Polar bears in the Arctic. Zebras on the African plains. Sea turtles in the ocean. Lizards in the desert. There are so many different kinds of animals all over the world! How are animals able to live in so many different kinds of places? The answer is adaptations.
An adaptation is a characteristic that helps an animal survive in its habitat. All animals must be able to obtain food and water, protect themselves from harm, withstand the climate, and reproduce young so the species doesn't become extinct. So, any animal who successfully survives on land or in water has physical or behavioral adaptations that help it to accomplish those goals. An adaptation can be a body part, body covering, body function, or behavior that increases an animal's chances of survival in a particular place.
Animals develop these adaptations over time to match the environment where they live. The process of natural selection means that animals with traits that help them survive are more likely to live and pass on those traits to their offspring. Those adaptations happen over long periods of time, as animals adapt to the conditions of the environment. It takes many generations for adaptations to develop. Although habitats provide food, water and shelter that animals need, there is more to survival than just the habitat. It is their own adaptations that allow animals to get food, stay safe, and reproduce within that specific habitat. Without their adaptations, the species could not thrive in that environment.
Animals live everywhere on Earth. Some places on Earth are very hot and some are very cold. Some places have a lot of water and plants, and some have very little. Animals can live in many different places in the world because they have special adaptations for the area in which they live. For example, a monkey with agile limbs and a long tail for climbing is well adapted to the jungle, but would have a hard time in the cold, treeless polar regions. A shaggy, wooly musk ox is comfortable in the Arctic, but would not do well in a tropical climate.
Adaptations are what allows such a diversity of animal species to live on Earth's land, seas and skies. Through adaptations, animals have found ways to inhabit every environment on earth! Let's take a look at some of the amazing adaptations animals have developed.
Physical adaptations include body parts, body coverings, and physiological characteristics that help animals survive, find food, and stay safe.
The shape of a beak, the type of feet, the placement of eyes, the presence of whiskers, the shape of the nose or ears, and the sharpness of teeth are all examples of structural adaptations which help different animals to survive. As shown in the picture on the right, different kinds of birds have adapted different kinds of beaks that help them obtain their particular source of food. Beaks come in all shapes and sizes. For example, a hawk has a sharp, curved beak to tear its food into small pieces. A hummingbird has a long, thin beak to reach into flowers and get nectar. A parrot has a strong, thick beak to help it crack fruits and nuts. A pelican has a long beak with a pouch to help it scoop fish out of water.
All kinds of body parts may be adaptations. Horses and zebras have flat teeth for grinding their food (grass), while lions have sharp teeth for tearing their food (meat.) To escape predators, zebras also have excellent hearing and eyesight and powerful legs for running and kicking. Birds have hollow bones that help them fly. Ducks have oil glands that keep their feathers from becoming water-soaked, and webbed feet that help them to swim. A woodpecker not only has a strong, sharp beak for drilling holes, but it also has a very long barbed tongue to catch insects, two toes that point backward to help with climbing trees, and a stiff tail for support on the tree. Alligators have eyes and nostrils placed on top of their heads, allowing them to keep most of their body underwater so their prey cannot see them. For river otters, whiskers are an adaptation that help them feel their way through tight spots both on land and in water. Badgers have sharp claws for digging burrows and tunnels and for obtaining food. Because they live underground, excellent vision is not an adaptation that they need; badgers and moles often have poor eyesight. Learn more about physical adaptations.
Animals in the desert have special adaptations that help them conserve water and survive a habitat with extreme temperatures and lack of shelter. Camels have humps where they can store fat, allowing them to go without food and water for periods of time. Camels also have two rows of long, thick eyelashes to protect their eyes from blowing sand, and their nostrils can be closed as well. Their broad, leathery hooves act like snowshoes to prevent them from sinking in the sand. Other desert animals have different adaptations. Jackrabbits have large ears that keep them cool by spreading out their body heat. Fennec foxes have thick fur on the bottoms of their feet so they can walk on the hot desert ground. Learn more about desert adaptations.
In polar habitats, animals also have important adaptations that allow them to keep warm and survive extreme cold. For example, the penguin lives in the Antarctic and swims through icy cold water. Its feathers are tightly packed and layered like roof shingles. These special feathers keep cold water out and keep body heat in. The penguin's eyes have special lenses that allow it see both above and below the water. Its powerful wings help it swim through the water, and its feet help it steer as it swims. Being able to stay warm, see well, and swim quickly helps the penguin find food and avoid predators. In the Arctic, polar bears have webbed front paws that are shaped to propel them through the water. The bottoms of their feet are covered with hairy bumps that grip the ice and keep them from slipping, and a layer of blubber insulates them from the cold. Learn more about polar adaptations.
Similar animals will often have different adaptations depending on where they live. For example, desert foxes have large ears for heat radiation, while Arctic foxes have small ears to retain body heat. Snowy owls have heavily feathered legs and feet, while elf owls, which live in warm, southern climates, have lightly feathered legs.
Animals who live in the oceans have unique adaptations that allow them to move through water and defend themselves from marine predators. For example, sharks have streamlined bodies for fast swimming, and noses with special sensors that let them sense electric fields put out by other fish and animals. Stingrays swim along the ocean floor, with their eyes on top of their bodies and their mouth on the bottom, so they can see while they're swimming and still take in food they find in the sand. Lobsters use their claws to crush their food and their strong tails to move backward on the ocean floor. Harbor seals have four flippers to help them swim, with hind flippers to propel them forward and forward flippers to help them steer. Learn more about ocean adaptations.
Some physical adaptations have more than one purpose. Horns and antlers may be used by animals to protect themselves, to fight with others for territory, or to attract a mate. A crab's hard shell protects it from predators, from drying out, and from being crushed by waves. Sometimes, multiple species have adaptations that suit each other. For example, pollinating insects are co-adapted with flowering plants, with body parts that are designed to work together. In Africa, oxpecker birds sit on the backs of zebras and pick off lice and bugs for food, which benefits both animals.
Body Covering and Coloring
Body coverings are an important adaptation for many animals. Mammals living in cold climates have thick fur to keep the heat in. Those living in warm climates have much thinner coats of hair or fur. For birds, feathers are an adaptation that serve several purposes: they keep birds warm in cold weather and cool when it's hot, allow them to fly, and help them attract mates. Reptiles are covered with scales that serve to protect their bodies from environmental conditions. Fish have overlapping scales that not only protect them from injuries, but also reduce water resistance when the fish is swimming. In addition, many fish are covered with a layer of slime which helps them move more quickly through the water.
Another important adaption is known as camouflage. Many animals have colors or patterns that help them blend in with their habitat so they can successfully find food or hide from predators. Stripes and spots can help both predator and prey animals blend into their environment. Animals with spotted fur often live in forested areas. The jaguar's spots help it blend in with the small patches of sun that reach the shady rainforest floor, while the snow leopard, who lives in snowy, wooded mountains, has spotted fur that helps it hide among the trees and snow.
Some green insects can look just like leaves on a tree. Brown rattlesnakes blend in with the rocks, soil and dry grass where they live. Bright-colored tropical fish can blend in with coral reefs. Cuttlefish and leaf frogs can change their appearance to match their surroundings. The chameleon is a lizard that can change its skin color for camouflage. The snowshoe hare's fur color shifts with the season: it is brown in the summer and white in the winter to blend in with the snow. Learn more about camouflage.
Sometimes coloring is an adaptation with a different purpose than camouflage. For example, the male peacock's colorful tail display is used to attract a mate. Some poisonous frogs and butterflies have bright, vivid colors that make them stand out from their surroundings and serve as a warning to predators to stay away.
For some animals, their appearance mimics a non-food object, or they resemble a harmful or distasteful animal that predators avoid. This adaptation to imitate something else to fool predators is called mimicry. For example, some butterflies have big spots that mimic the eyes of a large animal such as an owl. Some insects, such as the walking stick, resemble a twig, while the hawkmoth looks just like a tattered dead leaf. These disguises help them survive, as predators do not attack twigs or leaves. The nonpoisonous king snake has coloring that makes it look like the venomous coral snake, so predators leave the king snake alone. The harmless viceroy butterfly resembles the bitter-tasting monarch butterfly, so predators avoid the viceroy butterfly too.
Physiological adaptions are different from body parts and coloring because they cannot be seen from an animal's outer appearance, but they are important adaptations within the animal's body. For example, many desert animals do not have sweat glands, which lets them retain moisture so they don't have to drink much. Some animals don't need to drink water at all, as they get all the water they need from the insects, plants and seeds that they eat. Some rodents have special kidneys that return water to the bloodstream instead of losing it through urination. Crocodiles have internal glands that get rid of the salt they consume when they swallow their saltwater prey.
There are internal defensive adaptations such as snakes producing venom in their bodies, skunks producing bad-smelling spray, horned toads squirting blood from their eyes, and millipedes secreting toxins through their skin. Still other animals have bodies that secrete slime, like snails who use it to glide smoothly across the ground, or hagfish who choke their attackers with slime.
Another adaptation is specially developed senses of hearing, smell, or sight that far surpass human abilities. For example, the African elephant has 2,000 scent receptors in its nose, compared to humans' 400 receptors. A peregrine falcon's eyesight is so acute that it can spot a mouse a mile away. Some animals utilize senses beyond the five senses humans have. These sensory adaptations include echolocation which allows bats to locate their prey by sending out sounds that bounce off other objects, and infrared detection, which allows snakes to sense heat radiation from prey species at night.
Most adaptations do not operate singly, but rather work together to ensure the animal's survival. Most people know that the giraffe has a very long neck that helps it reach leaves in the tops of trees (a body-part adaptation), but what may be less obvious is the giraffe's extra-large heart that pumps blood up that long neck to reach its brain (a physiological adaptation.) In addition, it has a spotted coat for camouflage, an 18-inch tongue that can wrap around branches, and the ability to drink 12 gallons of water at once when it comes upon a scarce water hole. All of these adaptations, working together, help the giraffe succeed in its environment.
Like physical adaptations, behavioral adaptations improve animals' chances for survival. These are inherited behaviors that animals don't have to learn. You may have heard these behaviors referred to as instinct. A bird building a nest or a lion preying on a zebra are examples of instinctive behaviors.
One of the most important behavioral adaptations is living together in groups. These groups are often referred to as herds, families, colonies, flocks and packs, but there are many unique names for animal groups such as a pod of whales, a school of fish, or a pride of lions. These groups may consist of hundreds of animals or just a few. Living in groups allows animals to help each other find food, defend against predators and care for young. When many zebras stand or move together in a group, the abundance of stripes makes it more difficult for a lion to pick out and hunt one individual zebra. Although a fully grown bison is safe from most predators, bison live in herds and form circles to protect their young. Some predators such as wolves hunt as a group, working together to bring down larger prey. And many animals huddle together in cold weather to share body warmth.
Another behavioral adaptation is migration. Migrating animals travel from one place to another depending on seasonal conditions. Migration is an adaptation that helps some animals cope with the climate and find places to obtain food and have their young. Birds, whales, bats and monarch butterflies are well-known for their annual migration between northern and southern regions. Some animals migrate a short distance from high mountains to lower valleys, while others cover large parts of the globe with their migration routes. For example, the Arctic tern travels 25,000 miles in its annual migration. Learn more about animal migration.
Hibernation is another adaptation that allows some animals to successfully survive when weather conditions are harsh and resources are scarce. A hibernating animal goes to sleep or is dormant during cold weather. They remain safe by hiding in dens or burrows. Their heartbeat and breathing slow down. They do not have to use up energy looking for food because their bodies live off their stored fat or food. Bears, bats, chipmunks, frogs, and many other animals hibernate during the winter.
Some animals are referred to as nocturnal, which mean they are active at night. For desert animals, this adaptation allows them to search for food when temperatures are cooler. Other animals burrow into the ground during the day to avoid the harsh conditions during the day.
Many behavioral adaptations are defensive. These behaviors are designed to help animals protect themselves from danger. A blowfish (right) has the ability to puff up its body to twice its normal size to scare off attackers. Possums go stiff and "play dead" to make predators think they are not alive. The three-banded armadillo can curl itself into a ball where it is protected by its armor. A porcupine turns its quills toward a threatening intruder. A nesting killdeer will pretend to be injured to lure a predator away from her young. A rattlesnake has a unique adaptation: at the end of its tail it grows interlocking, hollow segments. When threatened, the snake coils into a circle and shakes its tail, warning intruders to stay away.
Still other behavioral adaptations have the purpose of courtship. In order for the species to continue, animals must attract a mate and have young. The male sage grouse attracts a female by inflating his neck pouch and fanning his feathers. Some male penguins offer stones for nest-building as gifts to the females. The albatross performs an elaborate courtship ritual where he dances, leaps, sings, and points his beak to the sky. Male elk "bugle" to attract females and to announce dominance over other males.
Not all animal behaviors are adaptations. A raccoon who repeatedly seeks food in a local trash can, a deer who stays away from a yard with motion-activated night lights, or a bird who avoids bad-tasting insects after eating one, are all exhibiting learned behaviors. These behaviors may help the animal survive, but they will not be passed on to the next generation.
Prey, Predator, and Scavenger
Some animals eat other animals (predators), some try to keep from being eaten (prey), and others clean up the remains of dead animals (scavengers.) Predators are not villains - like all organisms, including humans, they are getting the energy (food) they need to survive. Each creature is necessary to the cycle of life. All animals in a natural ecosystem have a different "job" or ecological niche, and all adaptations help organisms to be successful in their niches. Whether an animal is predator or prey, it must have necessary adaptations to live another day, or it will not survive.
Many prey animals have developed a variety of adaptations to protect themselves from becoming a predator's dinner. In order to survive, prey animals rely on camouflage, warning signals, well-developed senses, weapon-like body parts, and defensive behaviors.
Predators also have camouflage coloring and blend in with their surroundings, but for them the purpose is to hide when hunting prey. Other adaptations that make an animal a successful predator include body parts like sharp teeth, strong jaws or razor-like talons, physiological adaptations such as producing deadly venom, and behaviors like hunting in groups and stalking (sneaking up on) their prey.
Even scavengers have special adaptations. They use their excellent sense of smell to find their food - dead animals. Why does a vulture have a featherless head? This bird often feeds by putting its head into the bodies of dead animals. After it eats, its bare skin is exposed to the sun's heat which kills harmful bacteria that might have rubbed off from the decaying meat. A clean head keeps a vulture healthy, so it can live another day. In addition, the digestive track of vultures has an adaptation that allows vultures to not get sick from any diseased animals that they eat.
In all habitats, adaptations make the complex, interconnected food webs work.
Adapting to Environmental Change
Over time, environments can change and become drier, wetter, hotter, colder, darker or sunnier. Since adaptations develop to help animals survive in a specific habitat, what happens if the environment begins to change, and those adaptations no longer help the animal? If an animal's food source disappears, adaptations that help them find that food will no longer be useful. Sometimes even a small change in temperature or water quality can mean big problems for animals that have adapted to survive under certain conditions. Altered environments have meant extinction for some animals. When habitats change, in order to survive animals must either move to new areas, or respond to those changes through adaptations. For example, a species living in water that becomes more acidic might adapt by slowly shifting its own body chemistry.
Adaptations may cause an increase or decrease in populations of animals with certain traits. An example of a changing adaptation is the case of the peppered moth. The peppered moth uses camouflage to blend in with the trees it perches on, in order to avoid being eaten by birds. About 200 years ago, light-colored peppered moths were common, while dark-colored peppered moths were rare. The lighter moths were more difficult for birds to see against the light-colored tree trunks and light-colored lichen on the trees, so they were more likely to survive. However, during the Industrial Revolution many forests became polluted with layers of black soot from the burning coal used in factories. Trees became darker, and the light-colored lichen was gone. The lighter moths stood out against the dark trees and became easy prey for birds. After the trees became darker, the dark-colored moths were better camouflaged and less likely to be eaten. They became more likely to survive and pass on their dark-colored genes to their young. Over time, the dark colored moths became the more common of the two color forms.
Today, climate change and rising temperatures threaten many animals who are adapted to certain conditions. While some organisms may not survive in their usual habitats, it is possible that we will see changing adaptations in some species. One example is the colored feathers of the tawny owl. This owl comes in two colors, pale brown and gray. The gray color helps it to blend in with snowy trees to hide from predators. Due to rising temperatures, there has been less snowfall in some areas. Because of the decreased snow, there has been an increase in brown-feathered tawny owls in the past 40 years.
Do plants have adaptations too? Yes! Just as with animals, plants must be adapted to their environment. And just as with animals, adaptations help plants survive the climate conditions, defend against predators, and reproduce.
Plants make their own food using water and sunlight absorbed through their leaves. Many plants have special chemicals in their cells that help them grow toward sunlight, an adaptation known as phototropism. Another plant adaptation is leaf size. Since water usually escapes from plants through the leaves, plants that live in dry climates have thick stems and small leaves. The leaves may also be coated in wax that reduces water loss and prevents the plant from drying out. Plants in moist climates have big, wide leaves that absorb lots of sunlight. In windy, cold climates, plants are usually short with small leaves. Short plants are more protected from wind. More than 99 percent of Antarctica is covered with ice, but a few plants still grow close to the ground there, mostly lichens and mosses.
Some plants protect themselves from predators with leaves that contain poisonous oils that irritate or even kill an organism that tries to eat them. Other plants have thorns to keep predators away. In desert plants such as cacti, sharp spines and thick skin also protect the cactus's water store from predators.
Like animals, plants must reproduce. This is done through seeds that need sunlight, water, and a place to grow. Special adaptations help seeds move to new areas where they can grow. Some trees have adapted so that heat from wildfire opens their seed cones and disperses the seeds. Some plants have seeds with hard coats that float down rivers or streams to take root somewhere else. There are plants that have seeds with hooks or barbs that attach to animals' fur to be carried away. Some seeds are heavy and fall down to the ground, while others have "wings" and are light enough to be carried long distances by the wind. Some plant adaptations can even help establish new habitats through seed dispersal. Learn more about plant adaptations.
How Do Humans Mimic Animal Adaptations?
The most important human adaptation is our large brains which allow us to think and solve problems. Animal adaptions often give humans good ideas about surviving in different habitats. When humans develop ways to live more successfully based on observing animals, it is called biomimicry.
How do animals give us ideas for staying dry on a rainy day? We wear slippery, water-resistant raincoats that makes rain run off like a duck's feathers do. How do people use the idea of a turtle's hard shell to keep safe? We put on bike helmets to protect our heads. How do animals give us ideas for moving through water? Divers use flippers like those of sea turtles to propel them in the water.
How do animals give us ideas about staying warm when it is cold? Early humans in cold climates copied animal adaptations by wrapping themselves in furry animal skins to keep warm. To this day, people put on warm, thick coats in cold weather. Sleeping bags and jackets are often made of bird feathers for insulation.
Baseball players put dark marks under their eyes, like a cheetah or a meerkat, to cut down on sun glare. Competitive swimmers use special swimsuits modeled after sharkskin. The sleek front ends of high-speed trains are based on the long, streamlined beak of the kingfisher bird. People can learn a lot from animal adaptations! Learn more about biomimicry.
Fun Facts: Amazing Adaptations
Every habitat on our planet is home to different animals and plants who are uniquely adapted to live there. It is fascinating to explore the amazing adaptations found in the animal world. Here are just a few.
Alaskan Wood Frogs' bodies freeze solid during the winter. They stop breathing and their hearts stop beating. This allows them to survive temperatures as low as -80 degrees Fahrenheit. To achieve this frozen state, they build high concentrations of chemicals in their bodies that prevent their cells from shrinking or dying. And in spring, they thaw out and "come back to life."
Roadrunners, kangaroo rats, and some gazelles can survive their whole lives without ever taking one sip of water. These desert animals get all the moisture they need from the food in their diets.
Tubeworms turn toxic water into food. They live near thermal vents deep in the ocean, in water filled with toxic gas and acid. Bacteria inside the worms use the chemicals in the water as an energy source to produce food.
Lungless salamanders have an incredible adaptation - they have no lungs! They breathe through their skin, absorbing oxygen from the surrounding air.
African bullfrogs create homes out of mucous to survive the dry season. They bury themselves underground inside a mucous sac which hardens into a cocoon. The frog can stay in this cocoon for up to seven years while it waits for rain! When the rain finally comes, it softens the mucous house and wakes up the frog.
Leopards have a behavioral adaptation that helps them protect their food. After hunting and killing their prey, leopards carry their prey up high into trees. Their powerful jaws are so strong that they can carry a dead animal that weighs three times their own weight up into the branches of a tree. Once in the tree, the dead prey is safe from animals like hyenas and lions that might steal their food.
Honeybees have several amazing adaptations: they can communicate the location of nectar to other bees through performing a dance, they can sense the earth's magnetic field, and they can detect electromagnetic waves in the atmosphere that indicate thunderstorms on the way!
Flying lemurs have folds of skin that stretch between their limbs, allowing them to glide up to 320 feet from branch to branch in the rainforest canopy. With this adaptation, they live their entire lives in the tops of the trees. This is important because their feet are well adapted for climbing, but are nearly useless for ground speed.
Peacock flounders can change their patterns and colors to match their surroundings in the ocean, often within minutes. The four photos at right show the same flounder changing its coloration as it moves to different backgrounds.
Learn more about animal adaptations at the Science Trek pages on Food Web, Zoology, Botany, Ecology, and Habitat. You also may want to explore the Science Trek pages for specific animals that describe the adaptations that help them survive. You'll find that the more you learn about animals, the more you'll discover about amazing adaptations throughout the natural world.