Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Explore Animal Adaptations

Explore Animal Adaptations | Smithsonian Video for Kids 

All living things have adaptations to survive. From a tiny hummingbird hovering in your neighborhood to a giant whale swimming in the ocean, animals have adapted to live in many different environments. Now, what exactly does that mean and what is an adaptation? In this video, we're going to cover what an adaptation is and look at how a few different animals use their adaptations to help them survive.

An adaptation is defined as a physical or behavioral feature of an animal that helps them better survive in their environment. In other words, an adaptation is something on their body or something they do with their bodies that help them find food, water, mates, and shelter. An example of something on the body can be like a bird's wings or feather pattern. An example of something you do with your body can be a bird singing or flying long distances in a migration. In certain habitats or environments animals that have certain body features or behaviors will survive better, like this Arctic hare compared to this desert hare.

Now that we have an idea of what an adaptation is we're going to look at three different animals and examine a few of their physical adaptations. We'll focus on what is on their bodies to think about how they've been adapted to move, find food, water, shelter, and mates to better survive in their environment.

Let's get started with the humpback whale. We're going to look at its physical adaptations, or features, that are on its body. We'll go over three different adaptations one by one and then go over how these adaptations help the whale live in its habitat.

First what do you see that might help this animal eat?

You may have noticed its large mouth. There is a special adaptation in the humpback whales' mouths that help them eat. Some whales, like humpback whales, eat by swimming through the water with their mouths open and the water passes through the brush-like structures in their mouth called baleen. The water can pass through the baleen but tiny animals like krill get caught up in the baleen for the whale to eat. Whales that don't have baleen instead have teeth in their mouths and eat different things like fish.

Next, what do you see that might help this animal breathe? It may be hard to see.

That's right, the whale's blow hole. For the whale's blowhole, this is an adaptation that all whales and dolphins share that help them breathe. The blowhole is on top of the animal's head and is connected to their lungs. When whales eat the water that goes into their mouth can't go into their lungs, so there's less risk of drowning. Whales are also able to actively control when they need to breathe by opening or plugging their blowhole. This helps them stay in the water for usually 5 to 15 minutes.

Now what do you see on the animal that helps it move?

Yes, the flippers and tail. The whale flippers and tail are adaptations that help the whale move through water. Its long flippers help steer while its tail, called a fluke, moves up and down to move it through the water. Its flippers are similar to your arms, only whale's arms have changed over millions of years into flippers that help them swim better.

Alright, based on these adaptations where do you think the whale is adapted to live? From what we see now, how the whale moves, eats, and breathes in the water, the humpback whale lives in the ocean, the biggest water habitat on earth. The humpback whale lives in the ocean where it is adapted to swim through the water, feed on tiny animals, and come back up to the surface to breathe.

Next, we're going to look at another animal, the clouded leopard. We're also going to observe three physical adaptations that help it survive in its environment.

First, what do you see that might help the clouded leopard move?

Let's start with the legs. Looking at the legs of the clouded leopard, did you notice how short their legs are? Having short legs help the leopard stay close to the surface it is on, which increases their balance.

Now let's look at the paws of the clouded leopard. What big paws you have! Big paws help the clouded leopard have a better grip on things when they move through their habitat. That means it keeps them from slipping. Clouded leopard legs and paws are very special for another reason. They help the cat climb down surfaces head first like a squirrel. The clouded leopard is one of two cat species that can do this.

Do you see another adaptation that might help a clouded leopard move? Did anyone say tail? Clouded leopards also have a super long tail. A long tail is an adaptation that helps the animal keep its balance as they climb, jump, walk, and run through their environment. It acts like a counterbalance — the way holding your arms out helps you balance while walking on a balance beam.

With the adaptations we just observed, where do you think the clouded leopard is adapted to live in?

With short legs and big paws for gripping and climbing down trees, a long strong tail to keep its balance, the answer is a forest habitat. It has adaptations that help it move and survive in an environment full of trees.

On to our final animal, the barred owl. Again, we're gonna look at three different physical adaptations of the owl.

First, what do you see that would help him move?

Great job! Let's first talk about the wings. The wings of the barred owl, like many birds, is an adaptation that allows it to fly. Flying allows the barred owl to move quickly through the air around its habitat. The barred owl also has specialized feathers on the outer parts of its wings that help it make almost no sound when it flies to catch prey.

Now what do you see on the owl that helps it navigate through its habitat?

Yes, the owl's eyes. The barred owl, like other owls, has huge eyes compared to the size of its body. The owl's eyes have adapted to see better, especially in low light when the owl is active. Its large eyes are excellent at spotting prey from afar and allows them to fly faster and safer through their environment.

Now what do you notice on the owl that can help it hide in its habitat?

That's right, the owl's feather pattern. The owl's feather pattern is made up of brown and white spots and bars. The bars on its chest is how the barred owl got its name. These markings actually help the owl blend into its environment. You can hardly see it here. This blending in is called camouflage and helps the owl hide from predators and its prey.

Great observations! Where do you think the owl is adapted to live in?

We saw that the owl has wings that allow it to fly around its habitat, its eyes are adapted to help it see better at night, and the brown and white patterns on its feathers help it camouflage with the background. From this information, barred owls live in a forest habitat full of trees. As well the barred owl has adaptations suited to fly in the air and adaptations to hunt prey at night.

Great job everyone! We just learned how adaptations can be physical or behavioral features that animals have on their body or do with their body to help them survive. While we just focused on a few physical adaptations today, there can be many physical and behavioral adaptations that animals have to help them find food, water, shelter, and mates in their habitat.

You're practicing skills that scientists use to study animals and how they use their adaptations to live and survive in different environments. You, too, can be like a scientist and make careful observations of animals around you.


In this video, you will be guided to make observations of three different animals and their adaptations for survival. Even the youngest learners will gain confidence in their ability to identify the adaptations of the three featured animals — right whale, clouded leopard, and barred owl — and to predict what habitat each animal lives in based on those adaptations.  

This video is designed for students in grades K-2. After watching this video you will be able to: 

  • Identify physical adaptations of the right whale, clouded leopard, and barred owl 
  • Infer an animals’ habitat based on its adaptations 
  • Recall how the featured animals’ adaptations help them survive in their environment 

This video complements the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s Digital School Program for grades K-2, Animal Adaptations. Learn more about this and other free school programs and resources for students by visiting the Digital School Programs page.


This video supports the following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): 

Grade K

Interdepedent Relationships in Ecosystems: Animals, Plants, and Their Environment 

  • K-LS1-1. Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive
  • Crosscutting Concept, Patterns: Patterns in the natural and human designed worked can be observed and used as evidence (K-LS1-1) 

Grade 1

Structure, Function, and Information Processing 

  • Crosscutting Concept, Patterns: Patterns in the natural and human designed worked can be observed, used to described phenomena, and used as evidence (1-LS1-2)(1-LS3-1)  

Grade 2

Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems 

  • 2-LS4-1. Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats 
  • Crosscutting Concept, Structure and Function – The shape and stability of structures of natural and designed objects are related to their function(s). (2-LS2-2) 
Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Grade Level
Learning Standards
Next Generation Science Standards
Life Science