skip to content

Department of Zoology



ZL1 Evolution and Comparative Anatomy of Mammals*

* formerly Mammalian evolution and faunal history

Module Organiser: Dr Robert Asher

In this module, we examine the evolution of ourselves and our closest relatives, from an ancestor that existed over 300 million years ago to the diversity of bats, whales, lemurs, rabbits, elephants, sloths, koalas, echidnas and many other living species. Using evolution, the Tree of Life and comparative anatomy as our guides, we will explore how mammals adapt and thrive everywhere, from deserts to oceans and from poles to tropics. We note how genomics have revolutionized our understanding of Life's evolutionary tree, yet also confirmed basic ideas about this Tree outlined in the 19th century. We explore links between DNA and development, and consider how genomes can exhibit their own fossil record. We will observe the extraordinary commonalities shared by animals as diverse as blue whales and tarsiers, and the major differences between animals that at first glance appear to be similar, such as talpid and afrotherian moles. We furthermore consider the general theme of extinction. During the "Ice Age" we note key lines of evidence that document climate variability and the responses of species to repeated changes in ice cover and sea levels, fluctuations which help explain, among many other phenomena, the distinctive yet essentially European identity of the British Isles.

Lectures are backed-up by demonstration practical classes, which reinforce and illustrate topics of central importance in the lectures. Students may additionally opt to be assessed on the material seen during these classes in an examined practical assessment in the Easter Term. The assessment counts as the equivalent of one short project. 


ZL2 Responses to global change

Module Organisers: Dr David Aldridge

(Inter-departmental Course, with Plant Sciences)

Temperatures are rising, rainfall patterns are changing, and species are on the move – we have never seen such changes in the history of humans.

Understanding what is happening, and why, will allow us to respond to these changes, potentially making a huge difference to what survives and how we humans live. This course explores changes in birds, plants, their physical environment, and then shows modelling approaches to predict the future . A range of experts with different perspectives deliver the course: James Pearce- Higgins, who works at the British Trust for Ornithology; Peter Carey, an environment consultant with much experience in evaluating biodiversity and assessing the impact of climate change; Ed Tanner (tropical forest dynamics); Howard Griffiths (impact of climatic extremes and drought tolerance); Andrew Tanentzap (global limits to growth and change), Mike Harfoot (biodiversity models) and Andrew Friend (earth-atmosphere dynamics models).


ZL3 Evolution and behaviour: populations and societies

Module Organiser: Prof Rufus Johnstone

This module aims to provide a functional interpretation of variation in animal social behaviour and inter-species interactions. The underlying theme is that individuals will behave in ways that promote their genetic contribution to future generations. The way in which they do so is constrained by their ecology and by social interactions with members of their own and other species.

The course aims to provide you with an understanding of:

1)   the framework of evolutionary theory that is used to explain variation in animal social behaviour;

2)   the way in which ecology and social competition constrain and control evolutionary options;

3)   the empirical evidence that supports functional interpretations of social behaviour and life history (including observation, comparative and experimental studies).

Lecture blocks deal with social evolution, communication, family life, predator/prey interaction, insect societies and major transitions in social evolution.

ZL4 Applied ecology

Module Organiser: Dr Edgar Turner

All too often, managers of natural resources make ill-informed decisions which can have devastating consequences upon ecosystems and the human populations who depend upon them. This module is about how a sound understanding of ecological processes can greatly improve our ability to manage ecosystems in a desirable way. It is about how a well-trained and enthusiastic ecologist can apply their scientific knowledge to make a real change to the world around them.

The course begins with an introduction to the applied ecology of freshwaters by David Aldridge.  David will discuss how we can use our understanding of trophic cascades to switch alga-dominated lakes to clear waters which support rich biodiversity and provide safe drinking water. He will show how we can use the biota of aquatic systems to monitor and reconstruct short and long term changes in pollution. An interactive seminar will debate how we should prioritise management resources for the eradication of invasive species in Britain’s freshwaters. Ed Turner will then take us to the agricultural landscape, where the consequences of management decisions will be investigated through the framework of ecosystem services. Next we’re off to some of the world’s most isolated islands with Mike Brooke, who will discuss how humans have had sometimes catastrophic impacts on native populations, communities and ecosystems and what can be done to halt and reverse these changes. Then it’s down to Antarctica with Dave Barnes from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), who will discuss the impacts and management of threats to this unique marine ecosystem. We stay with Antarctica, this time with Lloyd Peck from BAS. Lloyd will look in particular at how climate change is affecting the Antarctic biota, and will discuss what broader lessons we can learn about the effects and management of climate change across the globe. We finish with a double act from Colin Russell and Derek Smith, with an applied look at the mechanisms and management of epidemics. There will be an opportunity to get involved in a seminar where you will consider the selection of the next flu vaccine.

ZL5 Genetics, development and animal diversity

Module Organiser:

This course lies at the interface of whole organism biology and molecular genetics.  We look at how genomes themselves evolve, and also at how genome can inform whole organism biology.  Recent advances in sequencing technology mean that genomic approaches are no longer limited to a few model species, but instead can be applied in many organisms of evolutionary or ecological interest.

How do genomes evolve?  A large proportion of many genomes consists of repetitive DNA, which replicates itself at the expense of the organism – a form of genomic parasitism.  Other sources of conflict occur between the sexes, and between parents and offspring.  We will look at the genetic basis of sex determination and how this can lead to conflict between chromosomes. What is the genetic ‘tool kit’ that controls the great diversity of animal body plans?

