Field Trips

Animal Adaptations

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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 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

(adapted from Caduto & Bruchac, 1991, 170-172)

Adapt and Survive: A Rabbit’s Choice; an A card and a B card for each student.

1) Write ADAPTS: Animals Depend on their Activities and Parts to Survive on the board. Discuss what this means. Explain that animal activities, or behaviors, and body parts are called adaptations. Have students think of several examples of animal activities and parts,
and discuss how each adaptation helps the animal to survive.

2) Hand out an A card and a B card to each student.

3) Read the first section of the story Adapt and Survive: A Rabbit’s Choice. Have each student make the choice they think a rabbit might make. Tell students to hold up their choice (A card or B card), all at the same time, when you say, “Ready, set, go!” Read the correct survival choice.

4) Continue reading all the sections of the story in a similar manner. Have students keep track of whether they made the right choice or
not for each section. Even if a student makes the wrong survival choice at a certain point in the story, have him or her continue making choices until you reach the end of the story.

5) Discuss the students’ choices. How many were able to make the necessary choices to survive each time? Which choices made it most difficult to make the right survival decisions? Which choices were the easiest?

6) Review the items that students need to bring to school on the day of their field trip.

Adapt or Survive: A Rabbit’s Choice
(adapted from Caduto & Bruchac, 1991, 170-172)

1. You are a tiny baby rabbit living deep in your family den. One day your mother is out foraging and leaves you behind to sleep. You are awakened by a strange piece of thin wire on the end of a stick. It is being pushed toward you, down the hole from the surface. You see it coming and are afraid. You:

a. hop down another passage farther into the warren.
b. get closer to investigate the wire.

If you said (a), you survived. If you chose (b), you were snared and taken away by a hunter.

2. You think you should fi find your mom, but as you try to get out of the nest, you notice many of the holes have been filled in with dirt. Do you:

a. settle back into your nest and wait for your mom?
b. leave through a back door hidden under a bush?

If you said (a), a rancher filled in all the holes and you were trapped inside the nest. If you said (b), you escaped and survived.

3. It has not rained for a long time. You notice there are less and less green plants around your nest and no water to drink. You are feeling weak, yet you feel the need to explore for food and water. You start to hop away from your nest, but it is hard. Do you:

a. go ahead and search for food and water knowing you might die doing so?
b. return to the nest and wait for the rain to fall?

If you said (a), you hopped over two sandstone domes and found a pothole filled with water. If you said (b), you became too weak to leave your nest. You did not survive.

4. From your pothole, you see a green lawn dotted with many colored hills. There are many strange smells and two legged creatures walking around. It is evening, and the sun is beginning to set. You decide to:

a. sneak in and eat the green grass.
b. hop away and look somewhere else for food. If you said (a), you snuck into the campground and ate the grass safely while the campers slept.

If you said (b), you used all your energy searching for edible plants. You did not survive.

5. As daylight begins to break, you decide that you need to find a place to sleep. There is a strange above ground burrow ahead. It is large, and the morning sun reflects off the strange smooth skin into your eyes. You hop up into it and try walking through a place that looks like an entrance, but you bump into something you cannot see. You finally find an opening on the side and hop in. The area smells strange, but you are suddenly very tired. You decide to: 

a. lay down and sleep here.
b. move on and look for a safer place.

If you chose (a), you slept in an old abandoned car that was parked near the campground. If you chose (b), you found a rock overhang under which to rest. You survived as well.

6. In the morning, you leave your temporary shelter to look around. You see some green trees far away down a dry wash. As you start to hop down the wash, a large black shadow envelops you and then goes away. Do you:

a. ignore it and keep hopping towards the far off green trees.
b. hunker down under the branches of a rabbitbrush and rest for awhile.

If you chose (a), you were caught by a golden eagle and eaten for lunch. If you chose (b), the eagle could not fi find you and ate a rock squirrel instead.

7. You hop down the wash for the rest of the day. You do not notice the wash getting deeper and narrower. All of a sudden the dry wash meets a very large, very long river. You notice green trees, like the ones you have been seeking, on the other side of the river. Do you:

a. jump in the river and try to swim to the other side.
b. turn around and return the way you came.

If you chose (a), you drowned in the Colorado River. If you chose (b), you hopped thirty feet up the wash before you spotted a side wash you had not noticed before. You hop up the side wash and it leads to a grassy bottomland fi filled with old cottonwood trees.

You explore the bottomland for a while until you spy some movement in the distance. You go to explore and fi find a whole family of rabbits who welcome you into their community. You meet a mate and raise a family of your own.
Amazing Beaver Adaptations

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 “stickydot” work gloves; ear plugs or protectors; goggles; paper beaver teeth; beaver skull (optional)

Navajo students should not be asked to handle skulls or fur. Explore the area beforehand for beaver sign.

