Built to Survive

Rahm's Readers Summer Learning Challenge Brain Builder

polar bear and cub
Source: bm.iphone, Flickr

Have you ever thought about why giraffes have such long necks or how polar bears are able to survive in the arctic? Animals have special characteristics, called adaptations, that help them survive in their habitat. Different types of adaptations serve different purposes. The giraffe's long neck helps it reach food in tall trees. Polar bears have a thick layer of blubber that keeps them warm in the freezing cold of the arctic.

Think about the adaptations the animals in your neighborhood have to survive Chicago's changing weather.


What Do You Do With A Tail Like This?: Test your animals knowledge by guessing who has which noise, ear, eyes and tail.

Extreme Animals: The Toughest Creatures on Earth: Humans can't live without food, water or air, or in extreme climates, but find out which animals can and how they do it.


  • Ducks spend a majority of their life in the water. One adaptation they have to survive in this environment is webbed feet, but how does this adaption help them? With a plastic shopping bag, a large container of water (like a bucket or your kitchen sink) and a rubber band, you can find out.
    1. Fill your container with water.
    2. Spread your fingers wide and place your hand into one corner of the plastic bag. Twist the excess plastic to tighten the bag around your wrist and secure it with a rubber band.
    3. Spread the fingers on your other hand and place both hands into the water.
    4. Drag your hands back and forth in the water. Compare how each hand moves through the water. What does this tell you about webbed feet? What other animals have this adaptation and why?
  • Does blubber really protect a polar bear from the icy cold waters of the arctic? With a few household supplies, you too can be protected from the icy cold.
    1. Supplies: Two plastic shopping bags (or one small and one large plastic glove), vegetable shortening, duct tape, a large container of ice water and a rubber band.
    2. Fill your container with ice water.
    3. Place your hand into a corner of one plastic bag. Twist the excess plastic to tighten the bag around your wrist.
    4. Get a friend to spread a thick layer of shortening onto the hand in the bag.
    5. Place a second plastic bag over the shortening covered hand. Twist the excess plastic together with the excess plastic of the first bag to tighten the bag around your wrist. Use a rubber band to secure the bags together at your wrist.
    6. Pull the edge of the first bag out and fold it over the outer bag. Secure the bags together with duct tape so that water does not leak inside.
    7. Place both hand in the ice water. Compare how your hands feel. What other animals have blubber? What other adaptations do animals in the have to survive in extremely cold weather?
    8. Try this experiment again with other insulating materials, such as marshmallows or felt. How do these materials differ from the shortening blubber?
  • Visit a zoo and choose two animals that live in the same environment in the wild. What adaptations have they developed to survive in their particular habitat? Would they survive in a different environment with the same adaptations?
  • Take a virtual trip around the world with Mission Adaptation and document how different plants and animals adapt to their environment.

Dig Deeper

  • Imagine you are going to a desert island with only a small backpack. What things would you bring with you? How would you use the items to help you survive? How do animals adapt for survival?

Rahm’s Readers is in partnership with Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Schools, The Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago, Brookfield Zoo/Chicago Zoological Society, Lincoln Park Zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry and Chicago City of Learning.

Rahm’s Readers is made possible by The James & Madeleine McMullan Foundation, Cubs Care, Comcast, Dr. Scholl Foundation, CPL Foundation Junior Board, Helen M. Harrison Foundation, Macys, Peoples Gas, Robert R. McCormick Foundation, ComEd, R.R. Donnelley, The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust, Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Foundation, Verizon and RPM Advertising through the Chicago Public Library Foundation.

We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of Chicago Public Library