What is animal adaptation?
When the weather gets cold, you put on a coat to keep warm. If it’s hot, you wear a hat or fan yourself to cool down. Those are both ways of adapting to your habitat. While animals don’t have clothes, they do have built-in ways of keeping the right temperature and protecting themselves in the habitat they live in.
Over many years and generations, animals have changed in order to survive and thrive in the environments they live in. This process is called adaptation.
There are a number of ways that animals adapt – these can be inside our outside their bodies, in ways that they act, or even in ways that they work with other animals in their habitat. If you suddenly took an animal outside its habitat into something completely different, all those adaptations wouldn’t work anymore, and it wouldn’t be good for the animal. It’s the same as if you dressed in your warmest coat and woolly hat and scarf in the middle of August – you’d be much too hot!
Every habitat on our planet is home to different animals and plants who are uniquely adapted to live there.
Top 10 facts
- In order to survive, animals need to make sure they have food, water, oxygen, shelter, and a place to raise their offspring.
- Animal adaptation describes all the ways that animals know how to survive in their habitat.
- Animal adaptation doesn’t happen immediately – it’s taken many years of new generations of animals being born with characteristics that have suited their habitat better.
- The same kind of animal, like an owl, can have many different species that are each adapted to different habitats. Owls live all over the world in many different climates.
- Animals also adapt to their habitat through having special built-in things about themselves that protect themselves from predators. This can be poison that forms naturally on their skin, or just knowing the best places to hide when it’s time for a nap.
- Camouflage is one way animals have adapted to their environment – they’ve started looking like it! For example, animals that live in the Arctic often have white fur, which matches the colour of snow.
- Animals have had to adapt to the climate they live in, too. If it’s always very cold, they sometimes have an extra layer of fat to help keep them warm (like polar bears do).
- If a habitat gets too cold during the winter, some animals have adapted by just leaving it! They come back when it warms up again. This is called migration.
- Animals can also adapt by working together with other animals – this is called symbiosis. Each animal has something that the other needs, and they help each other survive. It’s good teamwork!
- Plants adapt to their environment, too. For example, cacti in the desert have adapted by not needing much water to survive.
Did you know?
An animal’s habitat is its home. It’s where it can find all the things it needs to survive:
- food – this can be plants, or other animals and insects, or all of those things
- water – this can be from a lake or river, or even the side of a plant
- oxygen – air to breathe
- shelter – a place to stay dry, to sleep, and to stay safe from predators
- a place to raise their offspring (babies) – a place where young animals can grow up safely and with all of the things they need
The reason why animals are happiest when they’re living in their natural habitat is because they’ve adapted to be comfortable there. They’re used to all of the funny things about it, and it’s their favourite place on Earth.
Adaptation takes a very long time – it’s part of how animals have evolved, and how different species of animals have come to be.
Animals are often the same colour as their habitat – and some can even change their colour to match where they’re sitting! This is called camouflage. For example, lots of animals in the rainforest are green – this is because the rainforest is mostly green.
Animals have camouflage so they can hide from anything trying to eat them for dinner, and also so they can hunt for food and catch their dinner by surprise. Different kinds of camouflage are:
- Blending into the background – having patterns on skin that look like the things around them; for example, turtle shells can look like rocks when they tuck their head and legs inside.
- Mimicking the habitat – looking like a plant that belongs in the habitat; for example, stick insects really look like sticks, which means their predators walk away thinking, ‘I don’t want to eat that stick…’
In habitats that get very cold, animals adapt by hibernating (sleeping for up to a few months at a time), or by migrating. Migrating is when they leave the habitat for another one that’s a better temperature for them, like when birds fly south during the winter. They’ll go to a warm spot, but as that gets too hot they’ll fly back north where it’s cooler, but not as cold as when they left. That’s why we see all the birds come back in the spring!
Look through the gallery below and see if you can spot the following:
- A dromedary camel with its very long eyelashes, and nostrils that can open and close
- The fennec fox’s long ears
- A jackrabbit’s long ears and powerful hind legs that help it move very quickly
- A raccoon
- This wood frog’s skin looks a lot like the branch it's sitting on
- A porcupine and its quills
- A giraffe reaching leaves way up in the tree
- Black circles around a meerkat’s eyes
- A lioness’s sandy-coloured fur and long, rough tongue
- A stingray that’s buried itself in the ocean floor
- Clownfish in anemone tentacles
- A sea urchin’s spiky shell
- Emperor penguins huddling together to keep warm
- You can barely see the snowy owl in the snow… and behind all its feathers!
- A tapir swimming with its long nose held up out of the water
Adaptations can be lots of different things, but they usually fall into one of these groups:
- Structural – things about animal inner and outer bodies that have helped them adapt to their environment, such as a giraffe’s tall neck that means it can eat leaves on tall trees.
- Physiological – special ways that animals’ bodies work to help them survive in whatever condition they’re in, such as camels in the desert conserving water and being able to go days without drinking.
