Biology 320: Comparative Anatomy of Vertebrates (2,4) 4 credits, 1 section. Offered spring


Instructor: Dr. Christopher Rose    

Office hours: TuTh 11-12:30; look for me in my office and lab; email me for an appointment outside of office hours.

Office: Bioscience 2028A  Lab: Bioscience 2022

Phone: 568-6666 email:



Lecture, lab, exam and assignment schedule


Catalogue description: Comparative Anatomy of Vertebrates (2,4). 4 credits. Offered spring.

A study of the evolution of vertebrate organ systems that integrates structure, function and development. Prerequisites: Bio 124, Bio 290 or equivalent.


Expanded description: A study of the evolution of vertebrate organ systems that integrates structure, function and development. More specifically, this course explores vertebrate morphology with the aims of understanding major events in the history of vertebrate evolution and integrating the morphology of vertebrates with their ecology, behavior and physiology (see below for seven specific goals). Lectures provide an introduction to the comparative method, review of evolutionary concepts including homology and homoplasy, overviews of vertebrate phylogeny and vertebrate form, function, and development, and detailed discussions of major organ systems (skeleton, muscles, respiratory, digestive, urogenital, and cardiovascular systems) as they relate to locomotion, feeding, breathing and reproduction. Lectures focus on major transitions in vertebrate evolution. including the origin of jawed vertebrates, the water-to-land transition and the evolution of mammals from primitive tetrapods, Students learn about more specific evolutionary phenomena in library research projects. Labs complement lectures with detailed dissections of four representative species (lamprey, shark, salamander, and cat), and surveys of specializations in other forms including birds, turtles, alligators, frogs, bony fish and ungulates.


Goals and Objectives:

1: help students gain a knowledge base for understanding vertebrate anatomy and evolution by explaining to them the basic structures and organization of anatomical systems, their development and function and their modifications in the major transitions in vertebrate evolution.

2: help students develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills by having them review the rationales, methodologies and conclusions of primary research papers, and weigh evidence for and against conflicting explanations of various functional, developmental, and evolutionary phenomena.

3: help students gain the knowledge base and learning skills for pursuing further educational and career goals including taking more courses in evolution, vertebrate biology and comparative anatomy; teaching courses in general biology, evolution and comparative anatomy; pursuing veterinary and medical programs; and doing postgraduate research in vertebrate comparative anatomy and evolution.

4: help students appreciate comparative vertebrate morphology as a dynamic and integrative science by exposing them to current research by developmental anatomists, functional morphologists, paleontologists, and developmental geneticists, and demonstrating how this research impacts our understanding of vertebrate history and evolution.

5: help students appreciate the importance of comparative vertebrate biology in understanding our own biology by exploring the organization, function and adaptive strengths and weaknesses of our own bodies, and how the history of functional and developmental changes in vertebrate anatomy has shaped the human body.

6: help students appreciate the importance of comparative vertebrate biology to society by illustrating how anatomical adaptations of vertebrate animals have informed engineers and architects in designing devices ranging from airplane wings and optics to submarines and countercurrent exchange systems.

7: help students develop research and communication skills by having them do their own dissections, prepare an outline and oral presentation of a library research paper and lead a brief informal class discussion on the topic afterwards. They are also required to answer most exam questions in essay form.

8: help students develop skills of integrative and synthetic thinking by demonstrating how to organize anatomical details into general explanations based on developmental, functional and evolutionary principles, and how to draw connections between anatomical changes and changes in habitat, lifestyle, and patterns of evolutionary diversification.


Prerequisites: BIO 124, BIO 290 or the equivalent.


Course time and place: Lectures are scheduled at MW 10:10-11 in Bioscience 2009 and labs at MW 12:20-2:10 in Bioscience 1023.


Adding/dropping class: Policy and deadlines can be found at


Disabilities: Policy and deadlines can be found at


Attendance policy: There is no credit given for attending class and no grade penalty for missing class. To get a good grade in this class, students are recommended to do three things. First, you attend class, pay attention, and be active note takers, which means that you do not limit this task to just copying what is put on the blackboard. Second, after each class, you review your lecture notes and do the assigned readings in the text, and if you still don't understand the material, you seek clarification in office hours at that time. Third, you prepare and use study notes before each lecture exam.


Required texts and materials: The required reference text is "Vertebrates: Comparative Anatomy, Function, Evolution", 6th edition, by Kenneth V. Kardong, and the required lab manual is "Comparative Anatomy Manual of Vertebrate Dissection", 2nd edition, by Dale W. Fishbeck and Aurora Sebastiani. A selection of colored pens/pencils is recommended for taking notes in lecture and lab.


Grading: Grades are based on the scores of three lecture exams, three lab exams, a research paper, and lab performance. The grade breakdown is:


Lecture exam I

15 %


Lecture exam II

15 %


Lecture exam III (cumulative)

20 %


Laboratory exam I

10 %


Laboratory exam II

10 %


Laboratory exam III

10 %


Research presentation

10 %


Surprise lab quizzes

5 %


Quality and completion of the dissections

5 %


Final letter grades are assigned using the standard numerical scale (e.g., > 90 = A, 80-89 = B, etc.). Grades of WP and WF will not be given out in this class.

