What is Physiological Adaptation?

Adaptation is the process of evolution where an animal or plant becomes better suited to its habitat. There are many examples of physiological processes and special functions that animals and plants use to thrive.

There are three forms of adaptation in the animal and plant kingdom.

These changes could be physiological – causing their internal processes to change and adapt to cope with their environment. Structural- in which a feature of their physical body changes, usually over millions of years. Or behavioral – in which a response causes an animal or plant to change how it responds to its habitat.

Behavioral adaptations– an organism’s actions to survive in a specific habitat or environment.

Examples of behavioral adaptations:

  • Bears hibernate in the winter to conserve energy as there is less food.
  • Dogs pant to help themselves cool down.

Structural adaptations– physical attributes that enable an organism to survive in its unique habitat.

Examples of structural adaptations:

  • Seals and penguins develop fat to help them preserve heat in freezing temperatures.
  • Reptiles like frogs and chameleons have long sticky tongues to grab and stick to prey.

Examples of plants and animals and their specific physiological adaptations:

  • Snakes and spiders produce venom to paralyze their prey and make them easier to digest.
  • Many fish and reptiles are cold-blooded to cope with living in a cold-water environment.
  • Plants release nectar to attract bees and insects that help them to spread pollen.

Extreme environments

Every part of our planet has an ecosystem of life uniquely and physiologically adapted to live in that specific habitat and may not survive anywhere else. A fish would not be able to stay in the desert because it is too hot and dry for such a creature that needs water to live. A polar bear would not survive in the jungle because it would be too hot and not camouflaged from prey. Equally, a lion would suddenly be upset to find itself in the snowy Arctic. It would be like you or me turning up to the North Pole in sunglasses and a swimsuit – we would be freezing! Each animal has unique attributes that are ideally suited to its place.

Surviving in the tundra


  1. Growing smaller leaves- smaller leaves have less surface area, meaning the plant loses less heat, water, and energy through its leaves.
  2. Growing low to the ground- growing closer to the ground protects a plant from solid winds often found in the Arctic Tundra climate.
  3. Quick blooming- small flowers bloom quickly to soak up as much light as possible in the 24-hour summer.


  1. Hibernation– hibernation is considered part of the behavioral process, though it is also a part of physiological adaptation. For example, animals consume large amounts of food before they hibernate, which is then converted to fat and stored in the body; this slows down their metabolisms and enables them to sleep for long periods at very cool temperatures.
  2. Molting– large animals like polar bears need to stay warm in the winter, but their thick fur coats become too hot for the summer. Molting is a physiological process that helps them cool down and shed heavy surplus fur to hunt faster and more efficiently in the summer when there is less ice. Molting is a feature of many animals; cats and dogs also molt to cool down similarly.
  3. Biological Anti-freeze– many insects can create their anti-freeze, a naturally forming anticoagulant in their blood, to prevent them from becoming miniature ice sculptures. Some plant species also have a natural chemical antifreeze ability. The Alaskan Wood Frog is a particularly fascinating example; it can literally ‘freeze’ itself over winter and then thaw out and come back to life in spring – does anyone think it should be renamed the zombie frog?

Surviving in the desert


  1. Water storage– cactuses absorb water to enjoy the longevity of life in a barren land where it rarely rains, which means they can soak up as much as possible on the rare occasion a storm greets the sand.


  1. Storing fat– camels store fat reserves in their humps to deal with the lack of water in the dry, sandy desert; this is then converted into food and water sources in extreme circumstances. Kangaroo rats are specialized in that they never have to drink water; they absorb moisture from the seeds they eat.
  2. Specialized digestive systems– desert critters have very special stomachs that enable them to easily consume the scarce food supply in the desert. For example, meerkats can consume scorpions whole without being poisoned by their venom, but if they get a sting on the body, it might spell disaster.
  3. Camouflage– desert dwellers are similar to tundra animals as they also use camouflage for physiological survival. Some species can change the color of their skin or fur to match the environment in the changing seasons. For example, an addax’s coat is white in the summer to reflect heat, but it changes to a dull brown in the winter to absorb heat and keep warm.

Surviving in the ocean


  1. Chemical defenses– sea stars secrete chemicals from their skin to prevent them from being eaten by a predator.


  1. Breathing– large mammals like whales live in the ocean full time, but they need to breathe air, so they have become very adept at holding their breath for long periods underwater.
  2. Chemical defenses -sea creatures such as octopuses and squid have a marvelous chemical defense mechanism to warn off predators. If something comes along and decides they look like a tasty dinner, they get a face full of ink and often retreat as hastily as they came.
  3. Warm-blood-migrating animals such as whales and dolphins must deal with changing temperatures in the water they travel through. Therefore, they are endothermic, or ‘warm-blooded,’ which helps them regulate their temperature depending on the surrounding water.
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