- Behavioural – things that animals do that make life a lot easier in their habitat, such as meerkats in living in the ground so they stay safe from predators
Ways animals adapt in desert habitats:
- A dromedary camel can drink 30 gallons of water in 10 minutes. It also stores fat in its hump for extra energy (not water!), and can open and close its nostrils so it doesn’t breathe in sand when there’s a windstorm. Camels also have long eyelashes that bat sand away.
- The fennec fox has very long ears that help it keep cool by spreading out body heat. It also has special sorts of kidneys that conserve water, so the fox doesn’t need to drink very often. They also have thick fur on the bottom of their feet so they can walk over the hot desert ground.
- Jackrabbits are nocturnal animals, because it’s cooler in the evening and easier to hide from predators. They mostly sleep during the day, and they are herbivores. They eat plants that have a lot of water in them, so they don’t need to worry about finding water anywhere else in the dry desert. Jackrabbits have large ears, like the fennec fox. If they’re trying to get away from a predator, they move very quickly in a zigzag pattern to try to get away.
Ways animals adapt in forest and woodland habitats:
- Raccoons are nocturnal animals, and they have very good eyesight which helps them see at night. They are omnivorous and eat everything the forest has to offer – from nuts and berries on trees to fish in streams. They store up fat so they can sleep for a month or so at a time in the colder winter months, and they can even share a winter den with other animals like opossums and muskrats so everyone stays warm.
- Wood frogs have camouflaged skin so they blend into the background very well. They have a layer of mucous on their skin so they can slip away from predators. They can also hibernate in the winter when their habitat gets too cold for comfort.
- Porcupines are basically rodents (like rats) but they have a really amazing way to defend themselves. They’ve got about 30,000 sharp quills on their bodies that they can raise up to ward off a predator, but if the predator gets too close, the quills will stick straight onto its face. Ouch! Porcupines also like eating bark and twigs, so they’ve got sharp claws that help them climb up trees better.
Ways animals adapt in grassland habitats:
- Grasslands sometimes go a long time without water, but giraffes have adapted by not needing to drink water for weeks at a time. They can get by from the water in the leaves they eat, which they can reach because of their super-long necks. Because giraffes are so tall, they can also see for a long way around them, which is helpful in the grassland where there aren’t many places to hide from predators.
- Meerkats live in areas that are almost like deserts – hot, dry and not much vegetation. They have dark rings around their eyes to stop glare from the sun, so they can see well even when it’s really bright outside. Because there aren’t many places to hide from predators, meerkats live in underground tunnels that give them a quick escape when they’re on the run. Meerkats live in big colonies where they share out jobs like minding babies, keeping watch for any danger and hunting for food.
- Even though lions are ‘the kings’, they have had to adapt to their habitat just like all the other animals have. Lion’s fur is the perfect sandy colour to blend into the African savannah, so they can sneak up on prey pretty easily. Lions talk to each other through their loud roar – it also sounds scary so any other predators know to steer clear. Lions mostly sleep in the day to stay cool, and they hunt at night. When they do catch prey, they use their long claws as weapons and then eat their fresh meal by licking off skin and meat with their rough tongue.
Ways animals adapt in marine habitats:
- Stingrays have flat bodies and swim along the ocean floor. Their eyes are on the top of their body, and their mouth is on the bottom – so, they can see around them as they’re swimming along, and take in any food along the ocean floor. Since they’re already at the bottom of the sea, they can quickly bury themselves in dirt if a predator comes along. The way they breathe allows them to still take in oxygen even when they’re buried.
- Clownfish have tiny round fins and can’t swim very quickly, but they are able to get away from predators by going somewhere they can’t – a sea anemone with poisonous tentacles. Clownfish can do this because they have a layer of mucus over their scales that means the anemone doesn’t affect them. Clownfish can also smell the anemone, so they know immediately when one is nearby even if they can’t see it.
- Sea urchins immediately put off predators because they’ve got spiny, spiky things coming out from a shell that completely covers their body. They can control their spikes and point them in the direction where they think they’re being threatened, too. They have special tube-like feet that suction them onto things so the water current doesn’t toss them around. They’ve also got five teeth on the bottom of their body so they can break down food while their shell protects them from above.
Ways animals adapt in polar habitats:
- Polar bears in the Arctic have white fur that helps them blend into the snowy background. They also have a thick layer of fat around their body to keep warm, and big paws with long hair that keeps them from slipping on ice. When there’s a snow or windstorm, polar bears can dig deep dens that protect them from the weather and keep them warm. Even though they’re big animals, polar bears are good swimmers which means it’s easier for them to catch fish to eat.
- Emperor penguins are famous for the way they’ve adapted to their chilly habitat in Antarctica. Their streamlined shape helps them swim quickly and catch fish to eat, and their feathers provide a waterproof layer that means they won’t get too cold. When they’re out of the water, their black feathers soak in warmth from the sun, and penguins also swarm together in packs to help keep each other warm. They only lay one egg that they can sit on while they wait for it to hatch, and mum and dad take turns sitting on the egg and going to get food to make sure their little one has all the warmth they need.
