Exploring the Tropical Rainforest
What Does Adaptation Mean?

The special characteristics that enable plants and animals to be successful in a particular environment are called adaptations

Camouflage, as in a toad's ability to blend in with its surroundings, is a common example of an adaptation. The combination of bright orange and black on a monarch butterfly is an adaptation to warn potential predators that the butterfly is poisonous and prevent it from being eaten. These special features have evolved over long periods of time, through the process of natural selection. Adaptations afford the organism a better chance to survive in its surroundings.

Desert Adaptations
Deserts, where the environment is generally hot and extremely dry, provide many striking examples of how plants and animals are adapted to their surroundings. Plants have many adaptations to cope with the lack of water. Some desert plants, such as the barrel cactus, have expandable stems for storing water. Other plants have adaptations that reduce water loss from their leaves, the part of a plant through which most of the water is lost. Still others have a waxy coating on the leaves, or have small leaves, that reduce the surface area exposed to the drying elements. In many cases, desert plants have no leaves at all. Photosynthesis, which normally occurs in green leaves, is carried out in the stems, which are themselves green with the pigment chlorophyll.

Desert animals also have many adaptations as well to help them survive in the desert climate. Many are nocturnal, meaning active during the cool night rather than the hot daylight hours. The kangaroo rat conserves water by excreting a solid urine rather than liquid.

Tropical Rainforest Adaptations
In sharp contrast, the climate of the tropical rainforest is hot and wet. With over 80 inches of rain per year, as opposed to the desert's 10 inches or less, plants have adaptations that enable them to shed water efficiently. The leaves of many rainforest plants have drip tips for this purpose. Buttress and stilt roots are thought to provide extra support for trees growing in spongy, wet soils.

Tropical rainforest plants also have adaptations to take in what little sunlight is available on the dark forest floor. Large leaves are common; they increase the amount of sunlight a plant can capture. Other plants, like orchids, bromeliads and ferns, grow as epiphytes high up in the canopy where there is more sunlight.

Other Adaptations
The adaptations discussed above are all adaptations to specific climatic conditions, but organisms have also developed adaptations to other aspects of their environment. Some animals have adapted to eat a certain type of food; others have adapted to avoid being eaten themselves. Most animals have behavioral adaptations which help them attract a mate. In the plant world, many flowers have evolved specific structures that help ensure pollination by the insects they attract.


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