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.
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.
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.
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.