Field Trips

Animal Adaptations

Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
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.

Students explore structures animals have that function to help them survive. On the pre-trip, an instructor dresses up to illustrate the amazing adaptations of this animal. On the field trip, students design and test their own beaver dams. They compare their eyesight to raptors. And, they explore adaptations that help mountain lions hunt and deer avoid being caught.

Essential Question: How do adaptations help animals survive in desert and riparian environments?

Utah State Science Core Curriculum Topic: ORGANISMS FUNCTION IN THEIR ENVIRONMENT.
Through the study of organisms, inferences can be made about environments both past and present. Plants and animals have both internal and external structures that serve various functions for growth, survival, behavior, and reproduction. Animals use different sense receptors specialized for particular kinds of information to understand and respond to their environment.

  • Standard 4.1.1 Construct an explanation from evidence that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction. Emphasize how structures support an organism’s survival in its environment and compare the internal and external structures of plants and animals within the same and across various Utah environments.
  • Standard 4.1.2 Develop and use a model of a system to describe how animals receive different types of information from their environment through their senses, process the information in their brain, and respond to the information. Emphasize how animals are able to use their perceptions and memories to guide their actions.

An adaptation is a characteristic that helps an individual survive and reproduce in its environment. Adaptations can be structural (i.e. physical), such as body parts, body coverings, and physical attributes of an organism. Adaptations can also be behavioral, such as learned or instinctual activities and actions. Structures function to help the animal grow, survive, behave, or reproduce (Standard 4.1.1). Structures can have more than one function, such as how eyes can help an animal find food and also detect predators.

Some Animal structures capture different types of information that help the animal survive (Standard 4.1.2). These include eyes to capture light and ears to capture sound. Animal senses and sense organs work in different and unique ways. Nerves transmit information from sense organs to the brain where it is processed. Animals respond to the information their senses gather in ways that help them survive, reproduce, find food, and escape predators.

The arrangement of eyes on an animal function to improve their survival. Most predators have eyes in the front of their head which creates stereoscopic vision, allowing depth and distance perception. This helps predators chase and catch prey animals. Prey animals, on the other hand, have sideways facing eyes. Eyes on the side of the head provide a larger field of vision for animals, allowing prey animals a better chance at spotting and escaping potential predators. A rhyme to help remember is, “eyes on the front, to hunt, eyes on the side, to hide.”

An environment includes living and nonliving features that can impact an animal. Two environments near Moab are the desert environment and the riparian environment. The desert environment is characterized by a lack of water, extreme temperatures, and lack of shade. Riparian areas are the narrow corridors adjacent to streams, rivers, ponds, and wetlands. They tend to have water-loving plants, more shade, and greater biodiversity. Other environments (biomes) across the world include tundra, ocean, savannah, and tropical rainforests. Animals in these environments may rely more heavily on different senses. For example, light and odors do not travel well through the ocean, so it’s harder for animals to see or smell over long distances. However, sound moves four times faster in water compared to air, so marine animals often use sounds to communicate.

Beavers, the largest North American rodents, live in riparian areas 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. Beavers are crepuscular, meaning 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. On larger, swifter streams, such as the Colorado River, dam construction is impossible. Instead, they create bank dens, holes several feet long and about 18 inches in diameter. The holes are underwater unless the river is low. The dens slant uphill to dry living ledges. Beavers have many physical adaptations to their unique lifestyle.

An array of mule deer adaptations help them survive. 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. In addition, their large ears (roughly two-thirds the length of their head) allow for a keen sense of hearing. They can move each of their ears independently to pinpoint the source of the sound. Hollow hair gives deer greater insulation from cold during winter months. The camouflage coloring of their coats is another defensive adaptation. Speed and agility are good examples of adaptive strategies as well; mule deer can move up to twenty feet in one bound. 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, mule deer comprise an average of 80 percent of a mountain lion’s diet. The physical adaptations that make mountain lions successful predators include powerful jaws that can crush a prey’s neck in one bite, sharp teeth, retractable claws between toe pads to muffle sound as cats stalk, excellent day and night vision, and excellent depth perception so they can attack with accuracy. Mountain lion behavioral adaptations include lying in wait and stalking, followed by bursts of speed for short chases.

Raptors, or birds of prey, include eagles, hawks, and falcons. These hunters are known for their adaptations. For example, most raptors can see at least ten times farther than humans. An object humans can see at 33 feet is visible to an eagle at 330 feet. Raptors can shift their focus to allow them to zero in on their prey. Their color vision is broader than our own. They can distinguish more colors than humans and even see UV light.

