Amazing Animal Adaptations

Photograph of the skull of a fin whale with baleen plates

To celebrate the Museum reopening on September 24, for pre-booked visits only (for details and how to book, see our website), we have developed a new trail around the galleries taking in some of the amazing adaptations on display.

Not able to visit the Museum? You can explore these adaptations here, with some extra ideas on ways you can discover more about animal evolution at home.

What is an Adaptation?

From a predator’s big teeth to the camouflage of their prey, adaptations are features that make animals better suited to where they live and the way they live.  You don’t have to look far to find some pretty amazing adaptations.

Upper Gallery

Download the trail to find the map of the galleries with these specimens labelled on the one-way routes around the space.

Map of the upper gallery of the Museum

1. Dodo

Dodo skeleton on display in the Museum

Question: If animals are so well adapted to their environments, why do they die out?

The dodo lived on the island of Mauritius, where there were no natural predators on the ground and so no need to fly. When Europeans arrived, they not only hunted dodos, but also brought rats and other predators with them. The dodo went extinct less than 100 years later.  

2. Spiny Skins: Feeding Adaptation of Echinoderms

The echinoderms is the group of animals that includes starfish, brittle stars, basket stars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. They may all live under the sea, but they live in very different ways.

  • Photograph of a dried starfish
  • Photograph of the test (or shell) of a sea urchin
  • Sectioned sea urchin showing the feeding apparatus inside
  • Photograph of sea cucumbers on display, preserved in alcohol

3. Fishy Defenses

Question: How do these fishes defend themselves against predators?

  1. Leafy sea dragon: the king of camouflage in the ocean, the leafy sea dragon looks just like the seaweed it lives amongst.
  2. Porcupinefish: when threatened, porcupinefish inflate their bodies using air and water, making them much bigger and causing their spines to stick out, making them harder to eat. Some species are also very poisonous, with a toxin called tetradoxin in their livers and some other internal organs. A fish best avoided!
  3. Flying Fish: The front pair of fins in a flying fish are huge and shaped like bird wings for gliding above the surface of the ocean. They also have adaptations to make the body rigid in flight, and to give them enough power to lift out of the water at speed. Flying fish usually glide for up to 50m, but with updrafts from the ocean can glide for up to 400m.

4. Amazing Amphibian Skin

Frogs, salamanders and their relatives have incredible skin. Amphibians can breathe through their skin. It also has amazing healing powers, and some amphibians use the glands in their skin to produce poisons. Here is a pair of examples on display in the Museum:

Photograph of a Surinam toad preserved in alcohol, showing the pockets on its back where the eggs implanted

Surinam Toad. This is a true tale of motherly love. The eggs of the Surinam toad become embedded in the skin on the female toad’s back, the skin growing round them to protect them. The baby toads develop in safety, and when the time is right pop out as little toads with four legs rather than tadpoles. You can see the pock marks in the back of this specimen where the tiny toads have been.

Photograph of a male hairy frog preserved in alcohol

Hairy Frog. What looks like a pair of furry trousers on this male hairy frog are not made of fur, but of little extensions of the skin that increase the surface area of the skin for taking up oxygen. Another trick of this frog is to break off the tips of the toe bones, the broken bones then pushing through the skin to give the frog a better grip on slippery surfaces underwater. The skin is able to heal back over them later.

5. Tortoise Shells

What better way to protect yourself from predators than to put a bony box around your squidgey bits making you really difficult to eat! Turtles and tortoises have amazing armour made from two layers: an inner layer of bone, including their ribs and backbone, and an out layer of keratin, the same stuff that makes your hair and fingernails.

Photograph of a tortoise with the head drawn into its shell

Task: Find out how your skeleton is different to the skeleton of a turtle.

Move your shoulders around – can you feel your shoulder blades in your back? They are outside your rib cage. Take a look at our turtle skeletons and you can see that their shoulders are inside their ribcages – imagine that!

Put your hands on your ribcage and take a deep breath in. Can you feel your ribs moving up and out? Along with your diaphragm (the muscular sheet under your ribs that pulls down when you breathe in), this increases the space inside your lungs, pulling air in. Turtles and tortoises can’t move their ribs as they are fused to the shell. Instead, they move their shoulders in and out to change the space inside the rib cage. Some sea turtles are also able to breathe underwater through their bottoms.

6. Superb Songbirds

Photograph of a lyrebird in the displays of the Museum of Zoology

Many birds can communicate through calls – I’m hungry calls of the chicks, there’s danger over there calls from adults. But some birds can sing too. Often it is the males saying that they will make a good partner. The lyrebirds of Australia have some of the most extraordinary songs – they are able to mimic other birds, other animals and even human sounds such as engines, car alarms and camera shutters.

