Animals adapt physically to survive changes in climatic conditions, human intervention in the landscape and the spread of predators, but this structural adaptation happens incrementally over very long periods of time, according to Brown University's Division of Biology and Medicine. Behavioral adaptation allows animals to adjust more quickly to immediate threats, though it usually takes much longer than a single generation to become a part of the species' characteristic behavior.
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A behavioral adaptation is an action that animals carry out to increase their chances of survival and reproduction. The behavior may be learned and passed on from one generation to another or it may become an instinctive behavior passed on genetically. Some adaptations are individual and others are changes to a group's or an entire species' behavior, explains Brown University's Division of Biology and Medicine.
Group Vs. Individual
Some behavioral adaptations benefit the group while others benefit the individual to the detriment of the group, according to Brown University's Division of Biology and Medicine. Migration, for example, benefits the group because the target destination has conditions that favor the survival of the group, but many individuals die due to the rigors of the journey. By contrast, some behaviors, such as infanticide among lions, benefit only the individual. A male lion who displaces another usually will kill all the offspring of the other male. Clearly this does not enhance the survival of the group, but it causes the adult females to go into estrous and then they bear the offspring of the new pride leader, who benefits by propagating his genes.
When a habitat is inhospitable, animals often adopt behaviors that increase their chances of survival, according to researchers at Idaho National Laboratory's Environmental Surveillance, Education and Research Program. For example, in cold climates where food is scarce in the winter and temperatures may be life-threatening, some species hibernate through the season. Their body temperature drops to decrease the need for food and the sheltered hibernation environment protects them from the cold. Because they do not need to eat, they do not have to venture out into the harsh elements. In the desert where daytime temperatures are extreme, animals often often hide in burrows or caves during the day and emerge only during the cooler evening and night hours to forage or hunt for food and seek water.
Humans also adapt their behaviors to changes in their environment, but in a different and sometimes more transient way than animals, notes Professor Bernhard Schlag of Dresden University in his article, "Behavioral Adaptation." Humans tend to adopt more cautious behaviors when they perceive dangerous conditions, such as when driving in the rain. On the other hand, when conditions are more favorable or when there are measures to mitigate the risk, for example, anti-lock brakes, humans will engage in more risky behaviors, such as driving at higher speeds. This balance-counterbalance appears to be an individual equation balancing risk of danger against personal needs, such as a desire to get to the intended destination on time.
Rate of Adaptation
Non-genetic adaptations occur much more rapidly than genetic-based adaptations, such as migration, which happen incrementally over many generations, according to experts at Online Learning Haven. The speed at which an animal adapts its behavior is directly related to intelligence and the species' ability to act in community. For example, when a rural community is threatened by wild animals, humans react by securing domestic animals, bringing children indoors and creating a watch system. Animals threatened by predators will moderate their behaviors to increase the chances of survival, but usually such changes take generations.