Raptors kill with their feet. Their talons, the equivalent of toenails on our feet, grow long and sharp. Some eagle talons are the size of human thumbs. Talons can seize birds mid-flight, grasp fish under water, and rip into animals. In combination with their curved beak, these birds can tear through the skin of their prey to access the meat. Falcons have an extra bulge on the sides of their beak called a toral tooth, to assist killing prey. Golden Eagles can attack large mammals like deer, but generally eat smaller mammals or young. The undersides of Bald Eagles’ feet have scaly bumps to help grip fish, their primary food. Peregrine falcons are the fastest animals on the planet. When they swoop to catch small birds, they can reach over 200 miles per hour.


Amazing Beaver Adaptations

Essential Questions:
How do adaptations support the survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction of beavers?

Materials: beaver-cut stick if none in the area; pictures of beavers and beaver tracks; pair of small swim fins; 2 rattail combs; small can of WD-40; small can of musk deodorant; kickstand or canoe paddle blade attached to a belt; pair of “sticky-dot” work gloves; ear plugs or protectors; goggles; paper beaver teeth; beaver skull; real beaver teeth; beaver pelt; Function cards (with magnetic backing); photos and videos (in a powerpoint) of real beaver structures.

1) Explain that adaptations are characteristics of living things that help them survive in their environments. Invite students to think of several examples of animal adaptations and discuss how each adaptation helps the animal to survive, grow, behave, or reproduce. (2 min)

2) Define structure (parts) and function (what the part does) by discussing classroom items (scissors, stapler, ruler) and their functions. Encourage students to list animals’ structures like ears, claws, tails, etc. that each serve a different function (role in survival, growth, and reproduction. (5 min)

3) Show powerpoint and video clips of beavers and find out what students know about them. Briefly discuss beaver diet and preferred habitat. Discuss a few behaviors of beavers (like building dams) and how they help the beaver survive. (2 min)

4) Tell students your co-teacher will model a beaver’s structures (physical adaptations) to discuss their functions. Introduce and practice hand signals students will make to show what function each part serves. (“escape from predators” - pretend to run, pumping arms while sitting; “get food” – pretend to put food in your mouth; “stay warm” – wrap arms around yourself and pretend to shiver; “find a mate” – clasp hands together). Place labels for each of these categories on the board. Dress the instructor from the feet up with objects representing various adaptations, explaining the structures and their functions. As you go, show photos of actual beaver structures. For each structure, students should vote which function the structure is used for using the hand signals. Record the name of each structure under the correct function category(ies) on the board. Some structures may have multiple functions. (15 min)

5) To review, ask students to describe each adaptation as you remove the objects. Preview the field trip, telling students they explore more about beavers and other animals. Review the items students need to bring to school on the day of their field trip. (2 min)

Beaver Adaptations: Structures and their Functions

Hind feet (Swim fins)           
 Structure: Webbed           
 Function: Swimming (get food, escape predators)

Hands (“sticky-dot” work gloves)           
 Structure: front feet have rough pads and long claws           
 Function: pads for gripping and long claws for digging

Tail (A canoe paddle attached by a belt)           
 Structure: Flat, leathery           
 Function: Acts as a rudder in swimming (to escape predators or get food).           
 Function: Acts as kickstand by holding the beaver upright while it is gnawing on a tree (get food)
 Function: Makes a loud noise when slapped on the water surface to serve as a warning to other beaver a predator is near (escape predators)

Fur (a pelt tucked under the belt)            
 Structure: A beaver’s coat consists of guard hair with a soft underfur.           
 Function: It provides insulation as well as a waterproof layer, thanks to the oil provided by an oil gland (stay warm).

Scent gland (Have students sniff the musk deodorant, and then insert it under the belt near the WD-40)        
 Function: The scent gland produces a smell for marking territory and attracting mates.

Ears: (Ear protectors)           
 Structure: Special flaps inside beaver ears close while they are swimming           
 Function: Keep water out.

Teeth (paper front teeth)           
 Structure: If you have a beaver skull, show the gap between front incisors and back molars            
 Function: This gap is where sticks are carried.            
 Structure: Teeth are sharp and curved; yellow/ brown in front due to trace metal and softer dentin behind; constantly growing; chewing on trees gives their teeth a chisel-like edge.           
 Function: Front teeth are used for cutting trees and branches to get food- can cut through sticks, then grind them with back teeth to eat.

Deer’s Ears
(Adapted from Scientific American’s Sound Science and Project Wild, 1992, 112-3)

Essential Questions: How do ears allow animals to receive, process, and respond to different types of information? How do adaptations of deer help them avoid predators?