- The snowy owl, like the polar bear, is white all over which helps it blend in with the snow. They’ve got layers of soft down feathers covered with larger, thicker feathers that provide insulation from the cold. The snowy owl has feathers everywhere – even on its toes! It eats a variety of different small animals so it’s not fussy about what’s for dinner, giving it the best chance of having enough food to survive.
Ways animals adapt in rainforest habitats:
- Toucans have very long beaks that are actually about one-third of their entire body length. But, these beaks are also lightweight, and mean that toucans can pick up large pieces of fruit, which they toss in the air and catch in the back of their beaks to eat. Toucans’ beaks also have blood vessels in them and release body heat, helping to keep them cool. Toucans keep balanced on trees in the rainforest by using their claws – two on the front and two on the back – to get a good grip that keeps them from falling down.
- Howler monkeys are one of the loudest animals on earth, which is how they get their name! They live up in the rainforest canopy, where it can be difficult to see very far around because there are lots of leaves and branches in the way. So, they use their loud voice to call out to other howler monkeys, and to make sure other animals know where their territory is. They need to communicate with other howler monkeys because they all live in large communities – howler monkeys don’t move around very quickly, so they need friends to help protect each other from predators. Howler monkeys also wrap their tails around tree branches to keep from falling down.
- Tapirs are larger rainforest animals that live on the forest floor. They are herbivores, so it’s easy for them to find leaves, twigs and fruits to eat as they wander around. They have sloped shoulders that allow them to move around under bushes and shrubs, and small eyes deep in sockets that protect them from insects and bits of trees getting in. Tapirs have a long, flexible nose that can root into trees and bushes to grab food. They can go into shallow water, and use their noses as a snorkel to breathe!
Animals can also adapt to their habitat by working together to survive – this is called symbiosis. For example, in the African savannahs, birds called oxpeckers sit on the backs of zebras to pick off lice and other bugs. It’s food for the oxpeckers, and the zebras can get rid of pests. Also, zebras can’t see very well, but oxpeckers screech loudly when predators are approaching which gives zebras early warning to run away.
Words to know
- Adaptation – all the ways that animals can survive in their habitat
- Camouflage – ways that animals can be unnoticed by their predators, or by their prey
- Carnivore – an animal that eats meat
- Climate – the temperature and weather of a certain part of the world
- Evolve – how animals change over long periods of time by getting characteristics in their bodies or in the way the behave that helps them adapt to their habitat
- Habitat – a place where an animal, plant, insect or any other living thing lives; it can be as big as an ocean, or as tiny as a log in a forest.
- Herbivore – an animal that only eats plants, and things that grow on plants like fruit and berries
- Hibernation – long sleeps that animals take in the winter to conserve heat and survive the chilliest months of the year
- Migration – travelling a long way to reach a new habitat that suits an animal better than its old one did; birds migrate south every winter to be in a warmer habitat, then they go back north in the spring
- Omnivore – an animal that eats both plants and meat
- Predator – something that hunts something else (its prey)
- Prey – something that is attacked by something else (its predator)
- Species – a particular kind of animal; a barn owl and a snowy owl are both species of owl
- Symbiosis – the ways that two species interact to help each other survive in their habitat
Just for fun...
- Find a characteristic of a certain kind of animal, and work out what part of their habitat that characteristics help them to adapt to.
- This game shows how animals in a forest depend on each other, and has a quiz about animal adaptation
- Build a habitat, but make sure all the plants, animals and climate match up
- Complete an animal adaptations worksheet
- Spot the correct animals in the correct habitats, and then answer questions about their adaptation…all before time runs out!
- Take a KS2 animal adaptation quiz
- Adaptation dominoes and activities are included in a Marwell Wildlife learning pack
- Can you work out the evolutionary relationships linking different species together in Evolution Lab?
- Explore biodiversity and evolution in Field Museum interactives
Best children's books about animal adaptation
Find out more
- A BBC Bitesize animation to explain adaptation for KS2 children
- Download a fantastic animal adaptation information pack from the Wildwood Trust
- Read about 5 amazing animal adaptations in the Galapagos Islands
- Videos and lots of information about animal and plant adaptations
- Watch adaptation, inheritance and evolution BBC Bitesize clips
- Evolution explained for children
- See how animals in the Arctic have adapted.
- Watch a cartoon about how the brown bear evolved into the polar bear
- All about owls: find out where in the world they live, and how they’ve adapted
- Short video clips about animal adaptations in desert habitats and kangaroo adaptation
- Plants adapt too! See how one of the most common plants in the rainforest has worked out how to survive
- Understand more about Antarctic animal adaptations
- Information about biogeography
- Watch an interactive animal adaptations slideshow