What is Species Adaptation?

DM Gutierrez

Species adaptation is the way in which organisms change or evolve to meet the needs of their environment. These changes typically involve behavior, body parts, or body coverings. Adapting to their habitat is generally geared toward protecting the species from predators, finding ways to attract or capture prey, and attracting a mate.

Cats and dogs often grow thicker fur in winter thanks to species adaptation.
Cats and dogs often grow thicker fur in winter thanks to species adaptation.

Some species adaptation is behavioral. The hognose snake does not slither away when startled like many nocturnal snakes do. Since it usually hunts prey in the daytime, it is often disturbed by other animals or humans. When startled, the hognose snake often rears up like a cobra and strikes at the intruder with its mouth closed.

Opossums can adapt to predators by playing dead, which is where the phrase "playing possum" comes from.
Opossums can adapt to predators by playing dead, which is where the phrase "playing possum" comes from.

If this behavior does not scare off the threat, this snake often rolls onto its back and plays dead, usually with its tongue hanging out of its mouth. This behavior is similar to the kind exhibited by the only North American marsupial, the opossum. This animal “plays possum” whenever a predator comes near.

An example of species adaptation to habitat through physical changes is the marine iguana. The only iguana in the world to feed on algae in ocean waters, this large reptile developed a short stubby snout to feed off underwater rocks. Its tail is somewhat flattened for swimming and steering. The marine iguana even shrinks when food is scarce, consuming its own bones to survive. When food is plentiful again, this iguana grows to its original adult length.

A body-covering species adaptation like camouflage or mimicry usually helps animals hide from prey and predators. The leopard’s spots help it hide in leafy cover while hunting. A chameleon takes on the appearance of the rock it basks on to avoid predators. Marine mammals like the sea lion have adapted to the icy water they inhabit by forming a thick layer of fat under the skin known as blubber. Many species, like dogs and cats, grow lush fur in the cold winter months, shedding the excess in the warmer seasons.

Learning generally assists animals in adapting quickly to their environment. This is most apparent in humans, who have historically learned to adapt to their environment through inventions like seasonal clothing and farming. Humans generally learn to adapt the environment to their needs as well, building shelters, creating heating and air conditioning, and using tools. Some animal species share this adaptation for tools. Some birds use a stick to lever insects out of rotten logs, while a group of Japanese macaques learned to wash dirt from sweet potatoes by following another monkey’s example.

Iguanas have had to adapt to habitat through physical changes.
Iguanas have had to adapt to habitat through physical changes.

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Discussion Comments


@Mor - Well, I don't deny it was amazing that Darwin came up with his theory, after doing nothing but observing different adaptions and species distribution on his travels.

But, even if DNA wasn't discovered for a while, genes and their role in changing a species was discovered by Mendel around the same time that Darwin was around. And, if you really think about it, they knew about how genes worked for thousands of years before that.

Any farmer worth the name knew that bloodlines were important and that you could make a better, stronger animal by matching up other strong animals. They had to know how to make different color combinations and so forth. That's how we have so many different breeds within each domestic species now.

I suspect it was never properly studied because scientists considered farmers to be beneath them, which is a shame, really, since genes are the key to a lot of the science that goes on today.


@KoiwiGal - It's really interesting to me that evolution seems so obvious and yet even a few hundred years ago scientists were still not accepting it as a theory.

Lamarck had the idea sort of right in that he thought animals adapted to their environment by physically attempting to overcome it.

So, for example, he thought that a giraffe would have developed a long neck from trying to eat leaves that were higher and higher, and physically stretching its neck. Its children would inherit the stretched neck and they in turn would stretch it further.

I know, it's easy to come up with arguments against that as a mechanism of biological adaptation now, because we know about genes. But back then they didn't have a clue about genes.

That's what made Darwin so amazing. He managed to come up with the theory of evolution, without knowing about genes.

Environmental species adaption can happen surprisingly quickly and has actually helped to provide some concrete and visible evidence for the theory of evolution.

One example they showed us when I was at high school was a particular kind of moth that lived in pine forests in England. It was a light colored moth, because it had to blend in with the light colored bark of the trees.

When the industrial revolution came to England, the trees eventually were stained by the soot in the air and started to become very dark. And, within a few generations, the moths had also become dark, as only the dark ones were surviving to have offspring.

This actually was observed again, when England began to clear up its factories and the trees became pale again. The moths have already started to become light colored.

Not all adaption would be that quick, particularly in animals that don't breed so quickly, but it is an example of the adaptability of life and answers the question of how natural selection produces adaptations in a species.

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