How Animals Adapt or Mutate for Survival

Adaptation helps them thrive and reproduce

A maned wolf waking and looking at the camera.

Joe McDonald/Getty Images

An adaptation is a change in a physical or behavioral characteristic that has developed to allow an animal to better survive in its environment. Adaptations are the result of evolution and can occur when a gene mutates or changes by accident. This mutation makes it easier for the animal to survive and to reproduce, and it passes the trait to its offspring. Developing an adaptation can take many generations.

The ability of mammals and other animals to adapt throughout the planet is part of why so many diverse animals exist today in our lands, seas, and skies. Animals can protect themselves from predators and adapt to new environments through adaptations.

Physical Adaptions

One physical adaptation found in the intertidal zone is a crab's hard shell, which protects it from predators, from drying out, and from being crushed by waves. Many animals, including frogs, giraffes, and polar bears, have developed camouflage in the form of coloration and patterns that help them blend in with their surroundings and avoid predators.

Other physical adaptations that have structurally modified animals to improve their chances of survival include webbed feet, sharp claws, large beaks, wings, feathers, fur, and scales.

Behavioral Adaptions

Behavioral adaptations include an animal's actions, which typically are in response to external stimuli. These include adaptations in what an animal is capable of eating, how it moves, or the way it protects itself.

An example of a behavioral adaptation in the ocean is the use of loud, low-frequency calls by fin whales to communicate with other whales over great distances.

Squirrels provide land-based examples of behavioral adaptations. Squirrels, woodchucks, and chipmunks are able to hibernate for up to 12 months, often consuming large amounts of food in preparation for the winter. These small animals have found evolutionary ways to protect themselves from harsh weather conditions.

Interesting Adaptations

Here are several specific examples of animal adaptations caused by evolution:

  • The maned wolf (pictured) is part of the canid family and a relative of other wolves, coyotes, foxes, and domestic dogs. One evolutionary theory says the maned wolf's long legs evolved to help it survive in the tall grasslands of South America.
  • The gerenuk, a long-necked antelope found in the Horn of Africa, stands taller than other antelope species, offering it a special feeding opportunity that helps it in competition with other species of antelope.
  • The male tufted deer of China has fangs literally hanging from its mouth that typically are used in mating fights with other males, providing it a direct line to reproduction. Most deer do not possess this unique adaptation.
  • The camel has several adaptations to help it survive in its environment. It has two rows of long, thick eyelashes to protect its eyes from the blowing desert sand, and its nostrils can be closed to keep out sand. Its hooves are broad and leathery, creating natural "snowshoes" to prevent it from sinking in the sand. And its hump stores fat so it can go for long periods without food or water.
  • The front paws of polar bears are shaped to propel them through water. Like camels, polar bears' noses have adapted for their benefit: Their nostrils can be closed when they're swimming underwater for long distances. A layer of blubber and dense layers of fur serve as effective insulation, helping them maintain a normal body temperature in the Arctic.

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