skip to content

Department of Zoology


Modules available in Lent Term:


ZL1 Evolution and comparative anatomy of mammals

Module Organiser: Dr Robert Asher

Available as a BBS minor

Beetles are more numerous, and cartilaginous fish are geologically older. However, no other animal group rivals the Mammalia in terms of size and, some would say, adaptive variability. 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.

Biological natural science students taking this course will recognize themes from their first two years, such as development, reproduction and ecology. Vets and medics will already be familiar with anatomical concepts, tomographic, and histological methods used in our course. All students will appreciate how the anatomy of humans, their livestock and pets exhibit commonalities and contrasts with non-model species, from armadillos to Thrinaxodon. Ecologists, cell-biologists and any other Part II student will recognize topics concerning our own biology and place in the Tree of Life. This is an independent, self-contained module and there are no first, second, or third year courses that are prerequisites to do well in ZL1.

In addition to standard lectures, students in ZL1 have extensive access to the collections in the Museum of Zoology. These museum specimens comprise a hands-on resource to help illustrate relevant points from lectures and readings. 


ZL2 Responses to global change

Module Organiser: TBC (Plant Sciences)

(borrowed from Plant Sciences)

Global temperature is on the increase, extreme climatic events are increasing, and the sustainability of agricultural land use and vegetation cover is being challenged; pest and pathogen impacts are exacerbated in a warming world and their spread accelerated by human interactions. The scientific challenges underpinning these dramatic changes, and our collective response, will shape your future, and that of a growing global population. The module provides a generic background to climate change adaptation and mitigation, before considering a succession of timely issues in depth.

• Global limits to growth: planetary boundary layers and their impacts in key areas of water resources, ecosystem fertilisation and greenhouse gas emissions

• Impacts of seasonality and phenological mismatch on bird population dynamics in a changing world and development of appropriate conservation practices (James PearceHiggins, British Trust for Ornithology)

• Use of modelling to scale physiological limitations on plant growth from leaf, via canopy, to ecosystem (Wanne Kromdijk)

• Modelling epidemiology and plant pathogen distribution in a changing world (Nik Cunniffe)

• The “Madingley Model” of ecosystems and biodiversity: development of policy from projections of biodiversity change under different scenarios of human development (Mike Harfoot, UNEP-WCMC)

• Evidence-based analyses of insect declines and invasive species: how should society respond to the need for sustainability in the face of climate change? (Lynn Dicks)

• Impacts of disturbances on ecosystem functioning and the potential for their management to combat climate change (Adam Pellegrini) 


ZL3 Evolution and behaviour: populations and societies

Module Organiser: Professor 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 communication, family life, group living and collective behaviour, coevolution (from mutualism to parasitism) and major transitions in social evolution.


ZL4 Applied ecology

Module Organiser: Professor Edgar Turner

Available as a BBS minor

All too often, managers of natural resources make ill-informed decisions that 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.

The course considers a diverse range of applied applications of ecological knowledge, from understanding disease epidemics, to predicting the future impacts of climate change. It also considers the role of applied ecology in a diverse range of environments, from the world’s most remote island groups and Polar regions, to familiar agricultural landscapes.

Different sections of the course include ecological approaches for the control of influenza, the control of invasive species on islands, the ecology of Antarctic ecosystems in the face of environmental change, applying lessons from palaeobiology to modern changes in species, and ecology in agricultural environments. As well as lectures, the course also includes sessions with applied ecologists from the David Attenborough Building, a field trip to RSPB's Hope Farm, and seminars that enable students to explore aspects of applied ecology in more detail.

Students taking this course will learn how a well-trained and enthusiastic ecologist can apply their scientific knowledge to make a real change to the world around them.


ZL5 Evolutionary genetics and adaptation

Module Organiser: Professor Chris Jiggins

(Inter-departmental course with 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 from a genetic perspective, exploring the central topics of natural selection, adaptation and genetic drift, and combining a variety of empirical and theoretical approaches. Alongside this, the course will explore how genomes themselves are shaped by selection, drift and their evolutionary history. This course lies at the interface of whole organism biology and molecular genetics. 

These lectures will begin by introducing the basic principles of population genetics such as selection and drift. It will then illustrate how adaptive thinking can be applied to features of genomes, and explore the different ways in which a geneticist might test adaptive hypotheses. 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. 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: Dr Emília Santos

(Inter-departmental course with PDN)

This course is the second of two complementary Developmental Biology modules (with ZM10) 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 that are covered in ZM10. This interdepartmental course (with Zoology) 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 the concepts presented in the lectures.

