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  • Ash, Lead Naturalist

Animal Adaptations Hike!

Updated: Aug 29

Written By: Ashley Goldbeck


Introduction:

All species of animals have a distinctive ecosystem in which they live. Ideally, this ecosystem is the animal’s natural or “native” habitat. It is here that their four basic needs for survival are met;

1) food

2) water

3) shelter

4) space

However, with growing populations across the globe it is becoming increasingly harder for certain animals to obtain these basic necessities. There are also other factors such as climate change, predators, disease, etc. Therefore, animals must learn to adapt to their surrounding habitat in order to survive. 


So what exactly is adaptation?

In a nutshell, adaptation is a change an animal makes to become better suited to its environment. Adaptation can be structural, meaning it is a physical part of the organism, or behavioral, affecting the way an organism acts.

  • An example of a structural adaptation is the way some plants have adapted to life in the desert. Deserts are dry, hot places. Plants called succulents have adapted to this climate by storing water in their thick stems and leaves.

  • An example of a behavioral adaptation is migration. Many birds cant survive the cold winters here in Wisconsin so they travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to different climates where they have adapted to the warmer, more humid climates until the weather improves back home over here..

Animals can only live in places they are adapted to. Because of this we see they have created many intriguing ways of doing so. Some animals camouflage themselves, some change color, others change their diet. The list goes on and on. Below I’ve shared some unique forms of adaptions we see in animals right here at Willow River State Park! 


Make it a Family Adventure or Classroom Outing!

Using the pictures provided below (or a pelt or skull of each animal if you have one) see if you can predict each animals’ adaptation before reviewing the information (Also decide if the adaptation is structural or behavioral) Take a hike and look for these animals at the park or even in your own backyard! For convenience, I’ll list trails you’re likely to spot these animals at the park. 


Long-tailed Weasels and Snowshoe Hares:

Both animals change their fur color seasonally to blend in. For the Snowshoe Hare this is a tactic to help save itself from hungry predators like coyotes, wolves, bobcats and fox. For the weasel it is a tactic to help it blend in so it can hunt more effectively for its prey like mice, rats, shrews and even rabbits! 

This is a form of structural adaptation.


Weasels and hares can be seen: near trails with dense thickets and brush piles and out along the meadow areas throughout the park. Weasels like the rockiness by the falls and the heavy rodent traffic of the meadows.


Otters and Beavers:

Have water-repellent fur to keep them warm and dry while swimming even in the coldest months. They both also have webbed feet to help them swim and otters even have nostrils and ears that close when they dive into the water. Look closely at either one of their pelts and you can see two types of fur. The thinner and longer hair on top wicks away the water while the thicker fur below keeps them insulated and warm. 

This is a form of structural adaptation.

Look for beavers and otters along the Purple, blue, Silver, Pink and Mound trail along the Willow River! Otters also enjoy the area just below the falls on the north side of the bridge.


Woodchucks, chipmunks and Bats:

Are all examples of true hibernators. During their hibernation, the woodchuck's heart goes from 80 beats per minute to only 4 or 5. It also drops its body temperature to 60 degrees below normal temperature.

Bats will huddle together in a protected place, such as a cave that stays above freezing. 

And chipmunks have been known to stay asleep during the whole winter season without waking up once, even to go to the bathroom! 

These are all forms of behavioral adaptation.

Chipmunks can be seen all throughout the park. Bats enjoy the openness of the beach/picnic area and the prairies and meadow portions of the Red, Orange and yellow trails in the evening. 

Woodchucks like the forest edges, meadows, brushy areas, and fields throughout the park. 


Whitetail Buck:

Shed their antlers to grow a larger set the following year. If you find an antler lying on the ground in the woods it is called a “shed”. The shedding of the antlers each winter is the result of a drop in testosterone after the rut season. In the spring/summer you may see rubbings on trees where bucks were attempting to scrape off the velvet layer that covers their newly grown set of antlers. 

These are forms of structural adaptation, which happen to produce different behaviors in white tail buck deer. 

White tails can be seen almost anywhere in the park but they especially love the Hidden Ponds trail and natural playground area! They are also common on the brown trail and of course the red trail which is named the white tail 

Trail.


Opossum:

Have a prehensile tail that grips branches. Some people believe that possums sleep upside down by hanging from this tail. This however, is a myth. They actually use them as a safety line incase they fall while climbing through trees. This is a form of Structural adaptation.  

Another form of adaptation the possum is known for is “playing dead” where the animal will sometimes even urinate or defecate on itself to trick predators into finding the possum uneatable. This is a form of behavioral adaptation, and it often helps keep the possum alive! 

Possums can be spotted on the: Hidden Ponds, brown, red, orange, yellow and green trail, and within the campgrounds as they are opportunists and like to steal campers food at night!


Turkeys:

Have beards, which grow on the chest of male gobblers (and oddly 10-20% of hens) The beard is not actually hair but is made of modified feathers. It's not exactly clear what a turkey beards' purpose is, but scientists believe it may help differentiate birds or be a way to attract females because some males grow larger beards than others.

Also, the skin on the head and throat of a turkey can change from gray to striking shades of red, white, and blue when the bird becomes distressed or excited.  Turkeys also use their large, strong talons to help rake up the ground so they can forage better for insects, seeds, and left over scraps in our cornfields, even in the dead of winter. These are all forms of structural adaptation

Turkeys can easily be spotted anywhere in the park. They are often seen on the roadside and near the natural playground area. Almost every time I hike the Hidden Ponds, purple or brown trail I run into one as well.


Painted Turtles:

Use their hard shell as a form of protection from predators and also as their home. Unlike other shelled animals who have the ability to molt or trade their shell in for a better model, turtles' backbones are actually fused to their shell. This particular type of turtle produces scutes, which shed from the top and bottom of the shell quite regularly. These tiny, see-through scutes are made of Keratin the same material as our fingernails and they protect the turtle from parasites and disease. When they shed these scutes it is like taking a deep cleansing bath for them. 

This is a form of structural adaptation that makes it possible for the turtles to live in several different aquatic habitats. 

Painted turtles can be seen basking on logs in any of the 3 hidden ponds behind the nature center, along the blue trail, up at the willow falls.


Fox Snake:

Emits a foul musky odor (similar to that of a skunk or fox) when disturbed or attacked by a predator. This is a survival tactic and a form of structural adaptation. However, this snake is also a trickster! If the odor isn’t enough the fox snake is known to rattle its tail, mimicking the sound of a rattlesnake, in turn scaring its would-be predator away. This is a form of behavioral adaptation. Fox snakes can most commonly be seen near the nature center or other building foundations in the park, near the beach, on the green or blue trail or at the willow falls where they bask openly in the sun. This is a non-venomous snake, and is not a threat to you! Please maintain your distance and respect the animal’s privacy.


Red Fox:

Considered opportunistic eaters, foxes have adapted to living in towns and cities with humans, and enjoy any human food they can get their jaws on. But in the wilderness, food is not always so easy to come by so they must change their menu, and therefore their behavior. During summer Red foxes feed on corn, berries, apples, grasses, acorns, and cherries. They will even eat insects. In winter, when everything is covered in a bed of snow, they must hunt for small mammals beneath the snow such as mice, squirrels and rabbits in order to stay alive. This is a form of behavioral Adaptation. 


Can you think of any other animal adaptations? Share them with us! We love hearing from you!

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