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11 Physiological Adaptations In Animals

Animals have evolved and adapted to their environments for millions of years, including physiological adaptations that help them survive and thrive in even the harshest climates. From hibernation in mammals to venom production in snakes, animals have developed remarkable strategies for survival. In this article, we’ll explore 11 physiological adaptations in animals and how these adaptations help them survive in their environments.

Types of Animal Adaptations

Animals have adapted to their environment in a variety of ways, not only through physiological adaptations. There are 3 main types of animal adaptations:

  • Physiological
  • Behavioral
  • Structural

A physiological adaptation is a change in the internal environment of the organism that allows it to cope better with changes in its external environment.

Unlike structural adaptations, you cannot see physiological adaptations simply by looking at an animal. A structural adaptation involves a change in the structure or function of an animal’s body.

These changes are obvious when looking at an animal and can include camouflage and body shape and size. A behavioral adaptation is a change in an organism’s behavior that helps it better survive and pass on its gene pool, such as displays of dominance between males leading up to mating.

11 Physiological Adaptations In Animals

1. Venom production

Extracting snake venom
Extracting snake venom | photo: Mike Prince | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Venom production is a form of chemical defense used by some species. Venom is produced in specialized organs and can be injected or sprayed onto potential predators, either deterring them from attacking or causing them physical harm.

Certain species of reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, and fish have venom-producing organs which can be used for attack or defense. For example, some snakes have fangs filled with venom that they use to inject their prey with a paralyzing agent.

There are species of spiders that also produce venom in specialized glands on their abdomen. This venom is injected through fangs and can be used to immobilize or even kill small prey. Venom production allows some animals to better defend themselves against potential predators.

2. Odor production

Skunk chasing its prey
Skunk chasing its prey | Image by Silvia from Pixabay

The production of odors can be used to attract potential mates, mark territories, and alert other animals of danger. Odor production varies from species to species and can range from simple pheromones released by glands along the body to more complex compounds produced by specialized organs.

For example, male silk moths use a variety of chemical signals as pheromones to attract females from long distances away. Similarly, many species of skunks produce a powerful and noxious odor from glands located near the anus in order to ward off predators.

3. Molting

Molting cicada on tree
A molting cicada on tree | Image by bluegate from Pixabay

Molting is a process in which animals periodically shed and regrow their outer covering, such as fur or feathers. This adaptation serves important functions for many species, providing protection from the elements and allowing for growth when the animal outgrows its current covering.

It also helps to keep parasites at bay and allows animals to change their coloration for camouflage or display purposes. Some examples of animals that molt include snakes, crabs, and birds.

The molting process often involves the animal shedding its outer covering in patches or large chunks over a period of time. During this process, the animal’s new covering begins to grow beneath the old one.

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4. Urine concentration

Dromedary camels
Dromedary camels | image by Wolfgang_Hasselmann via Pixabay

Animals in arid regions are adapted to conserve water, often by producing highly concentrated urine, sometimes up to three times more concentrated than an animal that lives in a less dry region. This helps retain moisture and prevent dehydration. This adaptation also helps excrete nitrogenous waste products effectively in a dry environment.

For example, desert lizards are able to produce urine that is up to three times more concentrated than their body fluid. Camels also have the ability to produce very concentrated urine. Their kidneys can excrete waste products efficiently by reabsorbing water and salts from the filtrate and secreting them back into the body.

5. Blubber

Sperm whale in blue ocean
Sperm whale in blue ocean

Blubber is a thick layer of subcutaneous fat that can be found beneath the skin of certain aquatic mammals, such as seals and whales. This layer of fat acts as insulation from the cold by trapping air and providing heat energy.

It also contains a lot of energy-dense lipids, which can be used as fuel for the animal during cold periods when their other food sources may be unavailable. In addition, the layer of fat acts as an effective buoyancy aid and helps to reduce drag in the water, allowing the animal to move more efficiently.

