An adaptation is a mutation, or genetic change, that helps an organism, such as a plant or animal, survive in its environment. Due to the helpful nature of the mutation, it is passed down from one generation to the next. As more and more organisms inherit the mutation, the mutation becomes a typical part of the species. The mutation has become an adaptation.

Structural and Behavioral Adaptations

An adaptation can be structural, meaning it is a physical part of the organism. An adaptation can also be behavioral, affecting the way an organism acts.

An example of a structural adaptation is the way some plants have adapted to life in the desert. Deserts are dry, hot places. Plants called succulents have adapted to this climate by storing water in their thick stems and leaves.

Animal migration is an example of a behavioral adaptation. Gray whales migrate thousands of miles every year as they swim from the cold Arctic Ocean to the warm waters off the coast of Mexico. Gray whale calves are born in the warm water, and then travel in groups called pods to the nutrient-rich waters of the Arctic. 

Some adaptations are called exaptations. An exaptation is an adaptation developed for one purpose, but used for another. Feathers were probably adaptations for keeping the animal warm that were later used for flight, making feathers an exaptation for flying.

Some adaptations, on the other hand, become useless. These adaptations are vestigial: remaining but functionless. Whales and dolphins have vestigial leg bones, the remains of an adaptation (legs) that their ancestors used to walk.

Habitat

Adaptations usually develop in response to a change in the organisms’ habitat. 

A famous example of an animal adapting to a change in its environment is the English peppered moth. Prior to the 19th century, the most common type of this moth was cream-colored with darker spots. Few peppered moths displayed a mutation of being gray or black.

As the Industrial Revolution changed the environment, the appearance of the peppered moth changed. The darker-colored moths, which were rare, began to thrive in the urban atmosphere. Their sooty color blended in with the trees stained by industrial pollution. Birds couldn’t see the dark moths, so they ate the cream-colored moths instead. The cream-colored moths began to make a comeback after the United Kingdom passed laws that limited air pollution.

Speciation

Sometimes, an organism develops an adaptation or set of adaptations that create an entirely new species. This process is known as speciation. 

The physical isolation or specialization of a species can lead to speciation. 

The wide variety of marsupials in Oceania is an example of how organisms adapt to an isolated habitat. Marsupials, mammals that carry their young in pouches, arrived in Oceania before the land split with Asia. Placental mammals, animals that carry their young in the mother’s womb, came to dominate every other continent, but not Oceania. There, marsupials faced no competition.

Koalas, for instance, adapted to feed on eucalyptus trees, which are native to Australia. The extinct Tasmanian tiger was a carnivorous marsupial and adapted to the niche filled by big cats like tigers on other continents. Marsupials in Oceania are an example of adaptive radiation, a type of speciation in which species develop to fill a variety of empty ecological niches.

The cichlid fish found in Africa’s Lake Malawi exhibit another type of speciation, sympatric speciation. Sympatric speciation is the opposite of physical isolation. It happens when species share the same habitat. Adaptations have allowed hundreds of varieties of cichlids to live in Lake Malawi. Each species of cichlid has a unique, specialized diet: One type of cichlid may eat only insects, another may eat only algae, another may feed only on other fish. 

Coadaptation

Organisms sometimes adapt to and with other organisms. This is called coadaptation. Certain flowers have adapted their pollen to appeal to the hummingbirds’ nutritional needs. Hummingbirds have adapted long, thin beaks to extract the pollen from certain flowers. In this relationship, the hummingbird gets food, while the plants pollen is distributed. The coadaptation is beneficial to both organisms.

Mimicry is another type of coadaptation. With mimicry, one organism has adapted to resemble another. The harmless king snake (sometimes called a milk snake) has adapted a color pattern that resembles the deadly coral snake. This mimicry keeps predators away from the king snake.

The mimic octopus has behavioral as well as structural adaptations. This species of octopus can mimic the look and movements of animals such as sea stars, crabs, jellyfish, and shrimp.

Coadaptation can also limit an organism’s ability to adapt to new changes in their habitat. This can lead to co-extinction. In Southern England, the large blue butterfly adapted to eat red ants. When human development reduced the red ants’ habitat, the local extinction of the red ant led to the local extinction of the large blue butterfly.

 

Adaptation and Survival
Being cute is technically not an adaptation.

Vestigial Adaptations
Vestigial organs are adaptations that have become useless. In humans, vestigial organs include the appendix, thought to be left over from when the human diet was primarily vegetation; the coccyx, a vestigial tail; and gill slits that are found in human embryos, though embryos never breathe through them.

adapt
Verb

to adjust to new surroundings or a new situation.

Noun

a modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence. An adaptation is passed from generation to generation.

adaptive radiation
Noun

process in which many species develop from the same ancestral species to fill a variety of different roles in the environment.

Noun

harmful chemicals in the atmosphere.

algae
Plural Noun

(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.

Noun

region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.

behavioral adaptation
Noun

way an organism acts in order to survive or thrive in its environment.

big cat
Noun

large predators, including tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards.

carnivorous
Adjective

meat-eating.

cichlid
Noun

spiny-finned freshwater fish.

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

coadaptation
Noun

the process in which organisms develop in close relationship to one another.

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

co-extinction
Noun

the process in which the loss of one species leads to the loss of another species.

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

Noun

growth, or changing from one condition to another.

Noun

foods eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms.

distribute
Verb

to divide and spread out materials.

dominate
Verb

to overpower or control.

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

eucalyptus
Noun

tree native to Oceania.

exaptation
Noun

adaptation that developed for one purpose but is used for another.

extinct
Adjective

no longer existing.

extract
Verb

to pull out.

generation
Noun

group in a species made up of members that are roughly the same age.

genetic
Adjective

having to do with genes, inherited characteristics or heredity.

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

hummingbird
Noun

type of very small bird.

industrial
Adjective

having to do with factories or mechanical production.

Industrial Revolution
Noun

change in economic and social activities, beginning in the 18th century, brought by the replacement of hand tools with machinery and mass production.

inherit
Verb

to receive from ancestors.

isolation
Noun

state of being alone or separated from a community.

mammal
Noun

animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

marsupial
Noun

mammal that carries its young in a pouch on the mother's body.

migrate
Verb

to move from one place or activity to another.

Noun

movement of a group of people or animals from one place to another.

mimic
Verb

to copy another organism's appearance or behavior.

moth
Noun

flying insect.

Noun

sudden variation in one or more characteristics caused by a change in a gene or chromosome.

niche
Noun

role and space of a species within an ecosystem.

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

Oceania
Noun

region including island groups in the South Pacific.

placental mammal
Noun

animal (mammal) characterized by the fetus developing inside the body of the mother, in an organ called the placenta.

pollen
Noun

powdery material produced by plants, each grain of which contains a male gamete capable of fertilizing a female ovule.

Noun

introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

resemble
Verb

to look like.

soot
Noun

particles produced by burning a substance such as coal, wood, or oil.

Noun

process by which one or more populations of a species become genetically different enough to form a new species.

species
Noun

group of similar organisms that can reproduce with each other.

structural adaptation
Noun

way an organism physically develops that is passed down from one generation to the next.

succulent
Noun

type of plant that has thick leaves and stems for storing water.

sympatric speciation
Noun

development of many similar species in a single habitat, each with a different specialization.

thrive
Verb

to develop and be successful.

unique
Adjective

one of a kind.

urban
Adjective

having to do with city life.

vestigial
Adjective

having to do with a body part, or remnant of a body part, that no longer serves any useful function.

womb
Noun

organ in which an embryo and fetus develops. Also called the uterus.

young
Noun

offspring or children.