Materials: pictures of a deer and a mountain lion; blindfold; deer tracks; deer skull; mountain lion skull;how sounds travel cards; blindfold(2); fabric tail; mountain lion tracks.

1) Show students pictures of a mountain lion. Ask students to suggest structures the mountain lion has which help it hunt. Extend their ideas using the skull, tracks, and fun facts. Line students up in a straight line and let them try to jump as far as a mountain lion (the length of a school bus). Next, show students pictures of deer and invite them to suggest structures that keep them from being hunted. Let them stand up and try to jump as high as a deer (11 ft). (5-7 min)

2) Tell students you are going to turn them into deer and mountain lions. (adapted from Henley, 1989, 158-159). One student will be a deer, the other students will pretend to be mountain lions. The mountain lion who snatches the deer’s tail eats the deer for dinner. Tell students in real life mountain lions hunt alone, but for this game, they all will be lions. Take the deer at least 20 feet away. Blindfold the deer. Students should tuck the tail into their pocket or hold the tail in their hand against their waist. Instruct the deer to listen for approaching predators and, if one is heard, point in the predator’s direction (within two to three degrees) and shout “Starve”. If the deer is correct, that lion must quietly sit down until the round ends. (If needed, limit the number of times the deer can say “Starve”. to the number of lions plus two.) Spin the deer around three times and then stand still. Cue mountain lions to stalk their prey. The instructor should stand just behind the deer and clarify if the deer caught anyone with their “Starve”. Let the lion who gets the deer’s tail be the next deer. After each round, review the deer and mountain lion adaptations that help both the animals. Move the game to a new location each round and discuss how the sounds of feet moving on various surfaces affect the outcome. (10-15 min)

3) After a few rounds, discuss how sound travels to the deer’s ears. Give students sound travels cards and challenge them to work as a team to put the chain of events in order. When finished, encourage students to explain their reasoning. Spread the cards out in a long line and invite students to come up with a movement to represent each card in the chain. At the brain, discuss how the deer must decide to run or relax. Practice together. Have students race from card to card and perform each movement. Discuss how fast this process takes in the real world. (3-5 min)

4) Continue playing the deer-mountain lion game.

Eagle Eyes
(adapted from Henley, 1989, 154-155)

Essential Questions: How do eyes allow animals to receive, process, and respond to different types of information? How do the adaptations of eagles and other raptors help them capture prey?

Materials: laminated bird of prey pictures; small food items (Skittles); softball; birdsong identiflyer; song cards; eagle skull; eagle talon; raptor eyewitness book; dry erase markers and towel to erase them; picture of dinosaur Utahraptor; binoculars; six small stuffed birds; a baggie with 34 pennies; spotting scope (borrowed?)
Note: Instructor should hide stuffed birds before students arrive.

1) Show students a picture of the Utahraptor and tell them this dinosaur was found near Moab. Tell them this dinosaur was called a raptor because it has structures similar to birds of prey, and raptor means predator. Show a picture of a golden eagle. Invite students to name structures which help the eagle survive. (5 min)

2) Distribute pictures of different species of raptors, giving each student a raptor identity. Students should read the information about their bird on their card and look at the picture. Ask them to find their favorite cool fact about a structure that helps the bird. Distribute dry erase markers for students to underline or circle their findings to share. Have each student introduce their bird and share their favorite fact. Share the call for each raptor with students. Use the eagle talon, skull, and bag of pennies to demonstrate points. (10 min)

3) Tell students that to illustrate how far a raptor can see, they should first figure out how far they can see. Have students stand on a line and hand each student a Skittle to represent their prey. Use a variety of Skittle colors. Students should place the Skittles on a small pile of sand in front of them and start backing away, counting their steps. When individual students can no longer see their Skittle, they have reached the limits of their eyes' resolving power and should stop. Gather students and average the distance. Multiply the distance by ten. This is the average from which a raptor could see a Skittle. Find and discuss an object on the cliffs at that distance. Discuss which colors were easiest to see, and if a Skittle (or mouse) would be easier to see if moving. (5 min)

4) Pair share why raptor’s ability to see so much farther would help them survive and then discuss as a group. Show students the skull and softball to describe the size of an eagle’s eye. (2-3 min)

5) Review some of the amazing eyesight facts from the raptor cards. Tell students you can’t make their eyesight as good as raptors’, but humans have invented a tool to help us see things far away. Take students to your viewing location and tell students stuffed birds are hiding along the cliff. See how many students can spot with only their eyes. Demonstrate how to use binoculars. Discuss magnification of binoculars and compare to a raptor’s amazing vision. After several minutes of searching, ask students to share which birds they discovered. Discuss how increased eyesight helps raptors hunt. (5 min)

Busy Beavers
(adapted from Veronique Paquette’s “Let’s Build a Dam”)

STEM Design Challenge: Students will use the engineering design process to build a dam.Materials: Paint trays; plastic cups; white boards; dry erase markers; pictures of dams; picture of lodge interior and bank den; engineering process poster; limitations poster; bucket for water; small scoops for mud.

