Shelledy Elementary

Awesome Adaptations

Colorado Life Zones: Seasons, Plants, & Animals

Step 1: Choose One of the Life Zones or Choices Below

Life Zones Menu Bar
Colorado Life Zones General Information Interactive Elevation & Life Zone Diagram Colorado Maps: Life Zones and More Semidesert Shrublands (West CO) Shortgrass Plains Life Zone (East CO) Foothills Woodlands & Shrublands Montane Forests Life Zone Subalpine Life Zone Alpine Life Zone Riparian Life Zones

Riparian Life Zones: Seasons, Plants, & Animals

Step 2: Choose a Topic from the Riparian Life Zones & Scroll Down

General Information
General Information

Riparian Life Zones Tamarisk Russian Olive
Tamarisks & Russian Olives: Problem Trees

Riparian Life Zones Fish

Riparian Life Zones Awesome AdaptationsAwesome Adaptations

Riparian Life Zones Plants Trees of the Riparian Life Zones
Plants and Trees

Riparian Life Zones Mammals

Riparian Life Zones Birds

Riparian Life Zones Reptiles and Amphibians
Reptiles & Amphibians

Subalpine Life Zone: Awesome Adaptations

Colorado and the Rocky Mountains have many different plants and animals that have made awesome adaptations to live in the different life zones. Here are just a few.

_beaver Beaver

Moose Moose

Sandhill cranes Sandhill Cranes

Cottonwood trees

Cottonwood Trees


Western painted turtle Western Painted Turtle

Colorado Cutthroat Trout Cutthroat Trout

American DipperAmerican Dipper

Tiger Salamander Tiger Salamander

Canyon Treefrog Canyon Treefrog

Awesome Adaptations: Beaver

The beaver has many awesome adaptations that help it survive. First, it makes and rubs an oil on its thick fur that makes the fur waterproof. This in turn keeps its underfur dry and warm helping it survive in the super cold snowmelt water. The beaver has sharp continually growing front teeth that help it chew down trees for food and building materials for dams and lodges. Beavers are one of the largest rodents, which allows them to cut down and drag larger trees and branches. It has webbed hind feet and sharp clawed front feet to help it swim quickly and dig mud up for the dam and lodge. The beaver's round paddled tail help it balance and help it warn others of danger. It has an extra see-through protective eyelid to protect its eyes and to see underwater. Beavers are expert builders and can create dams to make ponds and large mounds of sticks and mud for a lodge. The beaver has many adaptations that make it a master builder and at home in an underwater environment.

The beaver plays an important role in keeping mountain habitats or life zones healthy. The beavers create dams out of mud, sticks, and plants. The dams create ponds and wetlands that many other animals make their homes, like moose, fish, muskrats, ducks, and more. More importantly, they help slow down and collect the rapid summer snow melt off. This provides animals with lots of water after much of the snow has melted. It also collects a lot of the dirt, sticks, and other debris floating down the streams. This cleans the water flowing down from their ponds and prevents too much erosion. Beavers also chew down lots of trees creating large open areas for new plants to grow and creating natural fire breaks in the forest.

In the mid 1800's, beaver skin hats became popular and many beavers were killed for their fur. Mountain men and native americans would hunt and trap them to sell and trade their furs at local trading posts. Just like most fashion, people's tastes changed and the beaver hats were no longer popular. However, so many beavers were killed for their furs that large populations of them were killed throughout the United States. During mining booms most every animal around the boomtowns were hunted out for food, including beavers. In addition, the chemicals used to separate gold and silver from the rocks polluted streams and rivers killing even more wetland creatures. Not that long ago, the beaver was on the brink of extinction in Colorado. Over time the numbers of beavers have increased and stabilized. Today, increased human development into the mountains is coming more and more into conflict with increasing beaver populations. The beavers can slightly change the flow of water and turn mountain meadows into wetlands. The beavers can chew down many trees turning large beautiful forested areas into large treeless open areas. Too few beavers is especially bad for the environment. But too many beavers can be a problem also.

