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How do animals make adaptations to the changing environment?

Asked by: Kelly Johnston
School: Maine Endwell Middle School
Grade: 7
Teacher: Mrs. Rittenhouse
Hobbies/Interests: Interests/hobbies: Downhill skiing, basketball, softball, volleyball and playing flute. Family: Mom, dad and dog.  
Career Interest: Fashion Designer

Answer from Michael A. Little

Distinguished professor of anthropology, Binghamton University

Research area: Human adaptation to the environment
Ph.D. school: Pennsylvania State University
Family: Wife, Adrienne, and two grown children
Interests/hobbies: Swimming, choral singing, antique toys and books
Web page address:

Thanks for the question, adaptation is my favorite topic!  Adaptation is when living things are able to adjust to their environment or when they have a quality that enables them to do better in their environment.  When we speak of environment, we mean everything around us (and even inside us) that can affect us.  Adaptation is a fundamental and important characteristic of all life.  Since humans are animals, we have adaptations, also, and we are able to adapt to the environment just like other animals and plants.  Some of these adaptations are genetic and have been selected through evolutionary processes because they help us to survive and have healthy children (natural selection).  Other adaptations are less directly genetic, such as the adjustments that are made to our different environments throughout our infancy, childhood, and adolescence when we are growing up (developmental adaptations).  Some of the adaptations that we have are moment-to-moment, when our heart rate and blood pressure change during exercise or during exposure to cold or when we are worried about something and under stress (short-term adaptations).  The behavior we learn that helps us to get along with people and lead happy and satisfying lives is also an adaptation. Genetic adaptations that are preserved by natural selection are slow kinds of adaptations, because they occur over many generations, and often hundreds or thousands of years.  So, if the environment changes very slowly, these kinds of genetic adaptations may keep up with the environmental changes.  This will occur with some forms of climate change, or changes in food supply, or the gradual introduction of a new disease.  If an environmental change occurs more abruptly, then there is not time for the animals to develop new genetic adaptations.  In this case, the animals must depend of other kinds of adaptations, such as developmental, short-term, and behavioral adaptations to allow them to adjust to these new environmental conditions and to survive.  Most often animals will draw on behavioral adaptations when the environment changes, and try new foods, or even move away from the changing environment (migrate).  Many times, animals may not be able to adapt to the changing conditions and whole populations or species will disappear or become extinct. Humans are subject to the same need to adapt to changing environments as other animals.  Up to the present we have been very successful because we have large brains and have been able to live almost anywhere on the planet and control the environment pretty well with our technology and our ability to organize ourselves.  This is, perhaps, our most important adaptation.  On the other hand, we humans may be producing environmental changes that we cannot control, such as climate change, pollution, and dramatic losses of animal and plant species. The young people on the planet may face new challenges of adaptation not seen in the past.    Charles Darwin (whose 200th birthday will be next February 12th, 2009, the same day as Abraham Lincoln’s), first wrote about adaptations in his book on evolution, The Origin of Species.  So, when we celebrate Darwin’s birthday next year, we will also celebrate the idea of adaptation, one of the most important ideas in our understanding of living creatures.  

Last Updated: 3/1/17