Background for Teachers

Weird, Wacky and Wild
TPW Magazine, February 2009

How amazing nature is! This month's article offers two great opportunities for teaching -- adaptations and diversity.

Many plant and wildlife species are adapted to survive, make the most of where they live, outcompete other species and ultimately reproduce.

Adaptation is often misunderstood by children because we use the word "adapt" to mean coping with change. Let's look at two examples to help understand what adaptation means in the scientific world.

Let's imagine that for this school year, the class is overcrowded. Students must share desks, books and equipment. Last year this wasn't a problem. We might tell the students, "Well, you'll just need to adapt." We mean that we want the students to make some individual changes in their daily routines to cope with change.

In a biological sense, however, making lifestyle changes is not adaptation. Adaptation means changes in a species over time that allow individuals with certain inherited traits to best survive and populate. Over time, these traits are passed along and the species has those favorable traits. The species has adapted.

Affects of climate change is a good example of where adaptation will come into play. Regardless of how you view cause, the world is seeing some climate change. Some places are warmer, some cooler, and storm patterns are changing. One impact of temperature change is the timing of life cycles. Plants bloom and insects hatch either earlier or later than before. This affects food supplies for migrating species. Since birds don't listen to weather reports or read the food news digest to decide when to migrate but instinctually head out, they count on food and water along their migration route. If they miss the hatch cycle, there may not be adequate food for their journey. Individuals that have physical traits that allow them to eat other foods or migrate at slightly different times may survive. If those surviving individuals mate, their offspring mate, etc., over many generations most of the individuals in most of the populations of the species will have inherited these favorable traits. The species, over time, will have adapted. The importance of adaptation is critical. To survive long-term habitat change, a species must either move, adapt or die.

Another interesting concept is diversity. As we illustrated in last month's article on rare species, a variety of species and a variety of individuals within a population, makes for a healthy ecosystem. There is biological resilience for species and the habitat with species playing different roles (niches). Diversity also offers a most interesting and engaging world for people. We learn from the differences we observe. We are inspired to new or different ways of doing things, seeing things another from another view, tolerance and appreciation.

Have fun thinking about differences. Think extremes. Just as in our own families, the world of nature is full of individuals that are unique and sometimes weird, wacky and wild. We can always find something to love!

Additional Reading

The Big Shift! TPW Magazine. Why are birds, butterflies and other wildlife showing up where they've never been before?