Sources of information and to find more information: Nature Works, CO Div of Wildlife, Oregon Zoo

Beaver dam Beaver dam
beaver lodge beaver lodge

Awesome Adaptations: Moose

Moose live in different parts of the state around ripirian life zones. Moose are the largest member of the deer family and are truly large animals. They can get up to 6 feet tall at their shoulders and weigh 1600 pounds. An adult moose weighs as much as a small car. They have extremely strong muscles and can run as fast as 35 miles per hour. Their long legs help them wade out into the water to eat aquatic plants and reach the tall twigs and leaves on trees. Moose have dark brown hollow hair to help it stay warm in the cold mountain run-off water and are excellent swimmers. They have special large hooves that help them walk through the muddy wetlands. Moose have very poor eyesight. Yet, they have an excellent sense of smell. Male moose are called bulls. Bull moose grow large antlers each year and shed them when the mating season is over.

Moose are not always the gentle giants of the deer family. In fact, they have been known to more dangerous than bears and other large predatory animals. Moose know that they are the largest animals in their habitat and can be very territortial. Often times they will just run away if it senses danger. But, it is not uncommon for moose to charge and attack with their incredibly strong legs or antlers for bull moose. This happens more often by bull moose in mating season and with mother moose who are protecting their young calves. A charging moose is extremely dangerous considering they weigh as much as a small car, can run up to 35 miles per hour, and are taller than humans! So when you see a moose in the wild, give it plenty of space and respect.

Sources of information and to find more information: Nature Works, CO Div of Wildlife, Sask. Schools

Moose Mother moose with calf

Awesome Adaptations: Sandhill Crane

Sandhill cranes are one of the many migratory birds that use Colorado's riparian life zones as important stop overs on their year long migrations. During the summer they live and raise their chicks in northern Canada and the arctic. In the fall, they fly south over thousands of miles to the southern United States and Mexico, only to return back north in the spring. Their long 5 to 7 foot wingspan and flying in large flocks in a v-shaped pattern help them make the journey each year. Sandhill cranes are omniverous meaning they eat insects, fish, small animals, seeds, and berries. They have gray and brown feathers with a patch of red on their head. Their long skinny legs and long beaks help them wade through the wetlands to catch and eat food.

The sandhill crane has been listed as a species of concern by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. There is still a safe breeding population of sandhill cranes. However, as more and more people move to and live in Colorado and the western United States, more wetland habitats are being destroyed to make room for homes and businesses. In addition, many dams have been put on the rivers, stopping them from flooding and renewing important wetland habitats each year for the many migratory birds including the sandhill crane. It is important that we protect wetland and riparian habitats so the large flocks of birds can have a place to rest and eat along their great yearly migrations.

Sources of information and for more information: All About Birds, CO Div of Wildlife, CSU NDIS, Avian Web

Sandhill cranes flying Sandhill cranes flying

Awesome Adaptations: Cottonwood Trees

Cottonwood trees are a very important part of the riparian life zones at the lower elevations. Cottonwoods grow really fast and can get hundreds of feet tall. They can grow so fast because Cottonwood makes soft wood, meaning it has a loose wood grain and is easy cut or break. In fact, the last place you want to be during a strong wind is by a large cottonwood tree. Large branches have been known to fall in strong wind gusts. Cottonwoods got their name because in late spring the trees create lots of white fluffy seeds that blow easily in the wind. The seeds collect together in what looks like large piles of white cotton. Cottonwood trees need lots of water to survive and are usually only found by lakes, streams, rivers, natural springs, or large wetland areas. Cottowood trees' roots help hold the dirt in place on the sides of the rivers and help slow down erosion.

