The Differences Between Adaptation, Inheritance & Evolution

How did giraffes get their long necks? Why do polar bears have thick white fur? What makes a clownfish want to live in a coral reef? These are all great questions you may get asked in class from your curious mini scientists. But are these examples of how living things have adapted to suit their environment, passed on their genetic information to the next generation, or due to the stronger species changing over time?
Here are 3 fun facts and activities you can give your young Darwinites to work through to understand the differences between adaptation, inheritance and evolution in the animal kingdom…

1. Adaptation

What is it?

“Evolutionary adaptation, or simply adaptation, is the adjustment of organisms to their environment in order to improve their chances at survival in that environment”.
For example, a camel has a hump that stores water and nostrils they can close – both perfect adaptations for surviving in the dry desert and preventing sand inhalation. There’s also the African elephant and their enormous ears to consider – these act as a fan to cool them down when blood is pumped to the multiple large veins in their ears. Bumblebees have adapted too – with long tongues to reach the pollen in narrow, tube-shaped flowers, plus they have legs that are covered with sticky hairs so it’s easy to collect pollen.
These specialised features are also called ‘structural adaptations’, which include body colour, beak shape, claw length, etc. Whereas ‘Behavioural adaptations’, can be passed down through inheritance, such as predators (like hyenas) that hunt their prey in packs. Because animals have adapted to survive in their specific habitat, this means they may not be able to survive in another environment.

Activity #1!

Choose a habitat → This can be the depths of the jungle, an expansive desert, a lush forest, the treacherous mountains, under the sea or your favourite place in the world!
Create your imaginary animal → Think about how your animal is perfectly made to live in this habitat by drawing or painting and labelling important parts of their body, like talons to grip branches, fur to keep it warm, a tail to swim.
Write a story → Give your animal a name and a backstory so you can explain more about it to the rest of your class!
Teachers – why not help turning this into a Microsoft PowerPoint or Google Slide presentation?

2. Inheritance

What is it?

“Genetic inheritance occurs due to genetic material in the form of DNA being passed from parents to their offspring”.
Scientist, monk and “Father of Modern Genetics”, Gregor Mendel, founded the ‘Laws of Inheritance’ for all living things in his published works in 1865. Here he observed that all living things produce offspring that look similar to their parents – but not identical. The variations are due to a combination of inherited characteristics – some from the mother and others from their father. This also applies to two different breeds of the same animal – when they mate, they pass down different traits from each breed.
But not every characteristic is passed down through genetic inheritance. When animals reproduce, all the genetic information (such as growth, survival instincts) are passed down in their DNA, which is made up of thousands of genes or DNA sequences. These DNA sequences determine which traits are inherited.
The cells that contain our DNA are made up of pairs of chromosomes (just like humans) with two separate copies of each gene or ‘allele’. If that allele is dominant, only a single copy is needed to pass down that character trait to the offspring. However, if the allele is recessive, both alleles must be identical for the trait to be inherited.

Activity #2!

Look at animal species → Examine images of different animal species, like breeds of dogs and cats), and discuss which similarities and differences you notice with a partner or in a group.
Find your own inherited characteristics → Next, look through your family photos or albums and write down which characteristics you recognise as being inherited from their parents.
Create an inheritance board → Show what you’ve found out by sticking either images of different animals or family photos (with your parent’s permission, of course!) to a poster board. Don’t forget to add some labels to point out the inherited characteristics you’ve identified, like eye colour, hair colour, face shape, etc.

3. Evolution (and Natural Selection)

What is it?

“If an environment changes, the traits that enhance survival in that environment will also gradually change, or evolve”.
Evolution is how living things change over time – an idea pioneered by Charles Darwin in his scientific theory of evolution and natural selection. This was outlined in his book: On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. His theory was that every living organism is connected to a ‘family tree’ and can be traced back to the beginning of life on Earth – billions of years ago.
Together with Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin explored evolution to explain why animals can adjust or change to new and current environments. He also drew attention to how individual animals in the same species could be told apart as they weren’t created as carbon copies of each other – all from discovering different types of sparrows on his trip to the Galapagos Islands in 1835.
In terms of natural selection, Darwin recognised that every living thing is competing with one another. For example: “organisms produce more offspring that are able to survive in their environment. Those that are better physically equipped to survive, grow to maturity, and reproduce”. The so-called winners that survive are the animals that were better adapted from their inherited characteristics. Therefore, stronger characteristics are passed onto their offspring, instead of the weaker ones, which makes these characteristics more common as a species of animal changes and evolves over time.

Activity #3!

Create one of the following:
A play → Show how Charles Darwin came up with his theories about evolution from what you’ve learned – maybe focusing on the sparrow?
A poem → Write a rhyming poem about natural selection – what it means and how species evolve to be stronger because of it.
A song → In a group, come up with a song about the differences between adaptation, inheritance and evolution – with a verse for each one and a chorus too! Ask your teacher about adding music or using instruments if you can…