Antarctic Adaptations

In this learning sequence, students investigate how animals and plants survive the harsh Antarctic climate. Group animals and plants according to those that could survive Antarctica and those that could not. Through guided research develop an understanding of adaptations. Describe animal adaptations as physical, physiological or behavioural. Make connections between Antarctica’s climate and migratory patterns. Create your own Antarctic animal and explain the ways it is suited to the environment.

Setting the scene

A harsh environment

View the image gallery of Antarctic conditions.

Describe the conditions faced by animals and plants living and surviving in Antarctica. These include high winds, freezing temperatures, extended darkness in winter, extended daylight in summer, and variable food supply.

What does it take to survive?

Establish what students currently know about how animals and plants are suited or have adapted to an extreme environment such as Antarctica. A possible starting point is to sort animals according to those that could survive in Antarctica and those that could not.

Provide students in small groups a range of images of animals and plants [PDF]. Would these living things survive in Antarctica? Ask students to sort them into groups of yes/no/unsure with students providing reasons for their decisions. As a class share their grouping.

Explore and research

How can it survive?

Pose the question: how can an animal or plant survive the harsh Antarctic conditions? Each student writes five statements in response to the question, each one on a separate strip of paper. In small groups they share their statements, grouping similar ideas together. These statements can form the basis of their inquiry. Students refine their statements, elaborating on them by adding related ideas gained through guided research.

Guided student research

To guide their research, provide students with a copy of the worksheet, Data chart: Adaptations [PDF]. The data chart provides relevant sections of the Australian Antarctic Division website and key questions to answer. Encourage students to summarise main points rather than copy large slabs of text.

Ask students to create a mind map of the adaptations plants and animals have that help them survive the harsh Antarctic environment.

As a class discuss their mind maps.

Explain and share

Physical adaptations, behavioural adaptations and internal functions.

Discuss the adaptations identifying those that are:

  • physical - such as size and body shape or having layers of blubber (insulation)
  • physiological - such as specialised internal functions for example internal systems that recover and recycle their body heat
  • behavioural - those that are related to how they act or move such as huddling behaviour of emperor penguins.

In pairs, students choose one animal and in detail describe ways it is adapted to life in Antarctica. To guide research list headings such as body covering, size, shape, fat stores and insulation, reproduction and caring for young, feeding, offspring, breathing, regulating heat, and being territorial.

Ask students to create a poster to demonstrate their findings. Include a drawing or include an image of their animal identifying its physical adaptations. Describe its physiological and behavioural adaptations.

Elaborate and apply


Another way Antarctic animals survive is to migrate to warmer conditions to avoid the Antarctic winter. Create a list of animals that migrate to and from Antarctica. Complete a table that indicates the months of the year that these animals leave and return. Refer to the 'breeding' section under each of the animals on the animals page.

Compare the dates with climate data for Antarctica. Provide students with a copy of the worksheet, Climate data for Mawson [PDF]. What is the relationship between migration and climate?

Explain that summer months provide perfect conditions (nutrients and sunlight) for microscopic marine plants. Why might this indirectly influence migration of some animals? Make connections to krill: an important food source for many Antarctic animals.

Discuss the importance of subantarctic islands such as Heard and Macquarie Islands as a refuge and for breeding purposes. Relate the islands’ position relative to Antarctica.

View the video: Macquarie Island life.

Scientists at work

View the video: Tracking emperor penguin chicks.

Discuss why scientists are studying emperor penguins and what they may learn about how these chicks have adapted to their environment.

Deep sea environment

Benthic (bottom of the ocean) creatures survive incredible depths in low light, high pressure environments. Identify the types of animals that live there and the features that enable them to survive this type of environment. Create a class ‘bottom of the ocean’ scene with a way of highlighting each animal’s adaptations.

Refer to seabed (benthic) communities.


Create your own animal or plant

Students apply what they know about animal and plant adaptations to create their own Antarctic animal or plant. Ask students to draw a labelled diagram describing how their plant is specialised to suit its environment.

Reflect on learning and quiz

In small groups, students return to their bundling statement organised into paragraphs and update their ideas to demonstrate their learning. In pairs, ask students to develop 10 quiz questions with answers related to how animal and plants are specialised in order to cope with Antarctica’s extreme environments.

Assessment ideas

At various points in the learning, assess to what extent students:

  • identify ways an animal or plant has specialised to living in Antarctica
  • identify physical and behavioural adaptations, or those that are internal functions
  • create their own animal or plant which demonstrates appropriate adaptations suited to the environment