Adaptation and Evolution of Populations: The Case of the Peppered Moth

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SWBAT describe how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals’ probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment.

Big Idea

Explain how natural selection causes populations to change.


5 minutes

In this section of lesson I use an Adaptation Assessment Probe from Uncovering Student Ideas in Science: 25 new formative assessments, Volume 4.

The purpose of this assessment probe is to elicit students' ideas about biological adaptation.  The probe is designed to find out if students think animals intentionally adapt to a change in their environment.

You don't have to use this probe to elicit what students think about adaptation. Some questions, or a "scenario",  could also elicit their thinking. The information needed to elicit student understanding is covered in the detailed information about common misconceptions related to adaptation (below - from NSTA). Just remember to always ask students to include a "because statement".

The probe's title is  "Adaptation".  This is one of many terrific probes found in a series of books published by the NSTA. 

Common Misconception:

"There is a common misconception about evolution that implies that an individual can intentionally change and pass on it's genes so that its offspring will be adapted.  Due to this both Leo and Bernie's answers are in correct.  Either the genes are there that allow individuals to survive and pass on their traits that enhance survival to its offspring (natural selection) or they are not there.  Another problem is the common use of the verb adapt, which implies that an action is being taken by an individual." - Uncovering Student Ideas in Science (Volume 4)- 25 NEW Formative Assessment Probes by Page Keeley and Joyce Tugel (2009).


25 minutes

In this section of lesson students explore the concepts of adaptation, natural selection, and variation by completing a Peppered Moth Simulation. (SP2 Developing and using Models - Develop and/or use a model to predict and/or describe phenomena. )

Learning Objectives:

  1. Describe the importance of variation (i.e. coloration) in avoiding predation.
  2. Relate environmental change to changes in organisms.
  3. Explain how natural selection causes population to change.


  1. Sheet of white paper and newspaper
  2. Forceps
  3. Timer
  4. 30 newspaper circles and 30 white circles (made with hole punch)


Our nature deprived students may have difficulty with some of the ideas that underlie the story of the peppered moth. Some context for them is found in the Evolution of the Peppered Moth (there are many other free choices, some with simpler language and explanations. I chose this one because it uses a great deal of the lesson's vocabulary).



In this lab students simulate natural selection by exploring the case of the peppered moth.

Industrial Melanism is a term used to describe the adaptation of a population in response to pollution. One example of rapid industrial melanism occurred in populations of peppered moths in the area of Manchester, England from 1845 to 1890. Before the industrial revolution, the trunks of the trees in the forest around Manchester were light grayish-green due to the presence of lichens. Most of the peppered moths in the area were light colored with dark spots. As the industrial revolution progressed, the tree trunks became covered with soot and turned dark. Over a period of 45 years, the dark variety of the peppered moth became more common (CCC - Cause and Effect). 


Depending on time or as a differentiation strategy you might want to complete this activity virtually by visiting Peppered Moths - Natural Selection in Black and White. 


15 minutes

In this section of the lesson, students learn about the relationship between variations and adaptations by reading the Adaptation and Evolution of Populations article from cK-12.  Students complete two activities using the text.

1. PreRead


To build and enhance understanding of the relationships between key words and to practice useful skills for designing information architecture using the Card Sort strategy.


Provide a list of words to individuals or groups of students on separate cards.  Students will sort and then categorize the words.  In class a student from each group can present and explain their categorization to the class.  Online students can chat with their peers using a chosen chat room.


Sort the following words into categories of your choice.  Give each category a title. 














2. Double Entry Diary


Promote connections between specific points in the concept’s reading and the reader’s personal experiences. Connect text with personal experience in order to deepen understanding and engagement.


This is a two-column graphic organizer. In the first column students pick five sections of text to copy. In the second column students write a question they have about the text, a personal connection they have to the text or a reaction that they have to the text.  Strength: Drawing on student voice and experience; promotes class discussion.


This is a WhileRead.

As students read, they write down at least five sentences from the text that they have a connection to, a reaction to, or a question about.  


Quote text directly from reading

A connection I have to this is . . 

A reaction I have to this is . . .

A question I have about this is  












10 minutes

In this section of lesson students elaborate on what they have learned through the Peppered Moth simulation by reading a passage from Readworks. The passage, titled Naturally Selected to Survive, can be found for free by going onto that site, and searching for the title. The lexile level is 1090L, and there are a number of online resources that can be used to modify printed material to different reading levels. (Google app tldr (too long didn't read), Rewordify)

The passage discusses in detail the environmental changes caused in England by the Industrial Revolution, and changes to the moth population as observed by scientists over the next 100 years.

In having your students read this article, consider their academic language level which is different than their social language level. Students, particularly second language learners, can often communicate more fluently at a social level and this can lead to an assumption that the student is more fluent than they actually are. Some strategies to assist students in navigating this reading could be reading partnerships, jigsaw reading, doing an interactive read aloud (reading to middle school students is a great strategy), and more. The article Successful Strategies for Teaching Reading to MIddle Grades English Language Learners explains a number of strategies. Keep in mind that you don't have to have ELL students to use these reading strategies - they benefit all students who are developing their reading skills.

Once students have read the passage, they answer a series of Text Dependent questions that assesses their comprehension of text. (RST.6-8.1 - Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to the precise details of explanations or descriptions.)  


5 minutes

In this section of the lesson, students complete an Exit Slip where they are required to make a scientific explanation based on evidence gathered from todays lesson.  Specifically students are creating a counter claim to the common misconception that individuals can intentionally adapt to ones environment (i.e. giraffes stretch their necks longer to reach higher elevations sources of food).  

Students are required to describe how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment. (MS-LS4-4 - Construct an explanation based on evidence that describes how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals’ probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment./WHST.6-8.2 - Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content/SP6-Constructing Explanations)