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Animal Adaptations

Lisa L. Behm
Virginia Zoological Park


Teaching evolutionary concepts can be tough, especially to young audiences. The purpose of this demonstration is to introduce a simple concept in evolution, adaptations. Students learn what an adaptation is by constructing two animals from different habitats.


The teacher asks for 2 students to help out with this demonstration. These 2 students have volunteered to be the animals that will be constructed by the class. The teacher proceeds to ask the class to think of how animals are adapted to their habitats. This works great after a lesson on habitats and the many different habitat types. The most interesting types of habitats to use for this demonstration are desert, arctic, and aquatic. The teacher proceeds to "create" an arctic animal and a desert animal based on characteristics given by the class. Coaxing the class along with questions such as, "If you lived in the desert, would you be more likely to be active in the day or at night? Why?" or "If you lived in the arctic, what type of skin covering would you probably have?". This activity is interpretive and many variations can arise from it. By the end of the session you will have the class rolling from laughter but at the same time they learned the concept how important adaptations are to survival. This demonstration can introduce older classes to ecogeographic rules such as Bergmann's Rule and Allen's Rule.


Our Arctic Box contains:
  • Faux fur coat - Illustrates the need for warmth; a white coat would be desirable to tie in camouflage
  • 2 Badminton rackets -Represents the feet of an animal that must walk on snow; add thick fur to the bottoms and Velcro or pipe cleaners to attach to student's feet
  • Small Travel pillow - Illustrates the fat layer that many arctic animals need to survive; attach to student using a belt or sash around their middle under the coat.
  • Small ears --Small ears would lose less heat then long ears. Halloween costume cat ears are great to use.
  • Sunglasses with small eyes pasted on the front - Illustrates that being diurnal is more desirable since it is the warmer part of the day.
  • Vampire teeth - Optional - Carnivore adaptation for acquiring food.

Our Desert Box contains:

  • Tan felt - Shows camouflage in a desert habitat. Attach to student's clothes using clothespins.
  • Fat tail - To illustrate that many animals must store food and water. Our tail is fashioned after the Shingle-back Skink of Australia. Attach this to the student's using clothespins.
  • Long limbs - Long limbs enable the creature to keep itself off the hot surface. Wooden spoons or dowels can be made to look like limbs. Hand to the
  • Claws - Many desert creatures burrow underground to get away from the scorching heat. Anything can be used, paper clips are attached to the felt paws of the long limbs.
  • Large eyes - Most desert creatures are nocturnal. A modified sun visor with large felt eyes glued to the brim could be used for this.
  • Swimmers nose plug - Illustrates that many desert creatures have modified structures to keep sand out of nose, mouth, eyes, and ears.
  • Sponges - Pin to student to represent water conservation.

Our Aquatic Box contains (special thanks to Michelle Williams for help brainstorming this one):

  • Straw hat with Styrofoam eyeballs attached to Velcro - Many aquatic species' eyes are located on top of the head so the animal can stay submerged in water. Hat is usually put on the student first thing.
  • Film canisters - Represents nostrils and are attached to the brim of the hat with Velcro.
  • Goggles - Cover up the eyes with goggles to represent the nictitating membrane found in many aquatic species.
  • Scuba flippers - Feet adapted for swimming.
  • Vegetable oil bottle - Tie to a string and attach to student's back with a clothespin to represent a preen gland.
  • Hand Strainer - Represents the feeding method of many aquatic birds.
  • Salt Shaker - Tied to a string and worn like a necklace. Many aquatic species possess a salt gland that helps rid their body of excess salt that is accumulated by living in saltwater.

Once the demonstration has been completed, the students will have a basic understanding of adaptations and how they relate to the environments in which the organism lives. The class could then break up into groups and construct their own animals or plants based on a habitat type given to them by the teacher (cave, rainforest, kopje, etc.). Drawings and written descriptions of a generic organism could be an assigned project. For advanced classes, evolution and adaptive radiation could be addressed by having the groups design an animal that will inhabit an unoccupied niche.

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