Lesson Plan

Adapting to an Extreme Environment

cinder field with wildflowers

Wildflowers that grow on cinder slopes are supremely adapted to harsh conditions

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Grade Level:
Fifth Grade-Sixth Grade
Biology: Animals, Biology: Plants, Ecology
2 hours
National/State Standards:


Students match Craters plant adaptations to different habitat types and use their imaginations to create a species well adapted to a habitat of their design. (CLASSROOM ACTIVITY)


  • Students will be able to name some adaptations plants have for living at Craters.
  • Students will be able to match some common Craters plants to their appropriate microclimate.
  • Students will be able to create their own species, well adapted to a student-designed habitat.


Every species has a unique set of adaptations that enables it to live in its environment. Some, like humans, starlings, and cheatgrass, have a wide tolerance to environmental constraints. Others, like Townsend's big-eared bats, three- toed woodpeckers, and the out-of-tune sticky tofieldia can survive only in the few niches where their unique habitat requirements are met. Most of Earth's biodiversity falls in the second category.

Over time, species adapt to changing environmental conditions structurally and behaviorally. Small, light-colored leaves covered with fine hairs are a structural adaptation some desert plants have to conserve water. Being nocturnal is a behavioral adaptation many desert animals adopt for the same reason. Humans have succeeded in exploiting every habitat on Earth because the structural adaptations of our big brains and our hands enabled us to make the myriad behavioral adaptations necessary to live in so many places.

Few environments are as hostile to life as Craters'. Temperatures range from -37 to 108 degrees F. and only about 15 inches of precipitation falls annually mostly as snow. In spring it quickly melts off or seeps into the porous ground in time for summer winds and heat to evaporate every drop of moisture from the black landscape. Nevertheless, over 750 plant species cling to the nooks, crannies, and thin soils where life can exist at Craters. They go about enduring a permanent drought through tolerance, avoidance, and/or escape.

Some plants are extraordinarily tolerant of drought. They can withstand cell moisture levels that would be lethal for other plants. Sagebrush and bitterbrush are exceptional at extracting water from dry soils and living on very little moisture.

Plants can avoid drought with physical adaptations like the leaves of silverleaf phacelia that funnel rain and dew toward its roots. Succulents like cacti collect water when it is abundant and retain it in their tissue. Rabbitbrush's small, light-colored leaves reduce evaporation.

Plants escape drought by living in the few places where water is actually plentiful. Others, like the dwarf monkeyflower, carry out their entire life cycle during three moist weeks in the spring and survive as seeds during the rest of the year.

The diversity of life at Craters is possible because of its microclimates. The bottom of crevices and cracks may be 15 degrees F. cooler than the surface. Windblown soil called loess collects there, like dust in the corners of your home, creating a place for plants to grow. The well established soil on the north side of old cinder cones can support Douglas fir trees. Water-loving ferns can live in the midst of a desert by living near the melting ice and cool air of a cave and in deep crevices. See "Additional Resources" below for an introduction to the ecology of Craters of the Moon.

From the Teacher's Guide to Craters of the Moon.




In Part 2, students can also create a new well-adapted creature for Craters of the Moon.

Additional Resources

Ecology of Craters of the Moon