Lesson Plan

Animal Adaptations

a mule deer with short, velvet-covered antlers


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Grade Level:
Fourth Grade
Biology: Animals
30 minutes
Group Size:
Up to 36
National/State Standards:
Utah State Science Core Curriculum Topic, Standard Five: Students will understand the physical characteristics of Utah’s wetlands, forests, and deserts and identify common organisms for each environment.
adaptations, Beaver, Canada Geese, mule deer, eagles, wetlands, forests, desert, mountain lion, migration, birds of prey


Students are introduced to animal adaptations as both activities and anatomy that help animals survive. On the field trip, students explore for beaver sign and dress-up one student to illustrate the amazing adaptations of this animal. Students pretend to be raptors, learning why the birds need sharp eyesight, and play a game that illustrates the adaptations of deer and mountain lions. Finally, they migrate as a gaggle of geese, and examine how much energy it takes to make the long journey.


Adapt and Survive

a. Define animal adaptations.
b. Name four animal adaptations.

Amazing Beaver Adaptations

a. Describe three physical adaptations of beavers.
b. Describe the diet and one behavioral adaptation of beavers.

Canada Geese Migration Station

a. Cite three reasons why Canada Geese migrate.
b. Describe two obstacles in geese migration.

Deer’s Ears

a. State at least two physical and two behavioral adaptations of deer or their predators.
b. Relate the adaptations to function and/or survival.

Eagle’s Eyes

a. Name at least two bird of prey adaptations.
b. Describe how an eagle or other bird of prey’s eyesight aids in survival.

Win, Lose or Adapt

a. Recognize that humans are animals with unique adaptations.
b. Identify two animal adaptations and describe how they help the animals to survive.



An adaptation is a characteristic that makes an organism more suited to its environment. This program introduces students to both behavioral adaptations (activities) and physical adaptations (parts) of several high desert dwellers.

Beavers, the largest North American rodents, are found along streams, ponds, and lakes throughout most of the United States and Canada. In southeastern Utah, beavers live in mountains and desert canyons. Their habitat ranges from small creeks to large rivers to wetlands. Beavers are herbivores. They eat the cambium layer of bark, especially of willows, cottonwoods, and aspens, as well as some green leafy vegetation. They are crepuscular, meaning that they forage most actively at dawn and dusk, when predation is less likely. They are rather clumsy on land, but they are excellent swimmers. When beavers dive, their heart and metabolic rates slow down, allowing them to stay underwater for up to 15 minutes. In wetlands and along small streams, beavers build stick-and-mud dams and lodges, often significantly altering the environment in the process. On larger, swifter streams, such as the Colorado River, dam construction is impossible. Instead, they burrow out bank dens, holes several feet long and about 18 inches in diameter. The holes are underwater except when the river is low. The dens slant uphill to dry living ledges. Beavers have numerous physical adaptations to this unusual lifestyle; these are addressed in the “Amazing Beaver Adaptations” station description.

Mule deer have an array of adaptations that make them specifically suited to their environment. Their long necks and the location of their eyes (on the sides of their heads) allow them to see in every direction, except directly behind them. The camouflage coloring of their coats is another defensive adaptation. Speed and agility are good examples of adaptive strategies well; mule deer can move up to twenty feet in one bound. In addition, their large ears, which are roughly two-thirds the length of their head, allow for a keen sense of hearing. In comparison, a white-tailed deer’s ears are only one-half its head length. Hollow hair gives deer greater insulation from cold during winter months. Mule deer have behavioral adaptations, too. Because movement attracts prey, mule deer freeze if danger is nearby. If a predator is in pursuit, a mule deer’s zigzag bound increases its likelihood of escape.

In Utah, an average of 80 percent of a mountain lion’s diet consists of mule deer. The physical adaptations that make mountain lions successful predators include powerful jaws that can crush a prey’s neck in one bite, sharp, pointed teeth, retractable claws for tearing meat, skin and fur between toe pads to muffle sound as the cats stalk, excellent day and night vision, and excellent depth perception so that they can attack with accuracy. Mountain lion behavioral adaptations include lying in wait and stalking, followed by bursts of speed for short chases.

An eagle’s eyesight, like that of most raptors, is extraordinary. Most raptors can see ten times farther than humans. An object that humans can see at 33 feet is visible to an eagle at 330 feet. A raptor’s eyes do not magnify as much as provide incredible distance perception. They are able to see movement and bright colors more easily than still, camouflaged prey.

Each fall groups of birds migrate to the south for the winter. This is a useful adaptation for these animals because their bodies do not generate enough heat to survive cooler temperatures and/or because there are not sufficient food supplies at one location through all four seasons. Canada geese normally migrate by flying in a V or a J-shaped flock. The largest goose normally flies in front, blocking out a large proportion of the wind. The V-shape is supposed to be more efficient aerodynamically than flying alone. The Canada goose mates for life. If hunters shoot down a goose’s mate, the goose may fly in a circle above the mate, honking. Eventually, a replacement mate will be found. Geese migrate as a family, often with the father, or eldest off spring, leading the group.




Adapt and Survive

Ask students to give at least two examples of animal adaptations and to tell how these adaptations enable the animals to survive.

Canada Geese Migration Station

Draw a picture of the Canada Geese migration. Show the events that a goose might encounter along the way.

Deer’s Ears

Have students create a dramatization of a mule deer, acting out the adaptations that help it survive in the wild. Have students think up objects to represent deer or mountain lion parts, as in the beaver activity.

Eagle’s Eyes

Have students create a story or skit based on a raptor. Have them include facts on eyesight adaptations. Ask students to choose a raptor, research more of its adaptations, and write a story about how it uses its keen eyesight and other adaptations to survive. Have students research the effects of DDT on bald eagles or peregrine falcons as well as other animals in the food chain. In addition, the may research what other toxins affect wildlife.

Win, Lose or Adapt

Have students describe three problems that an animal they learned about on the field trip would have if it were moved to the school grounds. Could these problems be solved? Why or why not?


Additional Resources

Armstrong, D. (1982). Mammals of the canyon country. Moab, UT: Canyonlands Natural History Association.

Brady, I. (1998). The redrock canyon explorer. Talent, OR: Nature Works.

Caduto, M. & Bruchac, J. (1991). Keepers of the animals: Native American stories and wildlife activities for children. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

DeGolia, J. & Zarki J. (1987). Expedition: Yellowstone! Yellowstone National Park, WY: The Yellowstone Association for Natural Science, History and Education.

Henley, T. (1989). Rediscovery: Ancient pathways - new directions. Vancouver, BC: Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

Migration Math. (2000, Spring/Summer). Growing wild. Salt Lake City, UT: Project Wild and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. National Park Service, Minnesota Environmental Education Board, and the National Parks and Conservation Association.
1989. Biological diversity makes a world of diff erence. Washington, DC: National Parks and Conservation Association.

Project WILD: K-12 activity guide, 2nd ed. (1992). Bethesda, MD: Council for Environmental Education.

Storer Camps. (1988). Nature’s classroom: a program guide for camps and schools. Martinsville, IN: American Camping Association.

Williams, D. (2000). A naturalist’s guide to canyon country. Helena, MT: Falcon Publishing.