A series of topics will be presented, each using particular tissues or organs to highlight individual developmental mechanisms. Thus, the diverse mechanisms to make tubular organs will be used to highlight the importance of cell polarity and cell shape changes, and used as a framework for discussing key techniques in the study of developmental biology; the development of muscles will be used to discuss the transcriptional programmes that drive differentiation, and to highlight different strategies used to generate the pattern of muscles in the body; the importance of stem cells in the formation and maintenance of organs will be discussed using a variety of examples, including oesophagus and intestine; the formation of the vertebral column illuminates mechanisms of cell allocation and morphogenesis, including the role of mechanics; and limb development illustrates how patterning mechanisms are coordinated with cell proliferation.

A mixture of examples from simpler invertebrate models and vertebrates will show how developmental mechanisms have diversified with increasing cell number. We will discuss human diseases that impact on the development of these organs, and how our understanding of organogenesis provides the foundation for regenerative medicine approaches to the treatment of these diseases.


ZL7 Cell cycle, signalling and cancer

Zoology Contact:

(borrowed from 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 interdepartmental and 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 external experts.



Module Organiser: Dr Alexia Cardona (MRC Epidemiology Unit)

(borrowed from Genetics)

Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that uses computational approaches to process biological data.  With the biological sciences becoming more data-driven than ever before, bioinformatics is central to these areas. The Bioinformatics module introduces the fundamental bioinformatic concepts and methodologies used to analyse biological data.  It is structured around 2 main blocks; data science, omics and approaches to analysis of biological data.

The course is specially designed for students coming from the biological and biomedical sciences. It provides introductory data foundation sessions that go over programming, data visualisation and manipulation that will be used throughout the course.  Topics are introduced through a set of lectures that introduce theoretical concepts, and practicals which provide hands-on practice using real biological datasets.

More information can be found at:



N6 Higher order functions and dysfunctions

Module Organiser: Professor Angela Roberts (PDN)

(borrowed from PDN)

This module considers the neurobiological basis of a range of higher-order functions in the brain including (i) perception, recognition and decision making in the visual domain, (ii) spatial navigation, long term memory and cognitive map theory and (iii) positive and negative emotions and their regulation. These are the product primarily of the functioning of high-order association cortices found in the temporal and frontal lobes. They will be discussed in relation to findings from a range of experimental approaches in humans and animals including non-human primates and rodents.

Vision is a main source of information for primates, and our life greatly depends on the ability to recognise behaviourally relevant objects. This section will consider how a visual input is analysed to detect objects including faces, and how such information can be memorised and recalled to guide our behaviour. It will consider how the physical shape of an object is analysed along the ventral visual stream to create a neuronal representation of the object independent of angle and size in viewing; how memorised objects are represented by neurons in medial temporal lobe; how these memories can be recalled through local processing as well as global interaction of brain regions and how new information can be stored in the brain as detectable changes within specific neurons.

In considering navigation and long-term memory, a particular focus will be placed on the important role of the hippocampal formation. Evidence for the hippocampus as a cognitive map will be critically reviewed along with its role in encoding spatial and non-spatial representations. This section will finish by considering the crucial role of the hippocampus in Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common cause of dementia, causing the most profound deficits in long term memory.

Finally, the circuits involved in both the regulation and dysregulation of positive and negative emotion will be described. Emphasis will be placed on the contribution the prefrontal cortex makes to the top down regulation of subcortical circuits known to induce appetitive approach and negative avoidance behaviour. Throughout this module use of state-of-the-art technology to measure and intervene in brain function will be highlighted alongside the translational potential of studies in animals to inform our understanding of higher-order functions and dysfunctions in humans.   


PS2 Memory

Module Organiser: Professor Nicky Clayton (Psychology)

(borrowed from Psychology)

This module consists of the following three 8-lecture blocks:

  • Computational Approaches to Cognition
  • Synaptic Plasticity, Engrams and Memory
  • Human Memory

The module will consider evidence relating to a number of theoretical distinctions that have been proposed within human memory, covering short-term or “working” memory, and long-term episodic and semantic memory.  In each case, evidence from a variety of sources will be discussed, including cognitive experiments involving healthy individuals, neuropsychological studies of patients with brain lesions, and functional neuroimaging investigations.  The objective will be to achieve an understanding of the cognitive and neural mechanisms responsible for different aspects of remembering.  We will also consider human memory from a clinical perspective: how well do the patterns of difficulties and strengths exhibited by patients in the memory clinic map onto the theoretical distinctions described?  How do models of memory inform assessments and help make diagnoses, and can we try to help people to cope with their memory difficulties?

Understanding how information is encoded and retrieved is major research area in behavioural and cognitive neuroscience. Why does one person remember different information to another about a particular event? Why do memories come to mind suddenly and seemingly unbidden? What makes a “good” memory? In this module memory is considered at several different levels of analysis. The module considers memory from the anatomical level to the network, cellular and molecular levels. Topics include: amnesia in humans and animals; theories of hippocampal function; computational models of memory; emotional memory and the amygdala; cellular-level consolidation and reconsolidation.