skip to content

Department of Zoology


Modules available in Michaelmas Term:


ZM1 Vertebrate evolution

Module Organiser: Professor Jason Head

Also available as a BBS minor.

This course introduces the evolution of vertebrates, integrating information from the fossil record, development, and ecology to examine major events in vertebrate history. These include the origin of vertebrates, hypotheses surrounding the origins and homologies of jaws and limbs, the evolution of vertebrates onto land, the origins and adaptive radiations in diverse groups such as ray-finned fishes, lizards, and birds, the mechanics of locomotion and feeding among dinosaurs, the evolution of specialized anatomies such as the turtle shell and the snake body form, and the kill mechanisms behind mass extinction events. The nature of the fossil record, including the processes that form the record from death to discovery, are also discussed, as is the role of the fossil record in helping to understand the future implications of human-induced environmental change.

Students will be exposed to a range of analytical techniques and philosophical approaches for inferring vertebrate history, including phylogeny reconstruction methods, comparative anatomical observation, phylogenetic taxonomy, and conservation palaeobiology methods.

 Important components of the course are demonstration practical sessions which are held in the exhibit halls and demonstration rooms in the University Museum of Zoology. These sessions provide students with direct access to the fossil and modern anatomies that underpin the major hypotheses discussed in lectures. An additional practical session is held in the exhibits of the Sedgwick Museum.


ZM2 Conservation science

Module Organiser: Professor William Sutherland

Also available as a BBS minor.

This interdepartmental course, taught by the Departments of Zoology and Plant Sciences, aims to provide an understanding of why wild nature is currently in decline, why this matters, and how biology coupled with other disciplines can be harnessed to identify potential solutions.

The course begins by explaining the distribution and importance of biodiversity, and the evidence that it is currently being lost. It then examines in detail the immediate threats to wild populations and their habitats, and the underlying drivers of those threats. The final section of lectures explores potential solutions, combining socio-economic as well as biological insights to take a constructively critical look at approaches ranging from sustainable harvesting and ecosystem restoration to agri-environment schemes and the marketing of ecosystem services.

Core lectures are supplemented by case studies given by outside experts on policy and conservation practice. There is also a field trip, a careers session, a class debate and a guided tour round various conservation organisations based in the David Attenborough Building.


ZM5 Evolution and behaviour: Genes and individuals

Module Organiser: Professor Nick Mundy

The classical way to study animal behaviour separates questions concerned with function (what is the adaptive value of the behaviour? what is its evolutionary history?) from those focused on causation (how is the behaviour controlled? how does it develop during a lifetime?). The aim of this course to show how recent research is sweeping aside these traditional distinctions in two different ways, yielding new insights into the way that evolution works. Specifically:

1)    Animal behaviour, and the mechanisms by which it develops, can contribute to evolutionary change: by changing ecological conditions; by imposing selection on other parts of the phenotype and other individuals; by influencing patterns of inherited variation; and by facilitating reproductive isolation.

2)    At the same time, the mechanisms controlling behaviour and its development are themselves subject to natural selection and are adaptations for the ecological conditions in which an animal lives. This means that we can predict the particular mechanisms involved in behavioural development, as well as an animal’s immune function and its specific cognitive and sensory capacity, from aspects of its ecology.

The first half of the course focuses on the genetic foundations of behaviour and the consequences for evolutionary processes such as adaptation and speciation. In the second half of the course, the emphasis is on the adaptive value of cognitive, sensory and immune function and how they contribute to individual variation.


ZM6 Cell assembly and interactions

Module Organiser:

(Course shared with PDN)

Cells are highly organised and dynamic structures. In this module we will explore how the architecture of the cell is constructed and how cells interact with each other and their environment in order to fulfil specialised physiological functions in animals. Our current knowledge of these vital topics will be presented in depth, with a focus on the molecular mechanisms that regulate cell behaviour and the use of state-of-the-art live imaging techniques to visualise these dynamic processes. We will examine how cells use basic cell biological mechanisms in their complex activities within animals, including cellular behaviour during development and how cellular activities provide key physiological functions in the adult.

We will begin with a discussion of current ideas about of how cells were created during evolution, and how eukaryotic cells arose from prokaryotes. We then address how membrane compartments are constructed, and the dynamics of transfer between them and how this affects different physiological processes. Next, we will discuss how the cytoskeleton and signalling machineries allow cells to navigate within a multicellular organism, using examples from embryogenesis and immune cell migration. This is followed by an examination of how cells become polarized and adhere together to form higher order multicellular assemblies. We then study how cells sense and respond to the mechanical properties of their surroundings, using paradigms of cancer cells, neurons or stem cells. Throughout this course there will be discussion of modern techniques to visualise cell behaviours, as well as the use of different model organisms and in vitro assays.

This is an interdisciplinary, interdepartmental course (with PDN). In addition to lectures there are several interactive sessions (such as journal clubs) in which there will be discussions of key papers, experimental techniques and major concepts in the field.


