Lessons: Energy

Aquatic Animal Adaptations

Respect Rule: Look, Listen, Learn, and Leave Alone (until instructed).


The students can experience a hands-on exploration of the creek environment which will engage the students in learning first hand about aquatic animal adaptations.


Animals have unique strategies for development that also applies to aquatic species. This great diversity in aquatic life teaches about life cycles. There are representative species of mammals, amphibians, insects, fish, and birds that live most or all of their lives in the water.

Aquatic insects exhibit two different types of life cycles. Many animals look significantly different in their early stages of development when compared to adulthood. This is often very true for aquatic insects. Many aquatic insects undergo metamorphosis, or change during growth. Some insects experience simple metamorphosis, while others undergo complete metamorphosis.

In simple metamorphosis, the insect egg develops into a nymph. Nymphs resemble adults, but they still vary considerably from their adult form. Many nymphs transform into adulthood by splitting open the exoskeleton so that the mature adult can emerge. This is true for dragonflies, damselflies, stoneflies, and mayflies.

In complete metamorphosis, eggs develop into larvae. The larvae grows through several stages and changes into pupae. Pupae are usually encased in a protective cover for their next stage of growth. From the pupae, emerge the soft-bodied, often pale-colored adults. They differ remarkably in appearance from earlier appearance, but are not yet completely formed. Gradually the soft pale bodies develop firmness and color. In complete metamorphosis, there is little resemblance between adults and larvae. Examples of this are caddis flies, most aquatic beetles and flies, as well as butterflies.

When a habitat changes, either slowly or catastrophically, the species of animals with adaptations (that allow them many options) are the ones most likely to survive. Some species have adapted to such a narrow range of habitat conditions that they are extremely vulnerable to change. These species are usually more susceptible than other animals to death or extinction. Each animal has its own unique physical adaptations to the watery world. Here are a few examples of adaptations to look for: streamlined body shape to move easily through the water; gills for underwater breathing; sharp hooks or claws to grasp the bottom in rushing water; camouflage colors for evading predators; dense fur to retain heat; webbed feet for more efficient paddling; and oil glands to repel water.

Before-the-Field-Trip Activity

Activity: Fashion A Fish
45 minutes
Materials: Fish Fashion Cards

  1. Assign students to find a picture or make a drawing of a species of animal that has a special adaptation. For example, giraffes have long necks for reaching vegetation in tall trees, while owls have large eyes that gather light and aids with night vision.
  2. Conduct a class discussion on the value of different kinds of adaptation to animals. As a part of the discussion, ask the students to identify different kinds of adaptations in humans.
  3. Collect the students’ pictures or drawings of adaptations. Categorize them into the following groups: protective coloration and camouflage, body shape/form, mouth type/feeding behavior, reproduction/behavior, other (one or more categories the students establish, in addition to the four above that will be needed for the rest of the activity).
  4. Divide class into five groups of four cards each, one for coloration, mouth type, body shape and reproduction.
  5. Pass one complete set of cards to each group of students.
  6. Ask the students to “fashion a fish” from the characteristics of the cards in the set they receive. Each group could: create an art form that represents their fish, name the fish, describe and draw the habitat for their fish.
  7. Ask each group to report on the attributes of the fish they have designed, including identifying and describing its adaptations. Ask the students to describe how this kind of fish is adapted for survival. Ask the students to make inferences about the importance of adaptations in fish and other animals.


  • Have the student groups to take an adaptation card from any category and research a real fish with that adaptation. Note: A collection of books about fish is useful. Do not be as concerned about reading level as much as the accuracy of the illustrations.
  • Have students look at examples of actual fish. Describe the fish and speculate on its habitat by examining its coloration, body shape and mouth.
“Only I can discover.”

—Betty Van Der Smissen and Oswald H. Goering,
A Leader’s Guide to Nature-Oriented Activities

Field Trip Activity

Activity: Aquatic Adaptation Observation
1 to 1.5 hours
Aquatic Animal Adaptation Ob­servation Student Worksheet, collecting cups and nets, large water collecting containers, magnifiers, water quality test kit, thermometer, a stereomicroscope

  1. Follow the steps 1–7 in Field Trip Activity from the lesson Aquatic Animal Life Cycles (previous lesson).
  2. Using the Aquatic Adaptation Observation Student Worksheet, have each student or team of students observe, identify and draw the animals. Discuss any adaptations they observed.

After-the-Field-Trip Activity

Activity: Creature Feature
Time: 45 minutes
Materials: Aquatic Animals Adaptations Chart, My Creature Feature Student Worksheet, various materials can be used: sand at a beach, crayons and paper, or an assortment of construction paper, pipe cleaners, egg cartons, etc., pictures of aquatic animals in the Aquatic Animal Life Cycle Lesson

  1. Have students create an imaginary animal that is adapted to living in water. The animal can be sculpted with sand by the creek, or created in the classroom using a variety of art materials and techniques.
  2. Have the students include at least 3 specific adaptations from the Aquatic Animals Adaptations Chart, the pictures of aquatic animals in the Aquatic Animal Life Cycle Lesson and the Creature Feature Student Worksheet.
  3. When the students’ imaginary animals are completed, have students explain the adaptations that they used and why.


Students will describe the adaptations of two animals to life in the aquatic environment.

Grade Levels


Adult/Student Ratio

1 adult to 10 children


Riparian Habitats: small, shallow, streams or ponds where students can access the water safely and with minimal impact to the streamside vegetation.


Observing, discussing, applying, interpreting

Key Words

Adaptation, Aquatic, Camouflage, Coloration, Macro invertebrate, Habitat

Downloads [PDF]


For the Teacher

  • Berger, Dragonflies, a WILD Guide.
  • Hausman, Leon, A Beginner’s Guide to Fresh-Water Life, Putnam’s Sons.
  • Hughes, Dave, A Handbook of Hatches.
  • Johnson, Sylvia, Water Insects, Lerner Publications.
  • Reid, George K., Herbert S. Zim, Golden Guide to Pond Life, Western Publishing Company.


  • Chatsworth, Ecosystem of a Pond, California: AIMS Media, 1992.
  • Wonders in A Country Stream. Los Angeles: Churchill Media, 1992.


Adapted with permission from Project WILD Aquatic.

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