Life in Extreme Environments


Evolution through natural selection has resulted in a wide ranging diversity of life with organisms adapted to live in all environments found on Earth. In this course we will look at the fascinating ways in which animals have adapted to live in extreme environments ranging from the dry and hot deserts and the harsh and cold arctic to the perpetual darkness in the deep sea and in caves.

However, we will also look at how life has adapted to human activities and discuss how life might have evolved on other planets. We will look at adaptations in morphology, physiology and behaviour in a range of organisms from plants in deserts via spiders in caves to extremophile bacteria thriving in high salinities, temperatures and even radiation. We will also look at examples of adaptations in a range of organism during a visit to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

This course is for everybody interested in how evolution has shaped the fascinating variety of life in unexpected corners on this planet of ours (and potentially beyond). 

Programme details

Courses starts: 23rd Jan 2024

Week 1: Introduction - Evolution and Adaptation

Week 2: Deserts

Week 3: Arctic environments

Week 4: Mountains and high altitudes

Week 5: Caves and other subterranean habitats

Week 6: The deep sea and thermal vents

Week 7: Extremophile bacteria

Week 8: The urban environment

Week 9: Excursion to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Week 10: Extraterrestrial life?

Digital Certification

To complete the course and receive a certificate, you will be required to attend at least 80% of the classes on the course and pass your final assignment. Upon successful completion, you will receive a link to download a University of Oxford digital certificate. Information on how to access this digital certificate will be emailed to you after the end of the course. The certificate will show your name, the course title and the dates of the course you attended. You will be able to download your certificate or share it on social media if you choose to do so.


Description Costs
Course Fee £257.00
Take this course for CATS points £10.00


If you are in receipt of a UK state benefit, you are a full-time student in the UK or a student on a low income, you may be eligible for a reduction of 50% of tuition fees. Please see the below link for full details:

Concessionary fees for short courses


Dr Thomas Hesselberg

Thomas is a zoologist who has studied spiders and insects for more than 15 years in both temperate and tropical climates and has recently developed an interest in subterranean environments. In addition to his teaching for the Department for Continuing Education, he also teaches for St. Anne's College.

Course aims

To give students an overview of the myriad of different morphological, physiological and behavioural adaptations that a range of organisms show in order to survive and thrive.

Course Objectives:

  • To understand how evolution through natural selection enables organisms to become adapted to extreme habitats such as deserts, the deep sea and the arctic.
  • To give an overview of the unique adaptations in a range of organisms from bacteria to animals and plants to conditions such as extreme temperatures, pressures, radiation, lack of light and reduced gravity.
  • To understand how the anatomy, morphology and behaviour of different organisms are shaped by evolutionary pressures and constraints.

Teaching methods

The course will be taught via lectures, discussions, small practical group activities and a visit to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Each lesson will consist of a lecture interspersed by interactive sessions. The learning environment will be informal allowing students to ask questions throughout the lectures.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will be expected to:

  • apply evolutionary thinking to understand how extreme environmental pressures result in a convergence of morphology, physiology and behaviour in a range of different organisms.
  • understand how organisms can manage to survive and thrive in environments that are hostile to us, and to predict adaptations for potential organisms living on other planets or in space.
  • be able to independently find, read and understand scientific research papers in biology.

Assessment methods

The assessment will consists of a portfolio of two short-answer assignments and a mini-essay (Option A).

The first short-answer assignment will be handed out at the end of week 4 and will consist of 8 questions on the topics covered in weeks 1-4. Similarly, the second short-answer assignment will consists of 8 questions on the topics covered in weeks 5-8.

For the mini-essay, the students will be asked to write a short essay (up to 1000 words) on the adaptations in a species inhabiting an extreme habitat of the student's choice. The essay is expected to include at least one reference to a scientific paper. In addition, students can submit an optional outline of their essay (500 words)  in week 6 and get feedback within a week.

Students must submit a completed Declaration of Authorship form at the end of term when submitting your final piece of work. CATS points cannot be awarded without the aforementioned form - Declaration of Authorship form


To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an enrolment form (Word) or enrolment form (Pdf).

Level and demands

This is an introductory level 4 (first year undergraduate) course that is open to everybody interested in biology and thus requires no previous knowledge.

Students who register for CATS points will receive a Record of CATS points on successful completion of their course assessment.

To earn credit (CATS points) you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Coursework is an integral part of all weekly classes and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework in order to benefit fully from the course. Only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard.

Students who do not register for CATS points during the enrolment process can either register for CATS points prior to the start of their course or retrospectively from the January 1st after the current full academic year has been completed. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee.

Most of the Department's weekly classes have 10 or 20 CATS points assigned to them. 10 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of ten 2-hour sessions. 20 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of twenty 2-hour sessions. It is expected that, for every 2 hours of tuition you are given, you will engage in eight hours of private study.

Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS)