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Animal adaptations

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

Adaptations are changes in the organism that helps it become better suited for its environment, and allows it to survive. These changes happen over many years and generations of animals. The adaptations can be in the way the animals behave, or they can be physical changes in their bodies.

Some adaptations can be seen in multiple animals. Let's examine a common animal to see what adaptations it has, and other animals that share the same adaptations.

The cat:

Cats have many muscles in their ears which allows them to quickly move their ears in the direction of sounds in order to locate them. Their eyes are adapted to see well in the dark to better see their prey. Cats have long tails which help them balance. They also walk on their toes which makes them agile and fast. Cats have sharp teeth and claws which help them successfully hunt.

  • Other animals can move their ears toward sound: deer, dogs, horses, cows, and squirrels are some examples.

  • Other animals can see well at night: foxes, raccoons, opossums, and owls for example.

  • Other animals use their tails for balance: squirrels, kangaroos, beavers, rats, and road runners are some examples.

  • Other animals walk quickly and quietly by walking on their toes: wolves, hyenas, and walking birds are some examples.

  • Other animals with sharp claws and teeth: bears, wolves, tigers, and fossas for example.

Some examples of physical adaptations:

Brightly colored feathers: Birds that live in tropical areas may have brightly colored feathers to act as camouflage to help them blend into the bright flowers and plants in their environment. Male birds with brightly colored feathers use them to attract females.

Webbed feet: Feet that have webbing help animals in water swim faster, and use less energy while they are swimming. (Examples are polar bears, otters, and penguins).

Sharp teeth: Predators have long sharp front teeth that help them catch prey and tear apart the meat as they eat.

Sharp claws: Sharp claws can have many purposes. Some animals use sharp claws to dig in the ground looking for berries or roots to eat, or to dig a burrow for shelter. Other animals use sharp claws to help them climb trees, or have traction as they run. Sharp claws can also be used to kill prey.

Opposable thumbs: Having thumbs that can bend and move in a way that allows the fingers to grasp and handle objects. Humans, lemurs, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and opossums are examples of animals who have opposable thumbs.

Some examples of behavioral adaptations:

Migration: Migration is the movement of animals from one place to another, which they carry out on a large scale (many animals of one species will all make the migration). Animals may migrate to find food, avoid cold winter weather, or find mates. For example, many bird species fly south to spend the cold winter months in warmer areas, then return north during the summer to eat and mate.

Nocturnal lifestyle: Some animals have adapted to become nocturnal, or active at night. Some animals are active at night to avoid the predators that are awake during the day. Sometimes animals become nocturnal to avoid humans as well. On the other hand, predators have adapted to become nocturnal because their prey is also active at night. In deserts, animals may be nocturnal to avoid the heat of the day.

Seeing humans as a source of food: Many animals that come into contact with humans have learned that they can get food from them. Seagulls try to steal food from beach goers, squirrels beg for food in parks, seals follow fishing boats for scraps, and bears search campgrounds for unwatched snacks.

Here are some examples of some pretty extraordinary and uncommon adaptations:


Jackrabbits live in the desert and have some special adaptations to keep cool. Their long ears are full of blood vessels, and as the blood passes through the ears the heat escapes into the air, which then helps cool the jackrabbit. They also have fur that covers the pads of their feet which protects them from the hot ground. Jackrabbits have tan fur which helps them camouflage in the desert and absorbs less heat than dark fur would.

African bullfrog:

Frogs need to stay moist, which is why you find them near bodies of water. However, the African bullfrog lives in an environment that becomes very dry for many months of the year. To avoid drying out, the African bullfrog digs a hole in the ground and will bury itself there during dry months. It creates a cocoon around itself made up of layers of dead skin, which protects it from the hot, dry weather. During this time the frog goes into aestivation, which means it slows down its bodily functions (like breathing and heartbeat), so that it saves energy and doesn't have to eat until it emerges. After about ten months the African bullfrog emerges with the rains.


Sloths have some really unusual adaptations. The first is the one they are known for: they move very slowly. Their slow movement has two purposes. The first is that, combined with their excellent camouflage, it makes them very hard for predators to spot. The second reason is that it saves the sloth a lot of energy. Sloths have the lowest metabolic rate of any animal, meaning it can take over a month to digest a leaf and sloths eat very little.

Sloths have also adapted to living life upside-down as they hang from tree branches. For most animals, gravity would make this position uncomfortable, but the sloth's body has adapted. They have long curved fingers that hook around branches so they can hold on without using any energy. Sloth's organs are attached to their ribs to keep them from pushing down on the sloths lungs with special "organ anchors" that no other animal has. Three-fingered sloths also have two extra vertebrae in their necks and this added length helps them rotate their head so they can view the world right side up.

Giraffes, Ants, and Acacia trees:

Giraffes are the tallest animal in the world, standing 19 feet high. This allows them to reach the leaves high in acacia trees. Acacia trees are full of thorns but giraffes have very long tongues that they can wrap around leaves and pull them clear of the thorns. When giraffes feed on the leaves, the acacia produces a nectar. Ants live in the thorns of the acacia tree that feed on the nectar. These ants protect the acacia tree from any attack by other insects that may eat the wood and kill the tree. Therefore, by giraffes eating acacia tree leaves, they help the tree stay alive.

Urban blackbirds:

Blackbirds that live in cities instead of forests have adapted to have shorter beaks since they can eat from bird feeders and other easy pickings, instead of having to probe and peck for their food. Male blackbirds sing a wide array of songs to attract mates and declare their territory, but in the city there is a lot of loud noise like cars and construction which can drown out their songs. Therefore, they sing their songs at a higher pitch, and for longer, so they can be heard over the city noise. Urban blackbirds also begin singing three hours before sunrise (even though forest blackbirds begin at dawn) so their songs can be heard before cars begin making noise. City blackbirds also do not migrate like their forest relatives. Forest blackbirds must leave during the winter to avoid the cold and lack of food, but urban blackbirds are kept fed on city scraps, and stay warm because cities keep in extra warmth.

Archer fish:

These fish hide at the surface in the shade of plants that are hanging over the water, and use this vantage point to hunt the insects and small lizards that are above the water's surface. They are able to shoot a jet of water at their prey, knocking it from its branch and into the water where the archer fish can eat it up. The jet of water is not only a powerful missile, but archer fish are quite accurate with their aim. They can hit targets 6 feet away, even as they may be flying through the air. Archer fish suck in a mouthful of water, place their tongue on the roof of their mouth, and shoot the stream of water up to 7 times at their target. They can even leap out of the water to grab their prey if they happen to miss them with their water jet.

Arctic cod:

Arctic cod are one of many fish that live in the freezing Arctic water. Most animals would freeze in the cold water, but arctic cod developed a protein that prevents ice crystals from growing in their blood. They make their very own anti-freeze!

Activity #1:

Click on the biomes tab of this website and choose two different biomes. Read through the section that describes the animals that live in those biomes.

Find two animals in each biome (4 animals total) that has an adaptation described. You will probably not see the phrase "This animal's adaptations are..." but look for sentences that describe ways the animal is able to survive.

Take out a piece of paper and name the four animals, the biome they live in, and the adaptations they have to survive in that biome.

Bonus: see if you can find a plant adaptation described in one of the biomes. Write about the plant adaptation on the same paper that you described the animal adaptations.

Activity #2:

Download the document below and guess whether you think the plant or animal is real or made up.

fact or fiction
Download DOCX • 25KB

Once you've finished filling out the document, download the answers here:

Fact or Fiction answer key
Download DOCX • 571KB

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