            Lecture exams are comprised of objective, short answer questions (definitions, identifications, fill-in blanks, etc.) and short essay questions that may require the use of diagrams. Lecture exams include material from assigned readings. Lecture exam III focuses on the final third of the lecture material, but approximately 1/4 of the questions addresses concepts/themes covered throughout the course.

            Lab exams involve the identification of developmental anatomy from dissections, and where appropriate, microscope slides, whole-mounts, and models. Some questions will pertain to functional, developmental, and evolutionary relationships, and will draw from lecture material. There are also 3-5 surprise lab quizzes given on the previous week's lab exercises. The additional 5% is at the instructor's discretion and is based on the quality and completeness of dissections and attendance.

            The research presentation is a 20-25 minute talk on a research topic in vertebrate anatomy and evolution. A list of topics is provided, although you may select your own pending my approval. Students are required to select a research topic by the second Monday after break and submit an outline of their paper by the fourth Wednesday after break. You are requested to attend a brief meeting with the instructor during the second last week of classes to discuss your research outline and finalize the content of your presentation. You are required to research your topic through library searches of primary literature and books. Although you are encouraged to use the Internet, all presentations must have a minimum of six references to books and/or primary literature. Presentations must be given in your own words and you must reference all sources used.

            Research presentations are graded on the basis of their content, organization, effectiveness of communication, and originality. Content includes whether the talk addresses the relevant information, concepts and mechanisms needed to explain the phenomenon in question, plus the depth, clarity and completeness of the explanation. Organization refers to the overall structure of the talk, meaning whether there is a clearly defined introduction, body and conclusion, and whether ideas are presented in a logical sequence and clearly introduced. Effectiveness of communication refers to conciseness, coherence of ideas, ability to engage the audience, and efforts to answer questions and stimulate discussion of the topic. Remember, good talks are good because they are interesting, and interesting talks usually require an enthusiastic speaker. Also, some form of visual aid is essential to any presentation in biology. You are strongly encouraged to use a Powerpoint presentation package for computer projection, and the instructor will provide scanning and powerpoint workshops if necessary; blackboard and overhead illustrations/outlines are also acceptable. Originality refers to whether there is any attempt by the author to define the problem in his/her own terms and to present his/her own synthesis of the information available.


Class study notes: Students have the option of making study notes for exams as a class effort. Students who choose to participate will be required to produce a 1-page study note for 1-2 lectures before an exam. These are due one lecture before the exam so the instructor has time to assemble and distribute the study note package. The purpose of making study notes is to summarize and consolidate the important information of each lecture into an accessible bulleted format on one side of paper. Students are encouraged to synthesize information by drawing connections between material covered in different lectures, and comparing similar phenomena in different systems. The more thinking that goes into preparing a study note (as opposed to simply listing details from lectures), the more useful the study note will be in answering thought-provoking questions.


Missed classes, exams and deadlines: While there is no penalty for missing classes or labs, students are strongly recommended to come to all classes and labs and to come to office hours and ask for additional lab time to make up for missed classes or labs. If you have a valid excuse (school-recognized religious observation; official school business; job, court or graduate school interview; sickness with doctor’s note; death or serious illness in family) for missing an exam or assignment deadline, contact me by email at least three days before the date in question and you will either be given an extension or make-up exam or have your grade calculated on the basis of the remaining evaluations. If you do not have a valid excuse or fail to contact me three days before the date, your grade will be zero.


Inclement weather policies: Missed classes and labs will be made up at times to be announced at the next class meeting.


Religious observation accommodations: Policy and deadlines can be found at


Laboratory policy: Students must wear closed-end shoes (no flip flops, sandals or other shoes with open toes or heels) when attending all labs. Some lab procedures might requite the use of safety glasses. Most laboratory exercises involve some amount of dissection of embalmed material. All dissections are done in pairs and both partners are expected to contribute equally to the endeavor. Gloves and dissection kits are provided. Assuming that a moderate amount of care is taken, lab coats are deemed not necessary. Postfixation animals have been saturated with a nontoxic fluid in order to prevent dehydration. While their dissection does not pose a health risk, it does pose a risk of stains and odors to clothing. Hence, students are warned not to wear clothing that is likely to absorb odors or clothing that one is not prepared to get a little dirty. All students are requested to treat all laboratory exercises and animals with the respect and maturity befitting serious scientific inquiry, and to not remove any dissected materials from the lab room.


Honor Code: All students are expected to be familiar with and abide by the JMU Honor Code ( Forms of academic dishonesty include cheating on tests or homework, lending your work to another person to submit it as his or her own, reporting false data, selling or uploading unauthorized documents from a class, deliberately creating false information on a works cited or reference page; and plagiarism, presenting another person’s writing, ideas or results as your own, whether intentional or not. Work submitted for this course must be your own and written for this course. To avoid plagiarism in writing, paraphrased and quoted materials must be properly cited in the text and referenced in the bibliography (see above); unnecessary or excessive use of cited direct quotations will be penalized, uncited direct quotations will be treated as plagiarism.


For educational rights and privacies, consult the following:

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974

FERPA for Parents

FERPA for Faculty

JMU compliance with FERPA


Consult the Student Success Center website for information regarding disability services, student counseling and the writing center.  


Lecture, lab, exam and assignment schedule