Lesson Plan

Biodiversity and Adaptation

a fossil of a partial lower jaw with large molars of an elephant relative
Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
Additional Standards:
3rd Grade:  3-LS4-1, 3-LS4-2, and 3-LS4-3
4th Grade:  4-LS1 and 4-LS1-1
5th Grade:  5-LS2, LS2.A, and LS2.B
6th Grade:  MS-LS1-4, LS1.B, MS-LS2, MS-LS2-1, and LS2.A
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations.

Essential Question

1.  What can fossils tell us about past environments?
2.  What are adaptations?
3.  How do present-day plants and animals help us learn about fossil plants and animals?


1.  Discuss why some animals thrive in certain environments better than others.
2.  Distinguish between physical and behavioral adaptations.
3.  Construct an ancient elephant skeleton.


Biodiversity is a measure of the variety of life on Earth. Biodiversity also describes the wealth of habitats that house all life forms and the interconnections that tie them together. All of Earth’s ecosystems and the living things that have evolved within them are part of our planet’s biodiversity. Biodiversity does more than provide a variety of products and resources; it also keeps the planet livable for us and for all other species. Biodiversity helps maintain the atmosphere, keep the soil fertile, purify water, and generally keep the world running smoothly. 
An environment is defined as all the influences, both biotic and abiotic in nature, which affect an organism. Biotic factors include all living components of an environment, such as plants and animals, while abiotic factors include all non-living components, such as climate, soil, and water. Thinking environmentally means that no organism can be considered in isolation from any other element of its environment. Environments are not static things. They are continually changing and have been changing throughout Earth’s history. Evidence for past environmental change abounds in the rock and fossil records. 
Adaptations are any behavioral or physical characteristics of an organism that help it to survive in its environment. A physical adaptation is some type of structural modification made to a part of the body. A fish, for example, is physically adapted to its aquatic environment. It has gills to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide from water, fins, and a streamlined body to swim through the water. A behavioral adaptation is something an animal does usually in response to some type of external stimulus. An owl, for example, has behaviorally adapted to avoid predation and competition by becoming nocturnal. Many examples of adaptation of organisms to their environment can be seen in nature. Some of the most successful organisms have very strong specializations for a specific environment. 
Environmental Change
If environmental change is gradual, organisms can adapt to the change or move to other more suitable areas. Abrupt change is more difficult to cope with, and organisms that cannot keep up with it face extinction. At numerous times in the geologic past, there have been widespread extinctions affecting organisms on a world scale. We know that in many cases these extinction events were the result of large-scale environmental change, but in most cases the evidence from the ancient record is inconclusive. Thus, for example, reasons for extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous are speculative. There were probably many causes rather than one. Extinction is a topic of fundamental importance not only with regards to fossils, but also when discussing modern living things. Largely as a result of human activities, environments are changing today at rates unprecedented in Earth history. Globally, the composition of the atmosphere has been altered by the addition of manmade compounds and carbon dioxide from the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels. This affects the absorption of sunlight, which has the effect of changing the climate on a massive scale. Locally, environments are being drastically altered by urbanization practices and the clearing of land for agricultural use at the expense of wildlife habitats. As a result, extinctions are occurring today at rates never seen. We cannot tell what the long-term consequences of our actions will be. Whether a major event on the scale of the demise of the dinosaurs is in progress is a serious point that we should think about. 
Paleoecology is the study of ecosystems of the past through the fossil record. Paleoecologists use fossils and other information in the rocks to discover relationships between extinct animals and plants and their environment. Sometimes they make comparisons with modem ecosystems. It is useful to collect many fossils to get as good a picture as possible of a complete ancient ecosystem. For example, paleoecologists can learn about ancient diversity by counting the number of species they find as fossils from an area. But a few fossils will not be enough to really tell how many different species were present. Large samples give a better picture not only of diversity, but also of how much variation occurs in each species.  
Paleoecologists have been successful in reconstructing the ancient ecosystems of many places for different times in the past. An example of a well-known ancient ecosystem would be of the Great Plains about 25 to 5 million years ago during the Miocene. The well represented fossil record of the Miocene shows numerous large mammals living on the plains. During the early Miocene, there were more animals, like deer, that ate leafy vegetation than those that ate grass. Later in the Miocene, grasses spread over the Great Plains and grazing mammals, like horses, began to dominate. Evidence from the fossil plants tells us that the climate became cooler and drier during that time. Paleoecologists believe that the Great Plains region during the Miocene was very similar to the grasslands of Africa today.

Perhaps the most important message to convey to young students just beginning their study of paleontology is that we can learn much about our own world by studying worlds of the distant past. It is often said in the geological sciences that "the present is the key to the past”. It is also true that what we know about the past can tell us a lot about the present and perhaps what the future may hold.  


After reading the background information, gather the following materials:

For Survival of the Fittest Lesson Plan 
Whiteboard or large poster
Drawing/coloring utensils 

For Physical or Behavioral Adaptation Lesson Plan
Whiteboard or large poster
Writing utensils 

For Which Bone Goes Where Lesson Plan 
Elephant illustration (for reference)
Extinct Mastodon pieces (to print)
Extinct Mastodon whole illustration (for reference)
Construction paper


Step One: Teacher reads background material on Biodiversity and Adaptation found on this page.

Step Two: Complete Survival of the Fittest Lesson Plan.

Step Three: Complete Physical or Behavioral Adaptation Lesson Plan.

Step Four: Complete Which Bone Goes Where Lesson Plan.

Step Five: Complete the Post-Unit Questions found on this page.


Abiotic factors:  non-living components of an environment such as climate, soil, and water.
Adaptations: any physical or behavioral characteristics of an organism that help it to survive in its environment. 
Behavioral adaptation: something an animal does usually in response to some type of external stimulus in order to survive. Hibernating during winter is an example of a behavioral adaptation. 
Biodiversity: measure of the variety of life on Earth, including habitat diversity, and the interconnectedness that ties life and habit together.  
Biotic factors: living components of an environment such as plants and animals.
Environment: all the influences, both biotic and abiotic in nature, which affect an organism. 
Paleoecology: the study of ecosystems of the past through the fossil record.
Physical adaptation: type of structural modification made to a part of the body. 

Assessment Materials

Biodiversity and Adaptation Post-Unit Questions

Students answer questions after completing all three activities:  Survival of the Fittest Lesson Plan, Physical or Behavioral Lesson Plan, and Which Bone Goes Where Lesson Plan.

1. What is an environment? 

2. What is biodiversity?  

3. Why is biodiversity important?  

4. Why do organisms need to adapt to their environments?  

5. What are the two types of adaptations?
6. What happens to an organism when its environment changes?  

7. How are humans affecting biodiversity? 

Rubric/Answer Key

1. What is an environment? 
All influences, abiotic and biotic in nature, that affect an organism. 
2. What is biodiversity? 
The measure of the variety of organisms that exist in a community. 
3. Why is biodiversity important? 
Every species serves an important and distinct role in our environment, without it our world would not function properly. 
4. Why do organisms need to adapt to their environments? 
In order to survive and thrive. 
5. What are the two types of adaptations? 
Physical and Behavioral. 
6. What happens to an organism when its environment changes? 
It must adapt or face extinction. 
7. How are humans affecting biodiversity? 
Biodiversity is decreasing at a faster rate due to human changes to the environment. 

Related Lessons or Education Materials

Arches National Park Adaptation Lesson Plan
Manassas National Battlefield Park Adaptation Lesson Plan

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Last updated: April 15, 2020