Animals live in a variety of different habitats and face an array of daily challenges. To survive, they evolve adaptations that give them advantages over their competitors, predators and prey. Many of these adaptations are fairly straightforward. For example, some animals simply grow too large for the local predators to eat them, and others become fast enough to run down the quickest prey species in the area.
But we’re going to focus on some of the most amazing adaptations that animals have evolved to help them survive. We’ll talk about six of the most unusual and impressive examples below.
1. Thermal Vision
Some snakes have evolved the ability to “see” the body heat of their prey.
Pythons, pit vipers and a few other snakes have specialized receptors on their faces. These receptors allow the snakes to detect infrared radiation (heat) in the environment. These receptors usually connect to the visual portion of the snake’s brain. This means that the snakes can effectively “see” how warm different objects are.
Snakes can use this information to find good basking places, but they primarily use it to detect warm-blooded prey. Because a rodent or bird’s body temperature is usually higher than the surrounding air, these heat-detecting snakes can see them quite easily. In fact, they can see the animals even if they’re hiding in dense vegetation.
Bats use echolocation to help them navigate in complete darkness.
Despite the common phrase “blind as a bat,” bats are not blind at all. However, they don’t see very well and they’re primarily active at night when it is dark. To help overcome this limitation, bats have developed something called echolocation.
Bats echolocate by emitting a series of high-pitched squeaks and clicks. These sound waves then bounce off things in their environment, where they’re picked up by the bat’s ears. The bat’s brain can then use this information to determine the shape of objects, as well as their size, position and distance.
Unfortunately for bats, some of the insects they like to eat have evolved body coverings that absorb the sounds they emit. This means the sound waves don’t bounce off the bugs. This effectively makes the bugs invisible to bats.
Several aquatic predators are capable of detecting the electric currents produced by hiding prey.
All living animals create electric fields. These electric fields are present even when animals are hiding under rocks or sand. To help find these hidden prey animals, many aquatic predators – including sharks and crocodilians, among others – have evolved special cells that detect these signals.
Sharks usually use these abilities to find buried fish, such as flounder, on the ocean floor. Crocodiles and alligators, on the other hand, often use these abilities to locate crayfish and other crustaceans. In experimental trials, crocodilians have been observed finding hidden prey even when they were blindfolded.
4. Sperm Retention
Animals that infrequently encounter mates often retain sperm for months or years until they’re ready to reproduce.
Some animals encounter mates all the time. For example, pigeons will typically see other pigeons every day of their lives.
But other animals lead solitary lives and rarely encounter another member of their species. Many snakes and tortoises are good examples of these types of animals. These types of animals spend most of their lives alone.
Accordingly, many of these animals have evolved the ability to retain sperm. This way, a female tortoise can breed with a male whenever the opportunity appears, but she doesn’t have to deposit eggs until her body is ready to do so.
Many animals can store sperm for months, but some snakes have been observed retaining sperm for more than a year.
5. Gliding Abilities
Although birds are famous for their ability to fly, many other animals glide to get around their habitat.
Many tree-dwelling animals find it necessary to move from one tree to another. Sometimes, they even need to escape predators quickly. Birds can do so very easily, as they can simply fly from one tree to the next. But other animals, including several lizards, frogs and mammals, lack the ability to fly.
This would normally make it very difficult for these animals to change trees without descending to the ground. This can be dangerous, as many predators lurk on the forest floor. To avoid this problem, some tree-dwelling animals have evolved features and behaviors that allow them to glide effortlessly from one tree to another.
There are a number of examples of gliding animals in the world, but some of the most noteworthy include flying squirrels and sugar gliders. However, there are also a number of frogs, lizards, snakes, and even large animals, such as lemurs, who’ve evolved similar gliding abilities.
6. Color-Changing Abilities
Many animals use camouflage to hide from predators, but some can even change their skin color to do so.
Camouflaged skin, feathers or scales help a lot of animals to survive in the wild. But unfortunately, most camouflaged animals can only blend in with a single background. This makes them vulnerable to predators as they become unable to hide from other animals when they aren’t in a habitat that matches their colors.
However, some animals have evolved the ability to change their colors to hide in a variety of habitats. Some of the best examples include squid, cuttlefish and octopi, but some bony fish are also able to change their colors to match their surroundings.
Many people think that chameleons and other lizards can change their colors to match their surroundings. However, this is not true. These animals can often change their colors, but they do so to communicate with other members of their species, not as a way to camouflage.
All animals have adaptations that allow them to survive, but some adaptations are clearly more interesting than others. We’ve discussed six of the most interesting adaptations found in the animal kingdom, but there are plenty of other examples.
What unusual adaptations can you think of that animals use? Let us know which ones you think are most interesting in the comments below.