Question: What sounds can you mimic?

Photograph of a taxidermy starling

Lyrebirds aren’t the only mimics – our very own starlings can copy lots of different sounds including other animals and even telephone ringtones. You can hear lots of songbirds in the UK in the spring as the males are singing to attract a mate. One that you will hear all year round is the robin, singing to defend its territory.  

1. Killer Snails

Photograph of a pair of cone snail shells

The shells of cone snails come in lots of pretty patterns and colours, but be warned, they are dangerous animals. In the water they lie in wait for their prey to pass by, then shoot out a poison harpoon made from a feeding structure called a radula. Though their prey is usually fish, the toxins can be dangerous to humans too, so don’t pick these shells up unless you are sure they are empty.

2. How do Jellyfish Sting?

Jellyfish preserved in alcohol

Jellyfish and their relatives (sea anemones, corals etc) have amazing stinging cells called cnidocytes (with a silent ‘c’ at the beginning). When a tiny hair-like trigger is activated, a coiled, barbed thread shoots out and stings the prey or threat passing by. Ouch!

3. Lifestyles of Bivalves

Bivalve molluscs (clams, oysters etc.) lead many different lifestyles. Here are a few examples:

  • Photograph of Chama shells cemented together
  • Photograph showing piddock shells that have bored through rock
  • Photograph of a scallop shell

You can find out more about the lifestyles of bivalve molluscs on our website, and why not take a look at our Shell Detective Nature Classroom for more mollusc fun.

4. Leatherback Turtle

Photograph of the skeleton of a leatherback turtle

Question: Do you know what leatherback turtles eat? How do you think they catch their food underwater?

Leatherback turtles eat jellyfish. They catch these squidgy creatures floating in the water using suction. Take a look under the skull and you can see some large bones hanging there. This is called the hyoid apparatus, and means the turtle can increase the size of the space inside the mouth to suck in water, and the that’s food swimming in it. 

5. Hoatzin

This bird is called a Hoatzin, but has some nicknames too.  What name would you choose for it? The Hoatzin has lots of wonderful features, but it is often called a   stinkbird because of its diet. Unusually for a bird, the Hoatzin eats leaves, which it has to store to digest. It has an enlarged crop (part of the digestive system) where it stores leaves, giving off the whiff of manure.

6. Colour and Pattern in Insects

The insect display at the Museum shows many different adaptations in the colour and pattern of insects. Here are a few examples:

Leaf insect

Leaf insects look almost identical to leaves, down to the veins. This makes wonderful camouflage, hiding these insects from predators.

Monarch Butterfly

Some insects have warning colours – often red/yellow/orange and black – telling predators ‘don’t eat me, I’m poisonous,’ or ‘don’t come close, I sting’.

Atlas Moth

The butterfly pictured to the left has spots on its wings that look like eyes, to make a predator think it is a much bigger and more dangerous animal.

You can find lots more activities and games about camouflage and warning colours in our Exploring Evolution through Colour Nature Classroom.

Lower Gallery

Download the trail to find the map of the galleries with these specimens labelled on the one-way routes around the space.

MAp of the lower gallery of the Museum

1. Diving Gannets

Model of nesting gannets

Gannets are masters of the plunge dive, diving into the sea from a height to feed. They have a sleek shape to slive into the water, and can close their nostrils to stop water going up them. Airpockets in the face and chest that cushion the impact. Muscles in the neck protect it from breaking on impact, and webbed feet help them pursue their prey underwater.

2. Adaptations to Extreme Environments: Camels

Question: Where do camels live? Clue: their long eyelashes keep sand out of their eyes…

Camels live in deserts. Their feet splay out to stop them from sinking in the sand, and they can close their nostrils to keep the sand out of their noses. A camel’s hump is made of fat that can be broken down for energy and water when times are hard. They can also cope with high body temperatures. If our body temperatuer goes above 38oC we call it having a fever, but camels can let their body temperature rise to 42oC. This means that they don’t waste water sweating to keep cool.

3. The Fastest Animal on Land

Question: How fast do you think a  cheetah can run? Can you see any features in the skeleton that help them move at speed? 

Cheetahs can run as fast as 60 miles per hour (but only over short   distances). They have long legs for a big stride, helped by a flexible backbone and special hip joints to make it event bigger. And their claws are always slightly extended like the spikes on runners’ shoes.

4. Owl Ears

Photograph of a taxidermied short eared owl

Question: How would you described the shape of an owl face? How do you think this helps it to hear?

Owls have amazing hearing, able to pin-point where a sound is coming from. The feathers of the face direct sounds to the ears, with one ear higher than the other on the head. Clever processing by the brain turns the signals from the ears to a location where the sound is coming from.