ZM7 From genome to proteome

Zoology Contact: Dr Torsten Krude

(Course borrowed from Biochemistry)

This course aims to introduce and discuss the regulation of gene expression using a wide range of examples and different model organisms, and to introduce the range of methodology that is used in such studies. It aims to take you from the level of familiarity with textbooks and reviews up to the level of reading, understanding and critically evaluating original research papers. Control of gene expression is a topic that addresses the flow of information from the genome to the proteome. It includes the steps of gene transcription (i.e. mRNA synthesis), splicing, mRNA localization within the cell, and protein synthesis (i.e. mRNA translation). Understanding gene expression is important for understanding the fundamental functions of cells, how cells proliferate, how they respond to environmental stimuli, how they change their function during differentiation and how new complex patterns and structures emerge during development.

An understanding of the molecular mechanisms that regulate gene expression is therefore an essential topic of contemporary cell and developmental biology. This module introduces and discusses the factors which catalyse and regulate transcription, RNA localization and translation. It also addresses newly emerging concepts, which provide additional levels of regulation and complexity. For instance, genome projects have focussed more and more attention on patterns of gene expression in different cells, different tissues and different organisms. The tool of RNA interference has been developed to knock-out the expression of any specific gene in living cells to study the function of that particular gene in vivo. Small non-coding RNAs have been identified as regulators for fine-tuning gene expression in many systems.

Finally, the coordination of gene expression between the cell nucleus and organelles containing their own DNA will be discussed. This module is interdepartmental and the lectures are given in the Department of Biochemistry by members of the Departments of Biochemistry, Zoology and the Gurdon Institute. 


ZM8 Development: patterning the embryo

Module Organiser: Professor Howard Baylis

(Course shared with PDN)

How does a single cell, the fertilized egg, develop into an animal? This is one of the most fascinating and important questions in biology.  In this course we address that question. The course is the first of two complementary modules (with ZL6), which can also be taken on their own.

Our current knowledge of the underlying molecular mechanisms that create cell diversity and pattern in the early embryo will be examined in depth. We will discuss how the experimental advantages of different organisms and the insights provided by comparing the developmental strategies of vertebrates and invertebrates have aided the discovery of the principles of development but also pose questions about diversity. We will address key aspects of early development, including how development is regulated, how the patterning of spatial information is established and how morphogenetic mechanisms shape the embryo.

At each stage we will discuss the cellular mechanisms required and the molecular networks that drive them. By comparing the development of different animals we aim to come to an understanding of strategies of animal development.

We aim to provide a course that is accessible to anyone doing Part II Zoology whatever your previous background.


ZM9 Developmental Neurobiology

Module Organiser: Professor Matthias Landgraf

(Course shared with PDN)

This module addresses how the nervous system is assembled during embryonic development. Although we now understand a considerable amount about the processes involved, many fascinating questions remain.

We begin by discussing the formation of the vertebrate neural tube (future brain and spinal cord), and how this is patterned to generate distinct neuronal and glial cell fates in different regions, including the cerebral cortex. We discuss the formation of the peripheral nervous system from the migratory neural crest and cranial neurogenic placodes (good models for understanding the control of migration and fate-choice). Once neurons have formed, they extend axons to their targets to 'wire up' the nervous system: we consider the process of axon guidance, explore how axons make and refine the synapses that will generate functional neural circuits, and discuss how circuit designs lead to function. We also consider how nervous systems evolved.

This course is given by researchers in the Departments of PDN, Zoology, Genetics, and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. It is best suited for students who have studied some neurobiology in Part IB, either in MedST/VetST or in NST, but others will be able to take it if they are prepared to do some background reading.


PLM3 Evolution and Ecosystem Dynamics

Module Organiser: Dr Sam Brockington (Plant Sciences)

(Course borrowed from Plant Sciences)

The phylogenetic progression of land plants allows us to relate palaeohistorical origins, from algae to bryophytes and lycopods, to their evolutionary progression through ferns and conifers to angiosperms. The module will examine the molecular basis to morphological advances, as compared to the physiological progression. The diversity engendered within, and beneath forest canopies, and the historical ecology of today’s landscape, complete our review of vegetation history and dynamics.

  • From an understanding of the phylogeny of land plants, when and where did the molecular homology of key higher plant traits originate in early land plant life forms?
  • What are the ecological determinants of fern, conifer and angiosperm distribution?
  • How predictable is evolution and what is the role of chance versus convergence in explaining the evolution of diversity across time and space?
  • When conifer and angiosperm canopies diversified, were ferns and bryophytes able to proliferate in the shade?
  • What is the evidence for evo-devo origins of the angiosperm flower, co-evolution of flower structure and associated pollinators?
  • What determines diversity in modern forests, and how has man shaped the landscape we see in Europe today?

This module allows the molecular phylogenies and homologies of key plant traits to be mapped on to climatic limitations, throughout land plant evolution. It represents an exciting opportunity to study the ecological determinants of diversity and learn how we can integrate modern concepts of ecology and evolution using reproductive and physiological traits.