Adaptation and Survival

Adaptation and Survival

An adaptation is a mutation, or genetic change, that helps an organism, such as a plant or animal, survive in its environment.


2 - 8



NGS Resource Carousel Loading Logo
Loading ...
Leveled by
Selected text level

An adaptation is a type of mutation. It results from a change in an organism's genes. Genes can be thought of as instructions that are passed down from parent to child. They shape how living things look and behave. An adaptation helps an organism, such as a plant or animal, survive in its environment. The mutation is passed on from one generation to the next. Over time, it becomes part of the species.

Structural And Behavioral Adaptations

Some adaptations are structural. That means they are a physical part of the organism. Other adaptations are behavioral, affecting the way a living thing acts.

An example of a structural adaptation is the way some plants have adapted to the desert. Deserts are dry, hot places. Plants called succulents have found a way to survive there. They do it 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. 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. Later, they travel 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. For example, feathers were probably adaptations for keeping animals warm. Later, animals found a way to use them to fly.


Adaptations are often a response to a change in the environment.

The English peppered moth is a famous example. Before the 1800s, most peppered moths were light with darker spots. A few displayed a mutation of being gray or black. However, these dark moths were rare.

Over time, the rise of factories changed the environment. The darker moths became less rare. In fact, they began to thrive in the smoky cities. Their sooty color blended in with the trees stained by pollution. Birds could not see the dark moths, so they ate the light moths instead.


Sometimes, an organism develops an adaptation that creates an entirely new species. This is known as speciation.

One way this can happen is through physical isolation.

A good example is the wide range of marsupials in Oceania. This area includes Australia and New Zealand. Long ago, Oceania was part of Asia. Before it broke away, marsupials arrived. Marsupials are mammals that carry their young in pouches. They are now the main type of mammal in Oceania.

Koalas are one of the most famous marsupials. They adapted to feed on the eucalyptus trees. These trees grow in Australia. The Tasmanian tiger was a meat-eating marsupial. It adapted to fill the role played by big cats such as tigers on other continents. These different marsupials are an example of speciation. They developed to fill empty roles in their environment.


Organisms sometimes adapt with other organisms. This is called coadaptation. Certain flowers have adapted their pollen to appeal to hummingbirdsHummingbirds have adapted long, thin beaks to collect the pollen from certain flowers. This relationship helps both organisms. The hummingbird gets food, and the plant's pollen gets distributed.

Mimicry is another type of coadaptation. With mimicry, one organism has adapted to look like another. The harmless king snake is a good example. Over time, it has developed a color pattern that looks like the deadly coral snake. This mimicry keeps predators away from the king snake.

Fast Fact

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.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Melissa McDaniel
Santani Teng
Erin Sprout
Hilary Costa
Hilary Hall
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Kim Rutledge
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.