Find out more about British owls and make a mask with our Owl Crafts Craft Creatures post.

5. Big Orange Teeth

Photograph of a pair of rodent skulls

Mice, rats, squirrels and guinea pigs are all rodents. Rodents have a big set of incisor teeth at the front of the mouth that keep growing. These are perfect for gnawing, their hard food wearing them down. The enamel on the front of the teeth in some rodents contains lots of iron, giving it an orange colour and making it extra hard. The slightly softer tooth behind wears down making a chisel shape. But the gnawing teeth are not the only feeding adaptation in rodents. Take a look at the jaw joint and it is a groove that’s open front to back letting the lower jaw move forwards to gnaw with their incisors, or back to grind their food with their molars. You can explore the skull of a guinea pig here:

And check out other mammal feeding adaptations in our Jaws! Nature Classroom.

6. Gangly Gibbons

Close up photograph of a gibbon skeleton

Question: Are your arms longer or shorter than your legs? What about the arms of a gibbon?

Photograph of a gibbon skeleton suspended from a branch

Gibbons can move at speed through the trees, grasping branches with one hand then the other in a type of locomotion called brachiation. Their arms are really long to get a bigger swing, with specialisations of the joints, and hands that are used like hooks.

7. The Bill of a Platypus

Photograph of the head region of a taxidermied platypus

Question: A platypus if famous for its duck-bill, but do you know how they use it?

The bill-like snout of a platypus contains cells that can sense the little   electrical signals made by animals underwater. This helps them to find their prey. They have lots of other fascinating features – did you know that male platypuses have a venomous spur on the hind limb? 

1. The Tallest Animal Today

Giraffes are the tallest animals alive today, with long legs and an even longer neck.

Question: How many bones does a giraffe have in its neck? Can you count them?

Photograph of a giraffe skeleton on display with other large mammal skeletons

A giraffe has seven bones in its neck, just as we do. Each individual bone is much longer though, making it possible for a giraffe to raise its head to the tops of trees to feed on the leaves. Giraffes have a long tongue as well to strip the leaves of the branches, and adaptations of the blood vessels in the neck to get blood to the brain.

2. Adaptations to Extreme Environments: Emperor Penguin

Photograph of a taxidermy emperor penguin

Question: Where do emperor penguins live? What do you think they need to survive there?

Emperor penguins live in and around Antarctica. They are the only   penguins to breed here over winter. It can get really cold – often below -35oC. As well as feathers, they have a layer of blubber under the skin to trap heat, and penguins will huddle together to keep warm. 

Find out more about how animals keep warm, and conduct an experiment all about insulation, with our Life in the Cold Nature Classroom.

3. Tiger Tiger

Question: Here are two tiger skulls, an adult and a very young cub. Apart from the overall size, what differences can you see between them?

Adult and baby tigers feed in very different ways, and we can see this in   the skull. The adult tiger (left) has big canine teeth for killing their prey, and slicing cheek teeth for eating meat. The adult also has huge cheekbones swinging out of the skull for the jaw-closing muscles to attach to, giving them a powerful bite.

The cub (right) has teeth that are barely breaking through. The muscles around the jaws are arranged for suckling on milk, and the cheekbones are much smaller. As the cub is growing, it has gaps between many of the bones in the skull, which are fused together in the adult.

Find out more about the changes that happen as animals grow and develop with our Animal Lifecycles Nature Classroom.

4. Terrific Tenrecs

The animals of the island of Madagascar have lived and evolved in isolation for millions of years. The lemurs of Madagascar are famous, but have you heard of the tenrecs? Tenrecs are small insect-eating mammals. Some look very like hedgehogs with a coat of prickles, others look just like shrews. This is an example of convergent evolution – when animals that are distantly related evolve to look like each other because they have the same way of life.

5. Hawaiian Honeycreepers

The Hawaiian honeycreepers have evolved from a single species of finch that arrived in Hawaii a few million years ago. Some have long, curved beaks for feeding on nectar, some have fine beaks for catching insects, some have beaks perfect for getting beetle grubs out of wood…

Photograph of an i'iwi (a Hawaiian honeycreeper)

Question: What beak shape would you need for your favourite food?

Find out more about the adaptations of bird beaks in our Bird Beaks and Evolution Nature Classroom.

6. Moving Marsupials

Photograph of a wallaby skeleton and other marsupials

The marsupials include animals like kangaroos, koalas, wombats and opossums. They can move in very different ways. Kangaroos and wallabies have big back legs with long feet to help them jump. The marsupial mole has scoop-like hands for digging. The feathertail glider has skin stretched between its limbs to help it glide between trees. Can you think of any others?

Photograph of the lower gallery of the Museum of Zoology
(C) University of Cambridge + Julieta Sarmiento Photography

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