1) Show a picture or two of beaver and find out what students know about them. Briefly discuss beaver diet and lifestyle, clarifying that beavers are herbivores and do not eat fish. Explain that beavers on large rivers don’t build dams and live in holes in the banks rather than lodges. Discuss the beaver signs that students may be able to find along the river (i.e. fresh-cut trees with ridges left by beaver teeth, tracks and tail-drag marks, branch drag marks, slide marks where beaver entered the river, piles of cut branches and logs in shallow water, scat (usually in shallow water), and holes in the riverbank if the river is low).

2) Explore the riverbank for beaver sign. Examine beaver-cut branches, and have students feel the ridges. Show pictures of tracks if you don’t see any.

3) Discuss a few activities (behavioral adaptations) of beavers. Then choose a student volunteer to model a beaver’s special parts (physical adaptations). Dress the student from the feet up with objects representing its various adaptations, explaining the adaptations as you go:

• Feet: Swim fins represent webbed hind feet for swimming.

• Feet: Rattail combs represent split claw (second claw of each foot) for grooming.

• Tail: A canoe paddle (attached by belt) represents the use of the tail as a rudder in swimming. Alternatively, a kickstand can represent the tail function of holding the beaver upright while it is gnawing on a tree. Beavers do not use their tails for patting mud (except in cartoons), but they do slap them on the water surface to make a loud noise that serves as a warning device.

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

• Fat layer: Use a layer of foam tucked under the pelt to represent an insulating fat layer that keeps the beaver warm while swimming in cold water.

• Oil gland: Insert the WD-40 under the belt near the base of the tail. This represents the gland that produces oil for waterproofing the beaver’s coat. Grooming with the split claw helps keep the coat oiled.

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

• Hands: Put on “sticky-dot” work gloves to represent the rough pads for gripping on a beaver’s front feet. These feet also have long claws for digging.

• Eyes: Swim goggles represent a nictitating membrane, or clear inner eyelid, that allows beavers to protect their eyes, yet also see, while swimming. Beaver eyes are positioned near the top of their head, so they can see above water while most of their head is still underwater.

• Ears: Earplugs or protectors represent the special flaps inside beaver ears that close while they are swimming in order to keep water out.

• Mouth: Beavers have a flap at the back of their mouth that they can close to keep water out of their throat while swimming, even when they are carrying sticks in their mouth. If you have a beaver skull, show the gap between front incisors and back molars where sticks are carried. Finally, give the student model the paper front teeth, which represent the sharp front teeth beavers use for cutting trees and branches. These teeth grow continuously and are made up of hard brown enamel in front and softer dentin behind. Chewing on trees gives their teeth a chisel-like edge.

4) To review, ask students to briefly describe each adaptation as you remove the objects, or have each student choose one object and describe the beaver adaptation it represents. Review beaver diet and activities.
Canada Geese Migration Station

Signs labeled North, South, East and West (pieces of poster board, cut in the center so they intersect); sets of clue cards for migration course (see note below).

This station is set up as a 150-yard course with clue cards hidden along the way. The directional signpost should be set up in a prominent place that students can see.

1) Talk with students about migration as an animal adaptation. Discuss Canada Geese in particular and how they migrate. Talk about some of the dangers of migration.

2) Tell the students that before birds migrate, they build up fat reserves. These fat reserves provide the birds with energy during their long migration. Tell the students that they need to help you do the following calculations. Using a white board, have the students help you answer the following questions. (adapted from Migration Math, Growing Wild, p. 10).

1. In order to calculate how much birds need to eat before migration, we need to figure out how much weight they need to gain. Have students divide their weight (estimated) by 3. This is the number of pounds they need to gain, in order to survive the trip.

2. If all goes well on their trip they will flap 60 flaps a minute for 10 hours a day. Have the students figure out how many flaps a day they would make on their journey [60*60 (flaps per hour) *10 (hours per day) = _____ number of flaps per day].

3. You can fly 40 miles an hour. If you are traveling 4,000 miles at how long would it take you to get there? How many total flaps would you make? [40*10 hours per day = miles per day. 4000/miles per day = how many days].

4. The average person burns 60 calories if they run for an hour. Pretend you are a bird. How many calories would you use in your migration? [10(hours per day) * 10(days) = total hours flying. 60(cal)* total number of hours = the total calories.] Ask the students if they think they stored enough body fat to cove the number of calories needed? If not where might they get more fuel?

3) Tell students they will be migrating together as a gaggle of geese and following a set of clue cards. Discuss direction with students by pointing to north and south and then asking them to point east and west. Tell the students that they are going to be flying in a V formation. Explain that the oldest goose flies at the point since the oldest is most likely the strongest, and the goose at the point works the hardest. Have the students figure out who is the oldest. Tell them that this person will read the clues and lead the group. This person is also the only one to pick up the next clue. When the oldest finds the clue, he/she hands the clue to someone else to read. The reader then leads the group. Give the eldest goose the map and first clue to read. Have the entire group count the flaps as they move through the course.

4) At the end, review the migration of Canada Geese.

