Lesson 2

Future Change and You


Lesson Overview:

Lesson 2 discusses: 1) types of adaptation; 2) human adaptability; 3) extinction.


Content Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards


Learning Objectives: 

Students will:

  • Define vocabulary words from the lesson.
  • Name and define the three types of adaptation.
  • Illustrate each type of adaptation by providing one or more examples.
  • List characteristics of those who adapt well.
  • Identify causes of extinction.



Adaptation - adjust or change to different conditions.

Physiological - having to do with the actions and inner operations of a living organism.

Lesson 1 focused on environmental change. No matter what the causes of environmental change - natural anthropogenic or a combination of both - these changes have challenged and will continue to challenge individuals and communities. When humans and other living organisms face any change, they can respond by adapting. Adaptation helps them survive by reducing the effects of the changes on their health and welfare. Lesson 2 discusses adaptation and how humans can meet future challenges - including environmental change - through their exceptional ability to adapt.

Humans have the ability to adjust to changes in their environments. We survive the hot and dry (or humid) days of summer, and the frigid days of winter. We cope with pollen-filled air in the country and polluted air in the city. Our bodies react different when we're hiking alone in a canyon or cheering our favorite team in a sold-out stadium.

While many plants and animals are confined to certain areas of the world, humans can live nearly anywhere due to their adaptability. How well we adapt may be due in part to our unique genetic characteristics. For example, if a person's ancestors came from an area with a warm climate, he or she may have more difficulty adjusting to live in a cold climate.

Structural Adaptation:

Structural adaptation is a very slow change to the anatomy of a living organism which happens in response to a long-term environmental condition. This type of adaptation happens in the genes and is therefore passed on from one generation to the next. An example of structural adaptation in animals is bird beaks. Each species of bird has a beak suited to its food sources. Eagles have powerful hooked beaks that can rip into and tear prey apart. The hummingbird's long, slender bill is perfect for drinking nectar found in flower centers. To drill into trees and reach wood-boring insects, a woodpecker must have a slim, tough beak - and a tough skull! At first glance, the crossbill's beak looks unusable. In action, however, it's similar to a pair of tweezers. The crossbill uses it to open tree cones and remove the seeds inside.

Game: What am I?

An animal's unique structural (physical) adaptations equip it for its way of life. Spotlight these variations by playing "What am I?"
Divide the larger group into teams and distribute scratch paper. Each team will write descriptions of a widely known 1) animal, 2) bird and 3) insect. The teams will have 5-10 minutes to compile three facts about each. (Internet access or a set of reference books will be helpful.) Since the object of the game is to outwit other teams, each team's strategy will be to select true statements that may lead the other teams to guess a different answer than the correct one.
As play begins, teams take turns reading one of their three-fact descriptions. The other teams are given one minute to confer among themselves as to the animal, bird or insect being described and write their guess on a sheet of scratch paper. When the minute's up, the teams display their answers. If a team guesses correctly, it receives a point. If, however, the description has stumped the group, the describing team receives the point.
A fact may be challenged. If the disputed fact is found to be false, the describing team loses a point and the challenging team wins a point.
The game may be played to a time limit or to a certain number of points. The team with the most points at the game's end is the winner.
Extension: Review each description, asking the group to provide a justification for each fact. For example, polar bears: 1) have black skin - to better absorb the warming rays of the Arctic sun; 2) have fur on the bottom of their paws - to protect them from the cold; 3) have slightly webbed feet - to help them swim.


Physiological Adaptation:

Physiological adaptation is a short-term adjustment within each organism that helps it maintain health and well-being during a change. An example of physiological adaptation in humans is a natural summer tan, which people may develop in response to seasonal exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Winter hibernation and summer estivation (dormancy in hot, dry conditions) are examples of animal physiological adaptation.
Another example of human physiological adaptation is that which results from aerobic activity. When individuals participate in physical exercise, they witness increased heart and breathing rates as their bodies, under physical stress, attempt to maintain inner stability. If this activity is continued regularly - and increased steadily - for a period of several months, it results in beneficial physiological adaptations like a decrease in the resting heart rate.
  • Have you ever trained for a sport season or a competitive event? What physiological changes did you witness over days or weeks of training?


Behavioral Adaptation:

Behavioral adaptation is how a living organism acts when confronted with change. The behavior may be learned from the previous generation or develop over a period of time. One example of animal behavioral adaptation is migration.
A widely recognized example of human behavioral adaptation is the astounding decline in cigarette smoking since 1964. The Surgeon General's report on smoking published that year immediately sparked a warning on cigarette packs and a ban on radio and TV cigarette advertising six years later. In 1964, 40 percent of American adults smoked. Though many experts rank nicotine as the most addicting of substances, by 2009 the percentage of smokers was cut in half, to 20.6 percent.
Unlike animals, humans have the unique ability to reflect on the past and plan for the future, so when it comes to behavioral adaptation, they have additional options when it comes to dealing with changes like environmental change.


Avoiding Change:

People weigh their need to change against the risks they'll take by changing. They may avoid an issue involving change by refusing to read or listen to information about it or think or talk about it. They adopt a "wait and see" attitude instead. Avoiding change can sometimes prevent hasty, foolish decision making, but it can also lead to "analysis paralysis," where we don't act, even if and when it's needed.
  • Is there a change in your future? Are you facing it or avoiding it?
  • Do you know someone who doesn't want to face environmental change? How do they avoid the issue?


Defending Against Change:

Another way to handle a change is to assess its possible impact, then set up defenses so the change is less likely to happen, or to be less severe. These defenses may be done individually and/or on a community's behalf.

