The theme of adaptations has dominated science room projects for the past month. On the walls hang displays of different fungi models made by C Group, dioramas by M Group depicting birds that they have invented, and a colorful array of prehistoric creatures made by the JE kids. Though each of these focuses on a different group of organisms, they share the concept of demonstrating a specialized fit within a particular environment – one that allows them to survive and succeed as a species.
It is a hot topic not just at Jemicy, but everywhere right now as we try to understand how different species are faring in a rapidly changing climate. The recent article below describes how the Galapagos, the place that sparked our understanding of evolution, faces its own unique challenges of adaptation.
Adaptation can refer to a relationship with – and adjustment to – an immediate environment (like our classroom tortoises’ seasonal behavior changes, likely triggered by the amount of daylight they perceive) or the natural selection of certain traits that aid survival over time (like the formidable jaws of a Tyrannosaurus rex).
The 7th graders studying fungi focused on certain mushrooms’ striking appearance. I urged them to delve deeper, to ask questions: “Why is this mushroom blue? Why does that one glow in the dark? What’s up with this one’s weird shape?” While the blue mushroom derives its color from methyl stearate, we discovered, it has no obvious adaptive benefits – or at least none that we have discovered yet. Glowing green mushrooms, on the other hand, may or may not attract nocturnal animals that will eat them and disperse their spores. The lattice fungus has a structure that allows the dispersal of its spores by animals attracted to its powerful odor.
The 4th graders’ mission was to create a bird that would demonstrate adaptation to a particular chosen habitat, including unique ways of getting food, evading predators, and successfully raising a family. To accompany this project, we watched videos of birds with incredible adaptations for displaying, feeding, raising young, and surviving extremes.
Then I decided to share one of my favorite books with them. It features such rarities as the Blue Dart (that pierces its prey in flight with its needle-sharp bill), an owl that roosts upside down like a bat, and a bird that uses its curved bill to swing from tree to tree while calling like a famous vine-swinging human.
After reading several descriptions and receiving only expressions of amazement, I told the class the story of one of my students years ago who fell for an internet hoax about the endangered tree octopus. Slowly, it began to dawn on the kids that the bird field guide was fictional. After all, isn’t the crosscut sawbill’s limb-lopping ability nearly as believable as the pileated woodpecker’s ability to excavate huge holes in tree trunks? They noted ruefully that each “species” could never have survived for more than a single generation with these incredible adaptations.
But who knows – maybe somewhere out in a deep, vast ocean there really does lurk a Yeti bird with a beak adapted into a lengthy snorkel or a purple and blue pelican gliding silently through the bayous.