How are species and populations related? We look at how we can reconstruct species relationships from DNA sequences, and how this can inform our understanding of traits such as human language.

What is the genetic basis of adaptation?  Do we expect evolutionary change to involve few or many genes?  What kinds of genes control recent evolutionary changes? Butterfly wing patterns and many other examples are used ­to illustrate these questions.

ZL6 Development: cell differentiation and organogenesis

Module Organiser:

(Inter-departmental Course, with PDN)

This course is the second of two complementary Developmental Biology modules (with M6 and M8) that can also be taken on their own.  This module examines a second phase of embryonic development, following the initial steps of defining axes, major cell layers, and broad pattern domains (covered in M6 and M8). 

A series of topics will be presented, using a particular tissue or organ to highlight particular developmental mechanisms. Thus, the generation of epithelia addresses principles of cell polarity and tubulogenesis; development of kidney and lung shows how coordination of cells from diverse lineages is used to generate these tubular organs; limb development illustrates how patterning mechanisms are coordinated with cell proliferation; germ cells reveal mechanisms of cell fate determination and stem cell renewal; and neural crest and placodes illuminate mechanisms of cell allocation and migration; development of pharyngeal arches, the establishment of craniofacial organizing centres, and the epithelial-mesenchymal interactions that instruct post-migratory neural crest cell differentiation and patterning in the vertebrate head.

Diverse organs reveal the importance of growth and cell competition in establishing organ size and how their misregulation contributes to cancer. A mixture of examples from simpler invertebrate models and vertebrates will show how the mechanisms have diversified with increasing cell number.

This interdepartmental course (with PDN) will consist of three lectures per week, and seven interactive sessions (such as journal clubs) in which we will aim to discuss key references and concepts presented.

ZL7 Cell cycle, signalling and cancer

Module Organiser:

(Inter-departmental Course, with Biochemistry)

Precise control of cell proliferation is crucial to the normal development and homeostasis of multi-cellular organisms. Failure to accurately regulate these processes can lead to cancer. This course aims to provide a broad molecular understanding of the processes underlying cell proliferation in normal development and disease. It aims to explore experimental systems to study tumour biology, and to critically discuss therapeutic strategies against cancer.

This course will first concentrate on the molecular mechanisms underlying controlled cell proliferation, including cell cycle control, replication of DNA, repair of DNA damage and programmed cell death. It will then apply this fundamental understanding of cell proliferation and homeostasis to explore tumours as aberrantly proliferating tissues, including the interplay between oncogenes and tumour suppressors, and the specific topography of tumour microenvironments. Finally, this course will consider therapeutic anti-cancer strategies, including tumour virus vaccination, small molecule drugs and antibody-based therapies. It further aims to illustrate the experimental approaches used, to highlight important questions that remain to be answered, and to encourage critical evaluation of the scientific literature.

This module is fully interdepartmental and the lectures are also taken by students reading Part II Biochemistry. The lectures are given in the Department of Biochemistry by members of the Departments of Zoology, Biochemistry and the Gurdon Institute, as well as by several external experts.


Module Organiser: 

(borrowed module from BBS)

This course provides an introduction to the field of bioinformatics, focusing on applications related to the study of complex disease genetics and the recent advances made in this field since the introduction of next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies.

We will first introduce fundamental concepts in bioinformatics and then how NGS technologies can be applied to the study of human population genetics, genomics and its clinical applications. Fundamental statistical concepts that are crucial for designing a population study and are required to carry out statistical analysis of genomic data will be covered.

Then we will focus on functional analysis at the genomic level. Strategies for the identification of genomic variants using HTS will be explored, introducing the basic workflows for variant identification. Emphasis will be put on variants’ annotation to infer a variant’s biological relevance and consequently its potential diagnostic and therapeutic value. The challenges associated with the analysis and interpretation of genomic variants will be discussed. We will also introduce relevant public databases and the outcomes of large sequencing projects, which have provided new insights into the landscape of functional variation and genetic association.

Students will also learn about bioinformatics methods for RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) as well as network analysis and how the latter is used to acquire a functional understanding of the deregulation of signalling networks in diseases. In addition, drug developments based on the knowledge acquired through genomics approaches will be discussed as well as fundamental principles of evolutionary genomics, machine learning and structural bioinformatics.

The course will consist of 14 lectures and 9 computer-based practical sessions. During the practical sessions, students will use the Unix command-line environment and the R project for statistical computing to gain practical experience of the pipelines for variant calling, RNA-seq, network analysis and structural bioinformatics.

Additional information is available at:


G1: Evolutionary Genetics

(borrowed module from Genetics)

Modern evolutionary theory has its roots in the union of Mendelian genetics with Darwin’s theory of evolution, two of the great unifying themes of biology. This course will consider the process of evolution, exploring the central topics of natural selection, adaptation and genetic drift, and combining a variety of empirical and theoretical approaches. We will introduce evolutionary genetics, explaining how signatures in genome sequences allow us to infer the past action of natural selection, and to reconstruct the evolutionary histories of living things, from infectious viruses to extinct mammals. The first lectures cover general principals in evolutionary genetics, and key topics such as speciation and the evolution of gene expression. These will be a series of lectures on the evolutionary genetics of humans, exploring our species’ origins, our spread around the globe, and examples of adaptive and non-adaptive changes in our genes. The course will also consider the evolution of sex and how experimental evolution can be used to understand the evolution and function of genomes and look at the exceptionally rapid evolution of viruses, which can sometimes adapt to their host in the course of a single infection.