For example, a worker who discovers his or her job could be eliminated may begin looking for another one or start saving more money as a cushion during a future time of unemployment. Another example: Residents of a community who recognize the signs of an impending flood and take defensive actions like filling and placing sandbags.

  • Did you every try to short-circuit a change by taking defensive measures? How did that work out?
  • What protective measures can you set up as an individual against environmental change? As a member of your community?


Accepting Change:

If avoiding or building defenses against a change is impossible, then the best course of action may be to face reality and accept the change, as difficult as that may be. Acceptance techniques include:

  • Admitting the change is outside of one's control.
  • Talking with others openly and honestly about the future change.
  • Finding the positives in the change.

Changes often provide opportunities for personal growth. An undesirable change can be the result of someone's unwise actions. In this case, that person grows by admitting the mistake, learning from it and moving forward.

  • If you're facing a change, with whom can you share your feelings about it? Have you done that?
  • Are there any positive aspects of environmental change? What are they?
  • What past mistakes have led to current environmental challenges? Have they been corrected?


Planning for Change:

Once someone accepts an unavoidable change, he or she can develop plans to adjust to it. Adaptation helps reduce the physical and emotional effects of change. By adapting their current lifestyles in positive ways, people better manage the negative effects of a change to them personally.

Living things adapt more quickly and successfully to change:

  • The more intelligent they are, because they are able to learn new ways.
  • When they have the ability and desire to work together with others towards solutions.
  • When they see change in a positive light, as an opportunity.

It may be helpful for those who struggle with change to remember humans don't have control over their feelings, but they can take charge of their behaviors. Behavior leads our thoughts and feelings. If we take action, even if we don't feel like it, our feelings will follow.

Since adapting to new circumstances takes time, it's wise to plan ahead. Making adjustments now to everyday behaviors can reduce the impact of future changes. Lesson 3 will discuss some of these adjustments.

A living organism that can't or doesn't adapt faces extinction. Extinctions may be caused by:

  • Climate change - caused by volcanic eruptions, continental shift, meteor strikes or other natural occurrences.
  • Predation or harassment  - in many cases, humans, or predators introduced by humans.
  • Food source failure - caused by climate change or destruction of habitat.
  • Unfamiliar diseases - cause by introduced species.

Controversy sometimes surrounds extinctions. Invite each student to research and report on the facts and theories behind a particular species' extinction. If the species is presumed, but not confirmed, extinct, when was its last sighting?


Game: Creative Adaptation 

Divide students into teams and distribute pads of scratch paper to each. Read one of the following situations and provide a minute for the teams to think of creative ways to adapt to it. When times is up, allow one team to share its answers. Teams will receive points only for unique adaptations, so if other teams have the same answers, all groups will cross them off their lists. Play for a specified length of time or to a certain number of points. The team with the most points at game's end wins.

  • A contact lens user who lives alone scratches the corneas of both eyes and must wear eye patches around the clock for two days.
  • A woman doing last-minute preparations for out-of-town guests slips on the ice, breaking her arm.
  • A man experiences a temporary, but total, hearing loss in both ears as the result of a virus. He must fly out on an important business trip that cannot be rescheduled.
  • A cheerleader develops severe laryngitis. She has a telephone interview for a summer camp counseling position the next morning.


Reproducible: Adaptation Match-Up

Make copies of the reproducible, and have students complete it independently. The answers can be found here.  


Reproducible: How Well Do YOU Adapt? 

The 21st century is a time of constant change and uncertainty. Experts have developed a set of subjects and skills they feel will best prepare students to successfully live in the world of the 21st century. A few of these essentials are:

  • The awareness of current affairs, including world events.
  • The ability to work together with others - even those with very different backgrounds.
  • The ability to thrive, even in an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Do you students have these qualities? They can find out by taking the quiz, How Well Do YOU Adapt? The scoring key can be found here. Students will give themselves the number of points indicated by their answers. After they total their points, read each description so they can learn their present level of adaptability.

The students may wonder why the worksheet's first statement addresses personal health. Health knowledge is a vital skill for the 21st century. How well a living organism adapts to environmental change depends in part on its physical, mental and emotional health. Understanding how to achieve optimum health, as well as putting this knowledge into practice, is important.  


Activity: Adapting to Loss

Invite adventurous students to simulate one of the physical disabilities below for a day. Afterward, allow a few minutes for them to share their experiences with the group. What struggles did they face? How did they meet these challenges?

  • Wear an eye patch or blindfold to simulate loss of eyesight in one or both eyes.
  • Put one arm in a sling to simulate the loss of a limb.
  • Tape the mouth to simulate loss of speech.
  • Use earplugs to simulate partial hearing loss.


Activity: Independent/Group Research

1) Adapting well to a future filled with changes, including environmental change, requires being informed. Divide the students into groups or invite them to independently research the latest news about:

  • How individuals in their own community can best prepare for future environmental change.
  • New technologies being developed to combat environmental change.
    • How effective do you predict these will be? Why?
  • How CARE, the United Nations, Peace Corps and other organizations are helping prepare the world for upcoming environmental change.

2) Researchers have debated for years about what led to the collapse of ancient civilizations like the Anasazi in the American Southwest, Khmer in Cambodia, Akkadians in Mesopotamia and the inhabitants of Easter Island.

  • What theories exist on what happened to these societies?
  • If we accept these theories, what lessons, if any, can the world learn from them?


Activity: Guest Speaker

Invite a guest to speak on the topic of adapting to a physical, mental or other challenge. In preparation, have each student prepare one or two questions to ask the speaker.  ​