Despite being an adaptation to cold climates, blubber is also important in warm environments as it helps to protect the animal from injury. The layer of fat works like a cushion, absorbing the impact of any collision with rocks or other objects in the water.

6. Breath retention

Rough-toothed dolphins underwater
Rough-toothed dolphins underwater | image by Laurent Bouveret via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Many animals can hold their breath underwater for extended periods of time. Dolphins, seals, and manatees are just a few examples of creatures that can stay submerged for long periods without taking a breath. These animals have special modifications in their bodies that help them to retain oxygen in their tissues and organs while they hold their breath.

Dolphins and seals have specially adapted lungs that allow them to take in more oxygen than other mammals, but they still have to come to the surface to breathe, unlike their aquatic, non-mammalian counterparts. This extra oxygen is stored in their bodies while they’re underwater, giving them the ability to hold their breath for longer periods of time.

7. Hollow bone structure

White cockatoo on flight
White cockatoo on flight | image by Jean and Fred Hort via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Hollow bones are found in animals such as birds, which need lighter weight and greater strength for flight. Hollow bones are thinner than solid ones but are strengthened by crisscrossing struts inside them.

The spaces in between these struts provide a lightweight skeleton that still provides the necessary support for flight. Birds have several other physiological adaptations related to their hollow bones, such as air sacs in their chest and lungs which help them to stay aloft longer by providing extra buoyancy.

8. Delayed implantation

Sea Lion on a rock
Sea Lion on a rock | image by Eva via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Delayed implantation is a physiological adaptation present in some animals. It allows the fertilized embryo to remain dormant and then implant when environmental conditions become more favorable.

In many species with delayed implantation, the egg will not attach itself to the uterine wall until weeks or even months after conception. This adaptation provides the mother organism with an increased chance of survival in harsh conditions because she does not have to expend resources on the embryo until the environment is more stable.

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Delayed implantation can also ensure that a new animal is born in favorable weather conditions, which may be a concern in colder climates. Examples of animals that use delayed implantation include bears, badgers, sea lions, and seals.

9. Hibernation

Groundhog in burrow
Groundhog in burrow

Hibernation, most commonly seen in mammals, is an adaptation that allows animals to survive during periods of extreme cold or food scarcity by reducing their metabolic rate and body temperature to conserve energy. During hibernation, the animal’s heart rate slows, breathing slows, and can even stop for hours at a time, and its body temperature drops significantly.

Hibernation is an adaptation that has evolved over time, enabling animals to survive difficult environmental conditions. In some cases, animals can hibernate for months at a time, while others may just sleep through the coldest winter nights.

10. Four-part stomachs

Cows roaming in the grass field
Cows roaming in the grass field | image by steve p2008 via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Many animals have four-chambered stomachs which evolved to allow them to digest their food more effectively. Ruminants such as cows, sheep, and goats have a four-part stomach composed of the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum.

The rumen is the first chamber of the four-part stomach, and it is where food is stored to allow for microbial fermentation. The reticulum is the second chamber, and it forms a net-like structure that helps hold large particles of partially digested food in place.

The third chamber, known as the omasum, is where water and minerals are absorbed from the partially digested food. The fourth and final chamber of the four-part stomach is the abomasum, which is the true stomach of these animals. Here, powerful digestive enzymes are secreted to break down proteins and fats in the food.

The ability to digest tough vegetation has played a crucial role in the survival of many animals that eat foods with compounds like cellulose in them that would be indigestible if not for the four-part stomach.

11. Efficient oxygen use

Animals living at high altitudes must adapt to lower oxygen levels. To increase their efficiency of oxygen use, some species have evolved larger lungs and hearts, which allow them to take in more air with each breath.

Additionally, they may also have higher concentrations of red blood cells in their circulatory system, enabling them to transport more oxygen around their body. In some cases, animals at high altitudes may also have increased levels of enzymes that help to metabolize oxygen more efficiently. All of these adaptations give them an evolutionary advantage in low-oxygen environments, allowing them to survive and thrive in the thin air of their mountainous homes.