Adapt to survive

Image of a mounted taxidermy specimen of an european red fox. Its coat is light brown in colour, with a white chest and darker brown feet

Introduction
Natural selection is a process by which a species changes over time in response to changes in the environment, or competition between organisms, in order for the species to survive. The members of the species with the most desirable characteristics are able to produce the best-adapted offspring.

The process of natural selection means that over time each species has evolved to be adapted to its environmental niche. A species' characteristics will be suited to its environment.

Session Tasks

  1. Study the images and information and use the prompts to look for an animal's adaptations for their environmental niche.

  2. Draw an animal and label these adapations

Opportunities for enrichment from Saffron Walden Museum

The Museum has real animal and bird specimens that can be borrowed as loan boxes to do this exercise. The Museum also offers this activity as a taught session either as outreach or in the museum, with the opportunity to touch and handle a variety of natural history objects.

Equipment needed for the session

Access to this web page

Paper and pencil

Optional:

Real specimens to study and touch

What are adaptation and natural selection?

Natural selection is the process by which small differences, caused by genetics, between individuals of one species of animal, bird or other living thing, make them better suited to their habitat. Those individuals that are better suited to their environment are more likely to survive and have offspring, and therefore pass on genes to the next generation. Over long periods of time this can cause changes to the species as a whole, such as a change in fur colour.

These are a very simplified diagrams to illustrate how natural selection works.

In a species of moose there are some who have a grey coat and some that have a red coat.

The  grey moose are taller so can reach more of the food. They are less easy to see so predators are less likely to eat them.

The red moose are shorter, so cannot reach as much of the food and are also more visible to predators.

Therefore the grey moose are more likely to survive and have offspring.

Over time the number of red moose will decrease as they are less likely to reproduce, so the genes for red moose are not passed on to the next generation. At the same time, the number of grey moose will increase as they are more likely to breed and pass on their genes.

After many years (from decades to thousands of years) the genes for the red coat and shorter moose will disappear altogether as they are not well adapted to the environment. The moose species will have evolved to become grey and taller, as these characteristics make them better suited to their habitat.

New Vocabulary

Genes: Genes carry the information that determines your traits, which are features or characteristics, and are passed on to you from your parents.

Evolve: develop gradually.

Evolution: The spread of inherited characteristics across a population or species over many generations.

Species: A species is often defined as the largest group of organisms in which any two individuals of compatible sexes or mating types can produce fertile offspring. Some organisms, like fungi and bacteria, don't have 'male' and 'female' but can have thousands of different mating types.

A drawing of a european hare, with arrows pointing to varoius places on the body. At the end of each arrow is a discription of the adaptation that the arrow points to.

Activity

What you have to do:
Look at the images and information on the three animals below. Draw a picture of each animal and try to label the adaptations in their anatomy that make them suited to their environment and lifestyle. You can use scientific vocabulary or, if you prefer, you be more creative and use descriptive nouns and adjectives to describe each adaptation. Take a look at our example to the left, inspired by the work of the illustrator Sophie Corrigan.

Look out for new words that biologists use to describe plants, animals and their behaivour. Write down the new words you see.

You can download a paper version of this activity here:

Animal One: Red Fox

Scientific Name: Vulpes vulpes

Habitat: Red foxes live around the world in many diverse habitats including forests, grasslands, mountains, and deserts. They also adapt well to human environments such as farms, suburban areas, and even large communities. They live in underground borrows called dens.

Diet: Red foxes are ominvores, with a highly varied diet. They typically hunt small mammals.

Reproduction: Red foxes reproduce once a year in spring, the average litter size consists of four to six kits. The kits are born blind, deaf and toothless and stay in the den with their mother for 3 weeks. During this time, the male fox provides the mother with food.

An image of a European Red Fox. The fox is standing on all for legs.
Image of a European Mole. The mole is dark brown or black in colour. It has large front paws. It has no visable eyes.

Animal Two: European Mole

Scientific Name: Talpa europaea

Habitat: European moles are common in much of Britain and Europe in deciduous woodland, grassland and farmland.  They are far less common in conifer forests, moorland, flooded fenlands and in agricultural fields that are regularly ploughed, as this distroys their habbitat. Moles live in tunnels and chambers underground and are rarely seen, but you may have found mole hills in your garden or in your local park.

Diet: European moles feed mainly on earthwporms (90% in winter, 50% in summer), but will also eat invertebrates such as centipedes, insect larvae and snails.

Reproduction: Baby moles are born between April and June, after a 30-day pregnancy. The female mole lines an underground nest chamber for the young.  The average litter size is four young but this can variey from 2 to 7.  A baby mole's fur is fully-grown after 14 days. They start to leave the nest at about one month old and are independent by 6 weeks.

Animal Three: Red Squirrel

Scientific Name: Sciurus vulgaris

Habitat: Red squirrels are arboreal, and live in woodland. Although deciduous woodland offers greater opportunity, populations are now often only found in coniferous forests. A squirrel lives in a nest called a ‘drey’, made of a dense ball of interwoven twigs (roughly the size of a football). The inside is lined with soft materials like moss, leaves and grass. Dreys are made in the fork of a branch, tight against the tree trunk.

Diet: Pine nuts make up a large part of their diet, but they will also eat seeds, fungi, green shoots, fruit and berries depending on availability. Red squirrels do not hibernate and need to store enough food by ‘caching’ it to last through the winter months. They will also eat lots and lots in the autumn while there is lots of food available, to put on weight before winter begins.

Reproduction: Female red squirrels can have up to two litters a year. Each litter has an average three young, called kits, which are born helpless, blind and deaf.  The mother cares for the kits alone. Kits grow their fur by 21 days, and their eyes and ears open after three to four weeks. All their teeth are developed by 42 days.

Image of a red squirrel. The red squirrel has large eyes and a long bushy tale. It has long claws. Its coat is a reddy brown colour.

New Vocabulary

Arboreal: Living mainly in trees.

Caching: Hiding food, usually underground or in holes in trees to create a food store.

Coniferous: Forests or woodlands made up mainly of evergreen conifer trees.

Deciduous:  A tree or shrub thats sheds its leaves annually, in autumn.

Omnivore: Eats animals and plants.

Explore the answers:

Once you have finished labelling your drawings you can explore the answers below. Click on the coloured dots on each animal to explore their adaptations.