Desert Survival

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SWBAT discuss how inherited traits and behavioral responses allow animals to survive in their environment.

Big Idea

How do animals survive in the desert?

Opening Discussion

25 minutes

I begin this lesson by asking students to list some of the ways in which animals survive in our desert.  What physical characteristics (or behavioral traits) were they born with that help them survive?  How do their responses to different situations and environmental conditions help them survive?  I ask students to think about this for 1 minute silently and then jot down a few ideas.  I give them the sentence stem:  In order to survive in the desert, animals need...

Students then share out their answers to the whole group when needed I rephrase what they say into complete, precise sentences.


This question has many layers and often their responses are not specific to desert environments.  That does not make their answers incorrect.  We listen to all the ideas and afterwards will narrow down which requirements are general to all animals (needing food), which are adaptations of some animals regardless of environment (camouflage) and which are specific adaptations for the desert (lying spread-eagled on the ground to dissipate heat). 

This kind of whole group conversation also provides an opportunity to express misconceptions that might not even have occurred to me. For example, one student thought that some animals survive in the desert because when they absorb the heat they become more powerful.  Many students thought that scales protect animals from the heat. Still other children expressed the conviction that small size keeps some animals from getting too hot.  In actuality, smaller animals heat up more quickly.  (This is due to their larger surface area to volume ratio – see this excellent explanation from Pima Community College).

Clarifying Conversation

20 minutes

Option One: I present them with this Life in the Desert chart which specifies some of the actual ways in which animals respond to and are adapted to the Sonoran Desert (and other arid, hot environments).

We read it together and discuss any unfamiliar terms.  As I am currently teaching my science concurrent with my ELA block, I also take the time to break some of the key vocabulary into syllables and phonograms for reading and pronunciation, and parts of speech for grammar.

Option Two or Add-On: Show this video that gives examples of adaptions of desert animals.  All of them are from other countries except for the Gila Monster.  List the animals using the following chart and list their special adaptations.