Antarctic Adaptations



This lesson focuses on adaptations as a driving force in evolutionary diversity. Adaptations are characteristics within a species that enhance its chances of survival and reproduction. Adaptations can be behavioral, structural, or functional. Students must understand that these adaptations are not acquired in the course of the organism’s lifetime, but are inherited traits that have been passed down from those that survive and live to reproduce. Their beneficial aspects depend on the organism’s environment. What is beneficial in one environment may be disastrous and selected out in another environment. Organisms that live in the Antarctic region have a wide range of adaptations that allow them to survive in extremely harsh conditions. By the same token, not all inherited traits are adaptations to a particular environment/climate. In studying specific organisms, students can identify and investigate these inherited traits. This activity will help students develop an understanding that adaptations arise through evolution and lead to the rich diversity in nature. This lesson focuses on evolution and homeostasis and can easily be incorporated into either concept. Teachers can also incorporate the role of mutations that aid in survival as well. Because this lesson involves pictures and descriptions of animals that often intrigue students, this lesson can stand on its own as well but it is preferable if students have some knowledge of evolution, natural selection, and adaptations. This is meant for high school students but can easily be modified for any level of learner.


  • Students will examine a wide array of adaptations that may be physical, structural, or functional.
  • Students can compare/contrast inherited traits that are adaptations and those that are not adaptations.
  • Students will gain a deeper understanding of homeostatic responses and related anatomical structures that allow survival in a polar region.
  • Students will read about how Antarctic animals are very specifically adapted for life in the extreme cold.
  • Students will broaden their understanding about marine life in Antarctica.

Beginning Question

How do specific adaptations increase the potential for survival?

Lesson Preparation

There is minimal preparation for this activity. Xerox the Organism sheets and Antarctic Animal Fact sheets. Divide the class into groups by animal or as a mixed group (see description below.) You may want to prep the students with a discussion on polar climates to gauge prior knowledge and to give them a foundation as they begin this activity. This can be a one day activity or it can be stretched out over more than one class to allow students to do further research.


This lesson is a good group activity and can be done in a couple different ways.

  1. Jigsaw: Put all the students studying the penguin together to become penguin experts, all the whale experts together, etc. Then have students reassemble in groups where each animal is represented and the experts must teach the group about his/her animal. Each group should create a display or poster board for their presentation. Note: You many want to have each student use a different color marker to better monitor participation by the each member of the group.
  2. Mixed Groups: Students can work in the same group throughout the activity. Give a full set of animals to each group. Have the students read each animal separately or as a group out loud to each other and, as a team, discuss each animal. Again, it is useful for students to create a visual representation of what they are learning, how the animals differ or overlap.

Post Lesson Activity

After the lesson you may want to watch the video link provided. It is an excellent 13 minute piece on the Antarctic icefishes and should be used after the lesson. To show this before the lesson may preempt student discussion and evaluation about adaptations in general and the icefish example in particular.
The Making of the Fittest: The Birth and Death of Genes


An extension of this lesson could include some research on the impact of global warming in the Western Antarctic Peninsula and how this may affect the organisms featured in this lesson. You could also have students choose another environment and investigate environmental specific adaptations thus allowing them to compare and contrast adaptations in a wide range of environments.

End Product

Ideas for assessments:

  • Poster displays are one form of assessment and nice to put up in the room or hallways.
  • Can students identify if a trait or structure is an adaptation to environment or not? What inherited characteristics are not adaptations?
  • Give students other animals or adaptations and have them link them to particular climates or habitats.
  • Extrapolate changes in adaptations as climates warm.
  • List which type of adaptation it is – structural, behavioral, functional.
  • Discuss what it is about adaptation that make it so beneficial in the particular environment. Compare to other environments – would it continue to be beneficial? Neutral? Harmful?


PolarTREC teacher Paula Dell < [at]>
This lesson was adapted and modified from the BSCS biology curriculum.
The associated files are compressed for ease of download. If you are in need of the full size Adaptation Sheets, please contact the author.

Other Standards

**Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)**
Any of these can be incorporated depending on the way you want to carry out the lesson.

* HS-LS4-2. Construct an explanation based on evidence that the process of evolution primarily results from four factors: (1) the potential for a species to increase in number, (2) the heritable genetic variation of individuals in a species due to mutation and sexual reproduction, (3) competition for limited resources, and (4) the proliferation of those organisms that are better able to survive and reproduce in the environment.
* HS-LS4-4. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how natural selection leads to adaptation of populations.
* HS-LS4-5. Evaluate the evidence supporting claims that changes in environmental conditions may result in: (1) increases in the number of individuals of some species, (2) the emergence of new species over time, and (3) the extinction of other species.

**Illinois and National**

* 11.A.4c Collect, organize and analyze data accurately and precisely.
* 12.B.4a Describe processes by which organisms change over time using evidence from comparative anatomy and physiology, embryology, the fossil record, genetics and biochemistry.
* 12.A.4c Compare physical, ecological and behavioral factors that influence interactions and interdependence of organisms.

* 20-23 Select a simple hypothesis, prediction, or conclusion that is supported by a data presentation or a model.
* Identify key issues or assumptions in a model.

Resource Details


  • Multiple sets of organism sheets (Ideally these sheets should be xeroxed on colored paper and laminated for reuse.)
  • Antarctic Fact Sheets



Completion time

About 1 period

Grade Level

High school and Up


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Life Science | Organisms and Their Environments