1) Explain to students they will search for and examine signs of beavers as they hike to the station. Discuss things students might find (i.e. fresh-cut trees with ridges left by beaver teeth, tracks, tail-drag marks, piles of cut branches and logs in shallow water.) (7-10 min)

2) At the dam, observe the materials used in dam construction along with its shape and the location of the water. Listen to the sound of the water trickling through the structure. Discuss gravity and the direction water moves. Use the inside of a lodge/bank den poster to explain that beavers live in lodges and build dams in creeks to create pools. Their entrances are under the water. On large rivers, beavers cannot build dams, instead they build dens in the banks, still with doors under water. At Arches, beavers use bank dens and build dams. Discuss why humans build dams. (3-5 min)

3) At the station, introduce the beaver dam design challenge. Describe the steps in the engineering design process using the engineering design poster. Explain that engineers first define the problem, next brainstorm solutions, design a plan, build their plan, test the plan, modify, and finally share their design. (3-5 min)

4) Tell students they will work in teams of civil engineers to build dams out of natural materials that hold water in the top of their tray. They will present their work to the group. Describe expectations about how to work as a team. Give students their engineering material limitations (only dead materials, no pulling things out of the ground, no sticks bigger than your pinky) and collecting boundaries. (3-5 min)

5) Break students into teams of 2. Tell students before they receive materials, they must develop a plan and draw a simple diagram of their dam design. Hand out white boards and dry erase markers. After students show their design to the instructor, they may collect materials (rocks, sticks, sand, water). Take students to their pre-placed trays and explain which direction the ‘stream’ will flow in the trays. Students should not move their trays. Encourage teamwork as they construct their dam in their tray. (15-20 min)

6) When the first model dam is complete, students may ask a ranger for a cup of water to test their dams. Watch what happens. Have students discuss ways to improve their design, make modifications, and test a second version of the dam. Give reminders they will present their dams. (5 min)7) Gather students to present their dams and explain how engineers give and receive feedback to improve their designs. Remind students to be respectful and helpful listeners when others present (eyes and ears on speaker, ask thoughtful questions, give applause). Tell students they will present both how they built their dam and one modification they made to improve it. Optional: test their dam with a mega flood after they present (10 min)

8) Clean materials in the stream. Spend any extra time hiking downstream to another dam. (3 min)

Structures in Different Environments
(adapted from Jullian Gates’ Adaptation Project Better Lesson)

Essential Questions: What are patterns of animal structures across various environments?

Materials: Pictures of a deer, mountain lion, beaver, and eagle; Picture comparing reindeer and mule deer and Canadian lynx to mountain lion; worksheets with space for drawing; animal and biome choice spinners(ranger use only); copy of the deer example worksheet for the document camera; dry erase marker.

1. Review the definitions of structure and function. Review how structures serve functions in animal survival, focusing on the deer, mountain lion, beaver, and eagle. On the board, make a list of the functions (i.e. getting food, escaping predators, finding mates, staying warm). As students remember structures discussed on the field trip, write them into the function categories on the board. Ask students if a structure can have multiple functions. (5 min)

2. Ask students if they remember what a biome (or environment) is and what biomes they examined during the field trip (desert and riparian). Brainstorm a list of other biomes on the board (marine and arctic). Ask students what they think might happen to an animal from the desert if it suddenly got transported to one of these other biomes. Ask students if they can imagine any adaptations that might help the animal survive in the new biome. Compare the structural adaptations of the reindeer to the mule deer and the Canadian lynx to the mountain lion. (3 min)

3. Tell students they will create a brand-new species of animal that will have various structures to allow it to survive in a specific biome. (Remind students an animal in a new biome cannot grow these adaptations in one lifetime) Demonstrate how they can choose a starting animal (i.e. beaver, mountain lion, beaver, or eagle) and then choose a different biome for it to live (marine, arctic) by doing the tundra deer example worksheet under the document camera. Explain they will need to imagine new structures to allow their animal to survive. For example, a deer in the tundra would need a really thick coat of fur and long legs to walk in deep snow, or a beaver that lives in the trees of the rainforest might have a prehensile tail and claws for climbing. Have students circle the most important structure for surviving in the new biome and add at least two more structures. (3 min)

4. Pass out worksheets that have space for drawing the animal and biome choices. If students do not want to choose an animal or biome, the ranger can assign a random combination using our spinner. Encourage students to show details of their chosen biome. Each adaptation should be labeled to show what the adaptation is and how it increases efficiency and survival. (15 min)

5. Invite students to share their animals with the class. (5 min)


Mule Deer

  • Having eyes on the sides of their heads allow deer to see in every direction except directly behind them.
  • Camouflage coloring allow them to hide from predators
  • Mule deers’ large ears increase their sense of hearing.

