Definition: Adaptation

  • The process of changing so an animal or organism can become better suited to its surrounding environment.

What are adaptations?

Adaptations are characteristics that improve an organism’s chance of survival. These are usually functional traits maintained through evolution and natural selection and passed down through generations.

Adaptation has three meanings in a biological sense:

An organism can change to adjust to its immediate habitat. For example, a growing plant at an increasing altitude could alter its metabolism or the nutrients it requires to help it survive.

Adaptation is also considered in a genetic sense. There is a sense of the ‘survival of the fittest where only the most potent genetic variations survive, thrive, and reproduce. For example, the peppered moth in the UK had to adapt following the Industrial Revolution. A genetic mutation caused an adaptation, allowing the moths to hide from predators due to their darker pigmentation.

Lastly, adaptation can be for one specific function. An example of this is the horn of a rhino to fight off competitors or the webbed feet of a duck to help with swimming.

Who was Charles Darwin?

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who worked on the theory of evolution and adaptation. Born in 1809, his book, On The Origin of Species, provided the first tangible evidence that development had occurred. He also put forward theories about how and why animals adapt and evolve.

Why do animals adapt?

Animals adapt to survive better in their environments. Philosophers and natural historians argue two opposing viewpoints on the reason for adaptation. Some believe that animal adaptation would happen regardless of their ability to survive in their environment, becoming more complex and adapting to achieve more and more.

While some believe that there is a final purpose for adaptation, once an animal survives and thrives in its environment, there is no need for further transformation.Top of Form

Practically, animals adapt to survive. We can see this with Darwin’s Finches. An experiment that studied finches living on different islands in the Galapagos. Over 40 years of observation, each developed specific character traits to survive on their respective island.

Some islands were found to have more bugs living burrowed inside trees. Over time, the finches on these islands developed beaks that were long and slim, giving them a better tool to catch and eat these bugs.

How do animals adapt?

Adaptations are popularly known to be created through natural selection; this is when animals with more promising traits are more likely to survive and, therefore, more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation. Passing those adaptations on to their offspring, giving them a better chance at survival – and the pattern continues.

Similarly, animals that do not have this trait are less likely to survive and less likely to pass on those traits to their offspring. Leading animals with that trait eventually die out.

Here are four different ways that an animal adaptation could take place:

Changes in habitat

When an environment changes, animals have no choice but to adapt; this can be through finding a suitable climate or adapting eating and living habits to support themselves in their new environment.

Genetic change

A genetic change may take place if natural selection allows for a particular gene to be more easily passed down because of a better survival rate due to that gene.


Co-adaptation is when two species adapt to help each other survive; the existence of one is tightly bound to the presence of another. Examples include bees and flowers or humans and trees.


Mimicry is when an animal’s adaptation mimics another species to help it survive. For example, the hoverfly, a harmless bug that looks a lot like a wasp, bears the warning colors of black and yellow.

Examples of Animal Adaptations

Here are a few examples of some crazy animal adaptations found in the natural world.

  • Alaskan wood frogs freeze their bodies during the winter to survive.
  • Kangaroos survive the desert by hydrating through moisture in seeds. They never drink water.
  • Some fish in the antarctic can produce proteins that bind to their blood, preventing them from freezing.
  • The African Bullfrog can create a hard outer shell from the mucus it produces; this can keep it hydrated for up to seven years while it waits underground for rain.
  • Chameleons can change the color of their skin to match their surroundings so they can easily blend in and hide from predators.
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