Cottonwood trees create lots of important shade and shelter for animals during hot summer days. The leaves provide food for some animals. Birds peck out holes in the tree to build a nest, to lay eggs, and to eat bugs hiding in the tree. Racoons and other animals find shelter in dead hollow sections of the trees or fallen trees. Large birds of prey like bald eagles and hawks make their nests in the trees and use the trees tall height to help them spy on the animals below, to keep their chicks safe from other predators, and to help take off flying.

In the western part of the state, many riparian life zones that were once dominated by cottonwood trees and willow trees are being taken over by non-native tamarisks and russian olives. The tamarisks and russian olives do not provide the food or shelter that the cottonwood does. Without the cottonwood trees, many animals are losing their home and one of their food sources. The cottonwood tree is important to the health of entire riparian habitats at the lower elevations. It is essential we stop the spread of tamarisks and russian olives and restore the areas with native cottonwood trees and willows. For more information click on Tamarisks & Russian Olives: Problem Trees.

Cottonwood trees Cottonwood trees
Cottonwood Tree Cottonwood seeds

Awesome Adaptations: Western Painted Turtle

The western painted turtle became the state reptile of Colorado in 2008. They are one of the few types of turtles that can be found across Colorado and the western United States. The western painted turtle got its name from its sometimes bright yellow, orangish-red, and dark grayish green patterns on the bottom of its shell. They have dull dark grayish green upper shell to help it blend into its environment from above. The turtle has clawed webbed feet which help it swim quickly and dig in the mud. The turtles eat small fish, frogs, snails, crayfish, insects, other small animals, carrion, and sometimes plants. The turtles are often seen basking in the sun on logs or rocks by ponds, lakes, or slower moving streams. They do this to warm up their body so it can get faster to catch its food and to help digest its food. It can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes at a time. If it can't escape, the turtle will pull its legs and head inside its shell for protection. The turtle lays its 6 to 18 eggs underground each year. The temperature of the den decide whether the eggs hatch into males or females. During the winter time, the western painted turtle digs deep holes in the mud and hibernates over winter. The western painted turtle is perfectly suited to survive in its aquatic habitats.

Sources of information and to find more information: Gov of British Columbia

Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle

Awesome Adaptations: Cutthroat Trout

In Colorado there are 3 different species or kinds of cutthroat trout: greenback, Rio Grande, and Colorado. The cutthroat trout are native fish, meaning they have been living here for a long time. The greenback cutthroat trout is the state fish of Colorado. They are called cutthroat because they have a 2 red colored stripes on the bottom of its head making it look like they have a cut throat. They have adapted to live in extremely cold water and live in high mountain lakes and streams. Often times in fast moving streams, they will be in large pools or eddys in the water where the water is not as fast. They eat fresh water shrimp, insects, and small fish. In late spring they can lay up to 6000 eggs in small rocky holes. They lay so many eggs because only a small number of the eggs will ever survive long enough to become adult fish. In the winter they find a deep slow sheltered part of the stream or lake and become less active to save energy.

The cutthroat trout is listed as endangered in Colorado. Just the fact that they are still around today shows how tough the cutthroat trout are and how much the Colorado Division of Wildlife has helped save the species. They have had about every kind of human caused hardship possible. First, many different kinds of non-native trout species like brook trout, rainbow trout, and brown trout have been put in many of the mountain streams and lakes that the native cutthroat trout live in. The other kinds of trout eat the cutthroat eggs and small cutthroat trout. Some of other trout also had whirling disease which spread to and killed many cutthroat trout. Also, they were overfished by fisherman before the Colorado Division of Wildlife started to protect them.

The cutthroat trout need clean rocky streams to live in. Overgrazing of cattle and sheep, building dams, mining, and large clearcut logging can put too much mud or sediment in the water and kill the trout. In addition, Colorado has had many mining booms and busts since the late 1850's. The chemicals used by mining companies to separate the gold and silver from the rock has polluted some of the trout's mountain streams and lakes. When species become extinct, the loss affects the food web of the habitat or life zone. Over time, if humans can't help save and restore some of the very same animals and places we have almost destroyed, then enough of the food web may die off to seriously impact and hurt entire habitats or ecosystems.

