction events, how each of these extinction events affected life at the time and forced extinction events that led to other diversifications. In the last week of the course we’ll talk about the current extinction event that is facing biodiversity today. In this course we will have the opportunity to talk to many different scientists, paleontologists, ecologists, botanists, biologists, ornithologists and each of them will share with us their research expertise about the threats that biodiversity is facing today.
In the end I hope you will be able to appreciate how these current extinction events are being driven by humankind, how we can curb the onslaught of extinction of modern organisms, and in the end, hopefully we’ll be better stewards of our planet’s biodiversity.

I am Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, a paleobiologist based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. I am fascinated by the amazing biodiversity of the present and of the past. I especially love exploring how life on earth has been shaped by the mass extinction events that occurred in the distant past. Paleontologists, using the fossil record, study this history of the development of life on earth.

In the course, we will closely examine at the five major mass extinction events and how they shaped the biodiversity of the time. At present we are facing the prospect of a sixth extinction event. This represents a crisis for current biodiversity, and we will have conversations with various scientists about how they understand what is happening to modern organisms and ecosystems.

Although we are talking about events which happened in the far distant past, the evidence from fossil record can reveal an extraordinary amount of information; and there new discoveries are frequently made.

Each week I outline the significant developments involving the extinction and radiation of life, and interview scientists who research how we know this. Here radiation refers to the proliferation of species over a relatively short period of geological time. The five weeks of the course are:

  • Week One – The overview of a history of life on earth
  • Week Two – The first and second mass extinction events
  • Week Three – Movement onto land, and the largest mass extinction event
  • Week Four – The fourth and fifth mass extinction events
  • Week Five – Threats facing organisms today

My own research is in the field of palaeo-biology, which involves reconstructing extinct species as once living animals. I do this by studying the microscopic structure of the bones of extinct and extant vertebrates. In parallel with my career, I have always been passionate about communicating science. I have added some links below to some of my recent research including determining the sexual differentiation of giant extinct birds, deducing dinosaur growth patterns from fossilized bones and some even more recent work on the Australian Thunder birds that I have been involved in.

That is enough about me. What interests you about the history of life? And why have you joined this course?

Post a comment below and read about who else will be taking this class along with you. You may like to respond to others’ comments or ‘like’ their posts to get our class interactions going.

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Extinctions: Past and Present

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