One of the many reasons evolution is a difficult topic to grasp is that it takes place in very small steps often over a long period of time. Understanding geologic time, what scientists sometimes call "deep time," will help students better understand the fossil evidence for evolution. In this lesson, students learn about deep time by visiting an interactive timeline, by setting up a live-action student timeline somewhere in their school, and by comparing geologic time periods to the familiar calendar year.
- Understand the concept of geologic time scales
- Learn about some of the great evolutionary transformations that have occurred in Earth's history
- Learn about some of the mass extinctions that have occurred in Earth's history
- Learn about geologic changes that have occurred in Earth's history
- Two to three class periods
- Measuring tape
- Masking tape
- Colored strips of paper
Before the Lesson
Create a 46-foot-long geologic timeline in a nearby hallway, the cafeteria, or the gymnasium. This timeline will be used to represent both the 4,600-million-year (4.6-billion-year) history of the Earth as well as the 12 months of the calendar year.
To create the geologic timeline, use a measuring tape and masking tape to mark a line on the floor measuring 46 feet in length. Divide the line into 46 sections, each one foot long. Each section represents 100 million years.
Stand with the timeline in front of and horizontal to you. Using colored paper and markers, label the left end of the timeline "4,600 million years ago" and the right end of the timeline "Present." You may also want to label some of the 100-million-year intervals along the timeline for easy reference. Be sure to place all geologic time labels above the timeline, as the month labels will be placed below the timeline.
Next, divide the timeline into 12 sections, each 46 inches long, using a marker or short strips of tape placed below the timeline. Each section represents one month of the calendar year. Create month labels for January through December, but don't place them on the timeline until later in the activity.
Make a colored-paper tag for each of the 29 events listed under the headings "Transformations," "Extinctions," and "Geologic Changes" (see below). Include the name of the event but not the date. Students will place these tags on the timeline following their research using the Deep Time Web activity.
Finally, read the background essay that accompanies each resource to gain information that will help you facilitate class discussion.
Part I: Exploring Deep Time
1. Tell students that Earth's history is marked by a series of transformations, mass extinctions, and geologic changes that have taken place over the course of 4.6 billion years. In this part of the lesson they are going to use a Web site to research some of the most important events. Later they'll label the events on a geologic timeline.
2. Divide the class into three groups. Assign one of the following subjects to each group: Transformations, Extinctions, and Geologic Changes.
Tell students to visit the Deep Time Web activity for information about the "events" listed under their group's subject. (These events are listed below.) Have the groups divide up the events so that each student is required to find information about only one or two events during the research period. Recommend that students take detailed notes about the events they research, including when the event happened, a description of the event, and what other events were happening around the same time.
Write the following events on the board, with the exception of the dates and extinction names in parentheses. (This is part of the information students are expected to find.)
- First evidence of life (3,850 million years ago [Mya])
- Oldest fossils (3,500 Mya)
- First evidence of soft-bodied animals (900 Mya)
- The Cambrian Explosion (530 Mya)
- First land plants and fish (480 Mya)
- First reptiles (350 Mya)
- First mammals and dinosaurs (220 Mya)
- First birds (150 Mya)
- First hominids (5.2 Mya)
- Modern humans (0.1 Mya)
- Some single-celled animals and soft-bodied animals (Vendian 543 Mya)
- Reef-builders and other shallow-water organisms (Cambrian 520 Mya)
- Twenty-five percent of marine invertebrate families (End Ordovician 443 Mya)
- Fifty to fifty-five percent of marine invertebrate genera (Late Devonian 364 Mya)
- Ninety percent of all species (End Permian 250 Mya)
- About 50 percent of marine invertebrate genera (Late Triassic 206 Mya)
- Dinosaurs and 60 to 80 percent of all species (End Cretaceous 65 Mya)
- Foraminifera, gastropods, and sea urchins (Late Eocene 33 Mya)
- Many woodland, plant-eating herbivores (Miocene 9 Mya)
- Nearly all mammals and birds over 45 lbs. (Late Pleistocene 0.1 Mya)
- Formation of the great oceans (4,200 Mya)
- Continents begin shifting (3,100 Mya)
- Rodinia supercontinent breaks up (700 Mya)
- Gondwana forms (500 Mya)
- Great mountain ranges form (425 Mya)
- Formation of Pangaea supercontinent (280 Mya)
- Pangaea supercontinent breaks up (200 Mya)
- Inland seas dry up (20 Mya)
- Global ice ages begin (2 Mya)
Part II: Exploring Deep Time
3. Following a period of research using the Deep Time Web activity, have students deliver a two- or three-sentence oral report on the information they found about their event(s). Students should include the approximate date of the event, a description of the event, and a brief summary of other events that were happening around the same time. Following each report, give the student the corresponding event tag to place in the appropriate place on the geologic timeline.
4. When all event tags have been placed on the timeline, ask students to identify any patterns they see. Recommend that students look for connections between geological changes and the extinctions and/or transformations that follow. Also, suggest that extinctions often open up opportunities for the survivors and that dramatic transformations sometimes occur in their wake.
5. To help students understand that many of what we consider the most important events in the history of life occurred relatively recently, ask students to imagine compressing the events of 4,600 million years into just one year. What might that look like on a calendar? For example, when during the calendar year would dinosaurs have existed? During which month would life have originated? In which season would modern humans have evolved? After giving students the opportunity to make those analogies, place the month labels in their appropriate places below the geologic timeline. Ask students to continue discussing the events in the history of life -- making clear that comparing geologic time to a calendar year is purely an intellectual exercise designed to help them put such a huge amount of time into perspective.
Part III: Digging Deeper
6. Ask students to choose one of the three subjects -- transformations, extinctions, or geologic changes -- they haven't explored yet. Write the following questions on the board. Instruct students to use information they learned from their fellow classmates, as well as information they find on another visit to the Deep Time Web site, to answer the questions listed below their chosen subject.
- What are some of the major evolutionary transformations in the history of life?
- When did these transformations occur, and what types of organisms were involved?
- What fossil examples of such transformations have been discovered?
- Name the five largest mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth.
- When did these mass extinctions occur, and what organisms were affected?
- What kinds of evidence do scientists use to better understand prehistoric extinctions?
- How did the continents change from the Precambrian to the Permian to the Jurassic to the Eocene?
- How could the shifting of continents have influenced the distribution and migration of plants and animals?
- What patterns can you see in the movement of landmasses over time?
7. Have students explore the What Killed the Dinosaurs? Web activity and discuss the following:
- What animals were most affected by the extinction that occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago?
- What are some of the hypotheses scientists have come up with to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs?
- What types of evidence do scientists use to support those hypotheses?
- Is one of those hypotheses more accepted than the others?
- What group of animals probably benefited most from the extinction of the dinosaurs? Why?
Check for Understanding
Instruct students to consider the information they've researched during this lesson and the connections they've made among geological changes, extinctions, and evolutionary transformations. Ask them:
- In what ways do evolutionary transformations correspond to other types of events during the history of life?
- How might extinctions affect the evolution of organisms that survive the event?
- In what ways have geologic changes influenced evolutionary transformations and/or extinctions?
- How does the length of the history of life help to explain the evolutionary transformation of single-celled organisms to complex multicellular organisms like mammals?