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Study information

Biology of Aquatic Vertebrates

Module titleBiology of Aquatic Vertebrates
Module codeBIO2437
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Professor Stu Bearhop (Lecturer)

Dr Richard Sherley (Lecturer)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks




Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

Aquatic vertebrates (including turtles, sharks, rays, cetaceans, penguins and other aquatic birds) are generally considered very charismatic animals and attract much public and research attention. As a group they also adapt to the challenges of life in water in a diverse range of ways. Building on stage 1 modules, you will learn about the different form, function, ecology and physiology of each group of aquatic vertebrates. We will also focus on specific case studies to illustrate the extremes of life in the water. The module will also provide you with key employability skills in analysis and communication.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module will build on stage 1 modules and will provide you with a key foundation for final stage modules, including BIO3116 Marine Vertebrate Conservation and field courses such as BIO3423 Azores Field Course. The aim of the module is to provide you with an in-depth insight into the range of adaptations for life in the water and the ways in which biology has adapted to cope with the challenges of low oxygen, high pressure and unpredictability in resources. This insight will help you to develop your critical and creative thinking about how life has adapted to deal with specific challenges and provide key employability skills in analysis and communication.

The practical knowledge and skills acquired by taking this module are relevant to many areas of employment such as conservation, consultancy, environmental planning, medicine and forensics. By taking part in the workshops you will learn skills of observation, accurate data recording and demonstrate critical thinking which are key to careers in fundamental and applied sciences.

The module content is updated every year to explore topical research areas, some of which are being carried out in the department, and some of which are of global relevance. For example, we debate cutting-edge research into animal biologging and conservation. You will learn about the tools required to study such problems, and explore how such science can inform policy and practice.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Describe the form, function, basic ecology and physiology of a range of aquatic vertebrates
  • 2. Explain, in some detail, a range of case studies of aquatic vertebrate form, function, ecology and physiology
  • 3. Explain, in some detail, the role and importance of aquatic vertebrates

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. Describe in some detail essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of biosciences
  • 5. Identify critical questions from the literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work
  • 6. Identify and implement, with guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for addressing specific research problems in biosciences
  • 7. With some guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within biosciences
  • 8. Describe and evaluate approaches to our understanding of biosciences with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 9. Develop, with some guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with valid conclusions
  • 10. Communicate ideas, principles and theories fluently using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 11. Collect and interpret appropriate data and complete research-like tasks, drawing on a range of sources, with limited guidance
  • 12. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to professional and practical skills, and apply own evaluation criteria
  • 13. Reflect effectively on learning experiences and summarise personal achievements

Syllabus plan

The module will be delivered with face-to-face lectures, discussions and workshops. Lectures will cover the form, function, ecology and physiology of a range of aquatic vertebrate groups, with specific case studies into species that have been well studied. For example, thermal ranges of aquatic vertebrates, foraging energetics of large fish and sharks. Lectures will include, but are not limited to: 

  • Introduction to the module, structure and assessment and key learning outcomes
  • Marine reptiles (turtles, snakes and iguanas)
  • Marine and freshwater fish and sharks
  • Marine mammals (dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions)
  • Seabirds (albatross, gannets and other species)
  • Locomotion, foraging and energetics
  • Life history strategies
  • Diving, buoyancy and pressure

Workshops will investigate application of state-of-the-art techniques to study form and function of aquatic vertebrates based on group sessions in-class and by linking with external experts in their respective fields.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching 15Lectures and activities cover major aquatic vertebrate groups, including their ecology and physiology, as illustrated with a range of case studies
Scheduled learning and teaching9Practical covers aspects of aquatic vertebrate ecology and physiology
Guided independent study126Reading and preparation for lectures and group work, write-up of practical and assignments and preparation for assessments

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short answer questions during lectures and practical sessionsOngoing throughout the moduleAllOral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay examination602 hours1-11Written
Report/grant proposal401000 words1-11Written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay examinationEssay examination1-11August assessment period
Report/grant proposalReport/grant proposal1-11August assessment period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to sit a further assessment. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will count for 100% of the final mark and will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Davis (2019) Marine Mammals: Adaptations for an Aquatic Life (Springer)
  • Eddy & Handy (2012) Ecological and Environmental Physiology of Fishes (Oxford University Press)
  • Castellini & Mellish (2015) Marine Mammal Physiology: Requisites for Ocean Living (Taylor & Francis Group)
  • Schreiber & Burger (2001) Biology of Marine Birds (CRC Press)

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Indicative learning resources - Other resources


Key words search

Marine Vertebrate, Mammal, Reptile, Bird, Fish, Shark, Biology, Ecology, Behaviour, Physiology, Adaptation

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date