Sources of information and for more information: CO Div of Wildlife

Colorado Cutthroat Trout

Greenback Cutthroat Trout

Colorado Cutthroat Trout Greenback Cutthroat Trout
Indian Paintbrush flowers by a mountain stream Alpine lake

Cutthroat trout live in high mountain streams and lakes.

Awesome Adaptations: American Dipper

When hiking high in the mountains, people may sometimes see a dull colored gray bird by a mountain stream and may not think twice about it. But, the American dipper is a truly amazing bird. The dipper dives in the bone chilling cold streams to catch food. It eats aquatic insects, worms, and small fish. The bird often dips under the water, comes back up, and dips its head under the water again looking for food, thus the name dipper. More amazingly, It can walk underwater on the bottom of the stream looking under rocks for food. It also uses its wings to swim and catch food. Its warm thick set of feathers keep it warm. In the winter time, the bird may head down the stream to the foothills and montane life zones.

Snowmelt water flowing down the mountain can have lots of force or strength. Many people have been seriously hurt trying to cross small mountain streams only to be surprised at the waters strong power and slipping on wet rocks. Aside from the possible serious injuries from the fall, the hiker will get to experience the frigid water. The water seems like it instantly sucks all your body heat away and a person might think it is so cold that it should still be ice. If a person is not careful, he or she may get hypothermia from being wet and cold. For such a small bird to live and thrive in streams with strong current and bone chilling cold water, makes the American dipper one remarkable bird.

Sources of information and to find more information: All About Birds, South Dakota Birds, Bird Web, CSU

An American dipper by a stream

Looking for food

American Dipper American Dipper

Awesome Adaptations: Tiger Salamander

Tiger Salamanders have found a way to live in a cold and high climate. Most of the year snow covers the ground in the subalpine. During this time, tiger salamanders hide underground in a small chamber. The ground keeps the temperature from getting to cold. But for a few months in the summer time, it digs its way up, mates, and lays lots of eggs in the newly formed ponds. The eggs quickly turn to larvae and grow gills. They live underwater eating any insects, fish, and fresh water shrimp. As they get bigger some of the salamanders lose their gills and live on the land. They can have beautiful bright yellow and grayish-black patterns on their skin. A tiger salamander will eat any insect or animal that it can fit in its mouth. Some tiger salamander never lose their gills and stay in the water for their entire life. Tiger salamanders with gills are often called waterdogs or mudpuppies. By late August most tiger salamanders have dug themselves a new chamber deep underground waiting for the next summer.

Sources of information and to find more information: CO Herp. Society, Hogle Zoo, Bush Gardens, eNature

Tiger Salamander

Tiger Salamander with gills, often called a waterdog or mudpuppy

Tiger Salamander Tiger Salamander

Awesome Adaptations: Canyon Treefrog

Amphibians like the Canyon Treefrog and some other toads perform an amazing task to stay alive in the dry semidesert shrublands. They hide underground most of the year in an underground burrow in a trance like state. When they sense the large summer thunderstorm’s rain, they wake up, climb up, quickly mate, lay eggs in the newly formed pools of water, and eat the abundant insects. The eggs change quickly to tadpoles and then toads or frogs before the pools of water disappear. A canyon treefrog's best defense is to stay totally still. Its skin can blend so well into its environment that it could be a couple of feet away and you would never see it. Just a few weeks after they come up, they may dig themselves back into the ground waiting for the next big summer thunderstorm, which may be a day, week, month, or possibly a year or two later. Imagine not eating for a whole year or two, wow!! That is one advantage of being cold-blooded.

Sources of information and to find more information: CO Herp. Society, CSU NDIS, Utah Div of Wildlife, eNature

Canyon Treefrog Canyon Treefrog