Specialized for the Sea2021-12-18T16:59:03-05:00

Topic: Marine Biology

Grade Level: K-2

Summary: Students will use pictures and make a mural to investigate how ocean animals are adapted to certain parts of their environment.

Key Words: adaptation, habitat, surface, predator, prey, nearshore, offshore, photic (light) zone, aphotic (dark) zone

Introduction: Adaptations help animals to find and eat food, to avoid predators, to move, and to reproduce. Students can start by talking about adaptations in many contexts. They can talk about how desert animals are adapted to the harsh heat and dryness of the desert, or how animals in the arctic are adapted to live where it is so very cold and there is a lot of snow.

Ocean animals are adapted (specialized) to live in a certain part of the oceans. Although the ocean looks undifferentiated to us from shore, there are many different types of habitats there. For example, some organisms (phytoplankton, macroalgea, and marine plants) need sunlight to live, so they are found in the photic (light) zone. Others are adapted to live on the bottom or floating in mid-water.

What to Expect: It is best to do this lesson when you have been studying ocean animals so that children are already familiar with the animals, their habitat, and their behaviors. (When teaching lesson to children who are not familiar with the concept, you will need to spend time on introducing adaptations and looking at and discussing more animals together as a group so that children have enough understanding to complete the activity independently.) This lesson can be introduced and used with the whole class, but you may want to ask students to complete the lesson at a center during work periods. About 3-4 children can work on the assignment at a time, making it easier for students to share the animal pictures.


  • pictures and/or photographs of ocean animals (from books, magazines, calendars, or wildlife cards)
  • observing Ocean Animals worksheet
  • colored pencils and regular pencils for recording observations
  • construction paper for making ocean background


  1. Ideally, students should have read or listened to several books about ocean creatures.
  2. Use colored paper to cover large display board or poster to represent different ocean environments.
  3. Show students a picture of an ocean animal. Begin with an animal with obvious adaptations like a shark, a lantern fish, a crab, or a clown fish. It is best to choose an animal that students are familiar with, if possible, one that the class has read about.
  4. Discuss the environment where the ocean animal lives. Does the animal live on a coral reef? Where the water is cold? Where the ocean is very deep? Ask students what special adaptations help it to live in that environment. You may prompt students by asking them to consider “the Four P’s”: predator (what eats it), prey (what does it eat), protection (how does it stay safe or avoid predation), and place (where does it live, rest, how much does it move).
  5. Try identifying adaptations for another animal together as a class. This time try to get students to notice adaptations without much prompting.
  6. Explain the activity that students will be doing during center work. Show them the picture cards or pictures in books that they can select from. Show students the “Observing Ocean Animals” worksheet. Read the instructions. Encourage students to draw a detailed, scientific drawing that will show many features of the animal. Colored pencils work best for these types of drawings. Explain how students should fill in the information at the bottom of the page.
  7. Set up learning centers with the “Observing Ocean Animals” worksheets and colored pencils for students to draw the animal.
  8. Have students draw the animal on stiff paper, cut it out and glue or tape it to the correct place in the ocean habitats mural.
  9. Give students an opportunity to share their work once they have completed the activity at the center.
  10. Variation: Select a specific ocean environment like coral reefs or the ocean floor and have all students choose ocean animals from that environment.

Evaluation: Student sketches/observations, placement of animal on mural

Extensions: Have students make stick puppets from their ocean creature cut outs and present a play for parents about each animal’s adaptations and habitat.



Find a picture of an ocean animal that you would like to observe. Draw a picture of the animal below. Notice two parts of the animal that are adaptations for living in a certain ocean environment. Infer what each adaptation helps the animal to do. For example, a jellyfish has stinging tentacles for stinging its prey. A whale has a thick layer of fat to keep warm in cold water.

I observed a _______________________________________________.


This animal has these adaptations:

Adapted Body Part:



What it is adapted for:

Copyright 1998-2008 by Sea Education Association, all rights reserved. Compiled and edited by Pat Harcourt & Bill Meyer.

This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation (Proposals # TEI-8652383, TPE-8955214, and ESI-925324), the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Foundation, the Donner Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily of the Foundations.

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