Geese Migration Cards 123
Deer’s Ears

Pictures of a deer and a mountain lion; blindfold.

1) Review the definitions of adaptation, predator, and prey. Show the pictures of a mule deer and a mountain lion, and discuss some of the adaptations of each.

2) Introduce the game (adapted from Henley, 1989, 158-159). Designate one student as a deer, blindfold her, and put a cloth “tail” in her back pocket. Ask the student to stand or kneel like a grazing deer and not to move except to turn in one place. Ask the other students to pretend to be mountain lions, predators of deer. Instruct the mountain lions to start at least 20 feet away from the deer and slowly stalk the deer. Cue them to begin stalking when you say “go,” but instruct them to stop immediately if you say “freeze” (until they hear “go” again). Instruct the deer to listen for the approaching predators and to point in the predator’s general direction (within two to three degrees) and shout “Starve!” if one is heard. If the deer is correct, that predator must quietly sit down until the round is over. (To make the event more realistic, limit the number of times the deer can say “Starve!” to the number of predators plus
two. The instructor should stand near the deer and clarify if the deer caught anyone with their “Starve!”) Tell the predators that if one of them gets close enough to the deer to snatch its cloth tail, then the deer is dead.

3) Let the predator that kills the deer be the next deer. Another option is to simply take turns being deer. Have the deer stand in different areas, and discuss how the deer uses its environment to protect itself. Review deer and mountain lion adaptations that helped the animals after each round.
Eagle’s Eyes

laminated bird of prey pictures; small food items (Skittles)

If location and weather permits, hide candy in advance for the second activity.

1) Build on prior student knowledge to talk about general raptor (bird of prey) characteristics and adaptations. Distribute pictures as students name species of raptors, giving each student a raptor identity. Have the students read the information about their bird on the back of the card and look at the picture. Ask them to find an activity and a part (adaptations) that help this bird survive. Have each student introduce their bird and share their adaptations. Show them the eagle skull replica and feathers. Discuss the adaptations. Pass them around for the students to touch and feel. (Note: Navajo students should not be asked to handle feathers or skulls.)

2) Activity #1: Eagle’s Eyes - Ask each student to name one type of prey that her raptor might look for, and hand out one Skittle to represent that prey. Use a variety of Skittle colors. Have students place the Skittles on a line on the ground and then start backing away. When individual students can no longer see their Skittles, they have reached the limits of their eyes’ resolving power and should stop. Next, gather the students where the first student stopped. Measure the distance from there to the Skittles. Multiply that distance by ten, and you have the calculated distance from which an eagle could see a Skittle. Discuss how high on the cliff cliffs that distance is, which colors were easiest to see, and if a moving Skittle (or mouse) would be easier to see.

3) Activity #2: I Spy with My Eagle Eyes - Have students pretend to be eagles or their chosen raptor and look for hidden Skittles. When a Skittle is seen, the raptor should say, “I spy with my eagle (or other raptor) eyes something green (or other color),” without giving away the prey location. Ask them to count how many prey items they see, but not to pick them up. Give the students several minutes, and ask each student how many he/she found. Discuss why some birds found more food than others. Review the types of prey that raptors look for and raptors’ adaptations for hunting.
Win, Lose or Adapt

(adapted from National Park Service and others, 1989, 8.12-8.18)

Draw the adaptation game cards; animal adaptations poster (labeled Animal Adaptations, with photographs of the animals from the game cards).

1) With the students, generate a list of human adaptations. Ask students to describe each adaptation and its usefulness to humans. Examples include: upright posture (seeing distances, holding and throwing objects, carrying things); eyes facing forward (judging distance); movable neck (seeing in many directions); ear lobes (gathering sound); big brains (intelligence); thumbs (precise and delicate hand movements); touch (sensitivity in hands and fingers); living in groups (cooperation, safety in numbers); speech (communication, cooperation).

2) Show the Animal Adaptations poster and, with student input, name the animals. Instruct students in playing a game based on the
adaptations of these animals. Divide the class into two teams. Have one person from the first team pick a Draw the Adaptation game card. While the student is drawing the animal and its adaptation on the blackboard (one-minute limit), the rest of the first team guesses the animal and its adaptation. (Team Two watches quietly; their turn may be coming soon!) If a guess includes part of the correct answer, write that part on the board. If Team One does not guess the animal and its adaptation within a minute, give Team Two a minute to draw and guess from the same card. When correctly guessed, have a student read the back of the card, which tells how the adaptation helps the animal to survive. Continue the game, with the two teams alternating picking a card, drawing, and guessing.

3) Integrate the activity with the field trip lessons by discussing the following types of questions:

• What are some adaptations we learned about on the field trip, and why are they important to these animals?

• What sort of adaptations might lead animals to extinction? (Specialized adaptations to small, isolated habitats, to a specific food, or to habitats in which humans like to build are risky.)

• How are some animals in our area adapted to survive the upcoming winter season?

Adaptation Cards 1234

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.

Last updated: November 27, 2018