  • They have hollow body hair for insulation.

  • Their eyes and ears move independently allowing them to more accurately pinpoint danger.

  • Fawns do not smell the same as adults to confuse predators.


  • Mule deer can jump 20 feet in one bound allowing them to escape predators.
  • They can jump over an 11 foot tall fence. (Have two students stand. Have students imagine one student standing on top of another)
  • They can change direction 180 degrees in mid air.
  • When running mule deer will zigzag to confuse predators
  • When startled a mule deer freeze and listens for danger.
  • Mule deer seldom form large herds.
  • They are often active in the morning and the evening when it is cooler. (crepuscular)

Mountain Lion

  • Mountain lions have powerful jaws that can crush the neck of their prey in one bite.
  • Retractable claws allow them to walk silently across the rocks as do their toe pads.
  • Mountain lions have excellent day and night vision. During the day their large pupil contracts to a small slight to protect their eyes.


  • Eighty percent of a mountain lion’s diet is mule deer.
  • Mountain lions will lie in wait and then stalk and pounce on their prey, chasing no more than 100 yds.
  • They bury their kills to prevent them from being eaten by scavengers; they will eat 70% of a carcass.
  • They can jump 15ft. high and 25-40 ft. in distance. (Have all students stand in a straight line and jump, they will jump 4 or 5 feet. Then have two students pace out 40 ft)

Raptors in General

  • Eyes see 10X better than us
  • They pant with their tongue to cool off
  • Curved beak for ripping meat
  • Sharp Talons
  • Flight feathers/downy feathers
  • All create pellets
  • Get most of their water from their food
  • Excellent hearing

Golden Eagle

  • 8 foot wingspan


  • Mate for life
  • 6ft wide nest

Bald Eagle

  • Scaly soles on talons to grab slippery fish


  • Dive bombs birds and steals prey
  • Eat fish

Red-Tailed Hawk

  • Short tail and long wings to help them soar


  • Hunt all small creatures
  • Nest on ledges and cliffs
  • Will take their prey under a bush to eat

Great Horned Owl

  • Hearing - can hear a mouse move in complete darkness
  • Excellent eyesight in daytime
  • Whole face acts like outer ear
  • No sense of smell
  • Serrated feathers to fly silently


  • Hunt skunks
  • Perk up feather tufts when interested or upset
  • Make a clicking sound when threatened
  • Hunt at night

Peregrine Falcon

  • Nose post
  • Toothed beak


  • Lay eggs in sand
  • Dive bomb prey at 200 miles an hour
  • Can survive a 5000 ft vertical fall

Coopers hawk

  • Well camouflaged for forest
  • Short wings highly maneuverable
  • Females bigger than males


  • Mantle food (cover it to hide it)


  • Wings shaped for speedCan see UV light (mice pee shows in UV light)
  • Smallest Raptor in North America


  • Can hover

Northern Harrier

  • Long wings to hunt in the marshes


  • Flies low to find prey
  • Likes to play catch with food in mid air

Turkey Vulture

  • Can sense a dead animal from 5 miles away
  • No feathers on head to help eating dead animals


  • Fly in a v shape and tip
  • Nature’s Garbage collectors - eats carrion
  • Pee on feet to clean and cool them
  • Sometimes eat so much they are too heavy to fly. If they have to take off in this condition they will throw up.
  • Vomit on selves when threatened


  • Webbed feet

  • Split toe for combing fur

  • Fat layer for warmth

  • Two kinds of fur: warm and waterproof

  • Oil gland for water proofing

  • Scent gland to mark territory and attract a mate

  • Ear flap to keep out water

  • Nictitating membrane to see while swimming (like a contact lens)

  • Teeth keep growing throughout life (act like a chisel)


  • Use tail to steer, slap water as warning, and lean on

  • Build dam and lodge or den in bank

  • Entrance to lodge always under water

  • Cache sticks under water to eat later

  • Eat through a 6 inch tree in 3 minutes

  • Stay underwater for 15 minutes

  • Change their habitat more than any other animal - except humans

  • Young beavers leave lodge after two years

  • Will use the resources of an entire area and then move to find more trees


Last updated: October 25, 2022