Scientists Say: Adaptation

This is a trait that helps an organism survive in its habitat — or the process of that trait evolving

a grown polar bear and two polar bear cubs stand on a chunk of ice surrounded by water

Over many generations, adaptation has led to polar bears having a thick, white coat of fur. This fur coat is great not only for staying cozy in the Arctic cold but also for blending into the snowy landscape.

© Vadim Balakin/Getty Images

Adaptation (noun, “ah-dap-TAY-shun”)

The word adaptation can have two meanings. First, it can refer to a trait that helps a living thing survive in its environment. Second, it can describe the process of populations of living things changing over time in ways that better fit their environments.

The process of adaptation happens through natural selection. Natural selection occurs because the organisms in a population naturally differ in some ways. Some may run faster to catch prey. Others may have camouflage that helps them avoid being eaten. In any population, individuals with useful traits tend to live longer. They are more likely to reproduce and pass on their useful traits. Over many generations, beneficial traits become common in the population. Less useful traits become less common. Some even disappear. Such long-term change is known as evolution.

There are different kinds of adaptations. Some are physical traits. Others are behaviors. Polar bears, for instance, have thick fur coats that help them stay warm. Penguins, meanwhile, huddle together for warmth.

Plants have adaptations, too. Take cacti, for instance. These plants have stems that can store water for a long time. This helps them survive in the desert. Even humans have adaptations. Consider people who live on the Tibetan Plateau in Asia. That land sits a very high altitude. That high, air has little oxygen. But people who live there often have genes that help their bodies use oxygen very efficiently. That allows them to survive in an environment where others would struggle.

In a sentence

Some species of living things have adaptations that help them live in urban areas.

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Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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