Fit for Survival

Overview: Students explore the meaning of physical and behavioral adaptation, consider how migration fits in, and identify adaptations that help the Journey North species they track survive.


2 periods and then ongoing through season

chart paper, marker


In order to survive and thrive in specific environments, animal species (along with plants and other organisms) have developed a host of amazing characteristics that help them find food, protect themselves, cope with tough environments, and reproduce. Some of these are physical characteristics — like sharp beaks, bright coloration, or body types that can take advantage of thermals and updrafts. Others are behavioral. These include building nests, communicating with one another, and ways of finding food. Migration is a behavioral adaptation central to this project.

These adaptations don't happen overnight; they are slow, gradual changes that can take hundreds of thousands of years to evolve. If an animal has a particular physical characteristic or behavior that enables it to survive when others in its species are less likely to, that trait gets passed onto its offspring and to future generations.

This activity helps sets the stage for students to think about how their Journey North species are adapted to "get by" in different environments.

Laying the Groundwork

  • Find out what your students know about the concept of animal adaptations. Ask students to toss out examples and keep a running list. Always ask, How does this feature benefit the animal (that is, help it survive or reproduce)? You may need to grease the wheels with an example (e.g., a hummingbird's long, thin beak can reach into flowers to get nectar).

  • Chances are, students will mainly suggest physical adaptations. Explain that adaptations can also be behaviors that help an animal survive or reproduce (e.g., cranes "dance" to prepare for mating, robins build nests high off the ground). What other animal behaviors have they observed or learned about?

  • If students don't mention migration, ask, What winter conditions in northern environments could affect animals' survival? (Cold weather, frozen water, less food available, less "cover.") How are different animals adapted to deal with these winter conditions? Students may note such factors as growing heavier coats or hibernating.

  • If it doesn't come up, ask, What about changing location? Students should understand that migration itself is an important adaptation for survival! Ask, Do you think each animal or group actually decides to migrate each year?
    Help students understand migration is done by instinct. It is a behavioral adaptation evolved over many thousands of years. Certain animals responded to seasonal challenges by moving toward areas that had more food and other things they needed. These were the ones that survived and passed on that "urge for going" to future generations!

Dig In!
Explore specific adaptations that help each of these Journey North species survive:

As your students explore migrations of specific Journey North species, encourage them to consider how their animals are adapted to survive the trip and new location.
  1. Ask, What does a migrating animal need to be able to do? Start a chart with columns headed by general categories, such as the ability to:
    • move long distances
    • navigate to winter grounds
    • obtain food (for self or young)
    • protect itself/young from predators
    • survive harsh conditions
    • Other _______________
  2. Keep this chart posted throughout the season as students learn about their Journey North species via direct observations, news reports, activities, and question-and-answer sessions. As they uncover physical and behavioral adaptations that enable the species to survive these migrations and habitats, students should list these under the appropriate categories. Next to each one, they should put a P (physical adaptation) or a B (behavioral adaptation).
  3. As students list new adaptations, routinely ask, Why is this adaptation beneficial to the animal (species)? What problems might it face if it did not have the adaptation?

Making Connections — Journaling Questions

  • Do some adaptations seem more important to your migrating species during one season than another? Explain your thinking.
  • Do other animals in the same habitats have similar adaptations? Which animals? Why do you think these developed along the same lines?
  • What are some ways in which certain ecosystems are threatened or changed by human actions? (For example, overcutting in the monarch's winter Oyamel forest.) How might plants and animals be affected?
  • If your animal's preferred food sources were unavailable, how well do you think it could adapt to the change? How about if it's winter habitat were destroyed? Explain your thinking. See Environmental Changes: Who's Fit to Survive?

As students add items to the chart and discuss them and respond to discussion and journaling questions, check that they make the connection between physical traits and behaviors and an animal's ability to survive and/or reproduce. They should also understand that adaptations are not something intentional; they slowly evolve over hundreds or thousands of generations.

National Science Education Standards

Life Science
Organisms have basic needs. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met. (K-4)

Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, reproduction. (K-4)

An organism's behavior patterns are related to the nature of that organism's environment . . . When the environment changes, some plants and animals survive and reproduce, and others die or move to new locations. (K-4)

An organism's behavior evolves through adaptation to its environment. How a species moves, obtains food, reproduces, and responds to danger are based in the species' evolutionary history. (5-8)

Humans change environments in ways that can be either beneficial or detrimental for themselves and other organisms. (K-4)