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The biology of survival

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The biology of survival  is an innovative module covering the biology and diversity of whole organisms from an evolutionary perspective. Interactions between diverse examples of cooperating and/or competing organisms, including predators and prey, are explored along with their changing environments. Various plants, animals and fungi are used to illustrate how adaptation in the physiology and behaviour of organisms contributes to survival. An important component is an investigative strand, in which you will undertake real and virtual experiments. Through this study and investigative combination, you will develop practical and analytical skills using at-home and on-screen interactive experiments to generate and analyse your own unique data sets.

What you will study

This module covers various aspects of the physiology, behaviour, ecology and evolution of whole organisms using a wide range of representative examples of plants, animals and fungi. The overarching theme of the module and the context within which all the teaching materials are presented is adaptation and natural selection. From this evolutionary viewpoint, both the unity and diversity of many organisms are explored in the introductory activities that include identifying local wildlife that you have observed, to investigating how butterflies adapt their camouflage to their changing surroundings. You will also be introduced to the module practicals that are presented in the Investigative Biology strand and how the data you collect will be used for your assessment tasks.

Topic 1 Interdependence: introduces the idea of interdependence and the module themes of Phylogeny, Coevolution, Communication and Energy flow. Most of the examples of interdependence used involve insects and plants, especially ants and acacias. You will also be introduced to the practical skills of testing biological hypotheses through experiments and statistical analysis.

Topic 2 Migration: introduces migration in animals, with special reference to birds, and also introduces the module themes of Movement, Selection and Homeostasis. The topic includes practical skills in the form of a hands-on experiment designed to develop your skills in experimental design and hypothesis testing.

Topic 3 Wood-wide web: focuses on the set of varied interactions that make up the wood-wide web, a relatively recent concept that has generated new ideas about how plant species interact. It also acquaints you with fungi, one of the major eukaryotic kingdoms, and the technique of using isotopes to understand biological systems. In terms of the module themes, this topic introduces Interactions, Energy transformations and Nutrient flux. You will learn important literacy skills including how to identify key publications to summarise information and cite and reference publications appropriately.

Topic 4 Reproductive behaviour: looks at reproduction and sexual selection, focussing on frogs and toads, and introduces the module themes of Growth, Communication, Selection and Phylogeny. Skills you will learn include conducting an onscreen experiment and collecting data, analysing and interpreting results, and using bibliography tools to compile a reference list.

Topic 5 Surviving with limited water: considers the role of water in terrestrial ecosystems and develops the module themes: Homeostasis, Growth and Energy transformations. Many of the examples given in this topic are plants from desert habitats, which have been used to emphasise more extreme adaptations. The topic also develops your practical skills in looking at tissue structure (via a digital microscope), as well as web searching and data analysis.

Topic 6 Predation: covers various aspects of predation, including ecological perspectives of interactions between predators and prey, the behaviour of predators and the evolution of specialist large cat predator groups. The topic develops the module themes of Interactions, Movement and Coevolution. The skills of report reading/writing and hypothesis formulation, along with analysing and interpreting correlations, are also covered.

Topic 7 Surviving the cold: explores many of the different ways in which a range of organisms adapt to cold environments. In doing so, it develops the module themes of Nutrient flux and then Energy flow and Energy transformations, focusing on respiration. The topic further develops your practical skills in developing and testing biological hypotheses through an online experiment, by devising and using data collection methods to gather results ready for analysis.

Topic 8 Crustacean behaviour: uses examples of marine invertebrates to apply the module themes of Communication and Phylogeny. The topic activities further develop your skills of data handling and analysis.

Topic 9 Selective breeding: focuses on the implications of artificial selection and captive breeding for survival, and uses mammalian examples of each to apply the module themes of Selection as well as Nutrient flux. The topic further develops your practical skills of designing data collection methods to use with films of elephant behaviour.

Topic 10 Sunshine and fresh air to cheese: This topic covers a number of integrated biological systems involving the conversion of light energy into the food product cheese, via the dairy cow and the cheese-making process. In doing so, the topic material applies the module themes of Homeostasis, Growth and Energy flow. It also refines your skills of performing calculations and using these to make comparisons.

Topic 11 Pollination: In the final topic of this module the rich variety of interactions between plants and flower visitors is explored and you will carry out your own investigations and write up a practical report. This topic applies the module themes of Interactions, Coevolution and Movement.

Investigative Biology: as you work your way through the module materials you will simultaneously be undertaking investigative biology with 5 practicals: Bird visual discrimination - prey selection; Plant stomata; Cold adaptation in laboratory rats; Observing Asian elephant behaviours: eating and defecating and Pollinators. Through these investigations you will also develop and practice your skills of reading scientific literature and writing up practical reports.

Entry requirements

This is a Stage 2 module and you will need to have study skills appropriate for this level of science study, obtained either by OU level 1 study with the OU, or with another higher education institution. You are likely to find parts of this module difficult if you have no knowledge of biology or basic maths.

If you are new to study at a higher education level, we recommend that you have studied one of our key introductory Stage 1 modules – Science: concepts and practice (S112), Environment: journeys through a changing world (U116) – before this OU level 2 module.

We strongly recommend that you check whether or not your background and experience are sufficient to give you a sound basis on which to tackle this module, since we have found that students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully and get the most enjoyment out of the module.

The Science Faculty has produced an interactive program Are You Ready For S295? to help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module or whether you need a little extra preparation.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

This module does not have any printed material. All teaching material and supporting assets such as video, audio, computer interactive activities, Digital Literacy (stage 2) activities, links to other resources such as internal and external websites are embedded within the VLE texts of the module.

There are ebook downloadable versions of the Module guide, Introduction, 11 individual topics and Investigative Biology. As well as a glossary, assignments, specimen exam paper and answers, forums and other resources all provided via a dedicated website.

You will need

Ingredients to make dough (flour, water, 2 colours of food dye, preferably yellow and red), basic outdoor clothing and footwear for fieldwork and a Lab book.

Computing requirements

A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module. Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

A desktop or laptop computer with either an up-to-date version of Windows or macOS.

The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).

Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will be supported by a tutor who will help you with the study material, mark and comment on your written work (TMAs), and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. There will be a number of online tutorials that you can join and access via your computer.

Some activities may involve collaborative work among the students in your tutor group, conducted online via the online forums with support from your tutor. Participation in collaborative activities may be required to complete some of the work for this module.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs).

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying S295 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

The biology of survival (S295) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2020.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2023.

Course work includes:

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
2 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
No residential school

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