A natural history glossary

An A to Z of key terms in natural history

By: The OpenLearn team (Programme and web teams)

  • Duration 30 mins
  • Updated Tuesday 7th September 2004
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Natural History
Share on Google Plus Share on LinkedIn Share on Reddit View article Comments
Print
Rolling hills Copyrighted image Copyright: BBC
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Alkaline
- a term applied to rocks which have high sodium or potassium.

 

Ammonites
- a marine animal with a spiral coiled shell. Found as fossils in marine sediments from the Lower Devonian to Late Cretaceous periods of geological time.

 

Amphibian
- animals with a backbone that live both in water and on land at different stages of their lives. They have an aquatic larval stage during which they breathe with gills followed by an adult stage that lives on land and has lungs to breathe.

 

Angelica
- a tall wild flower belonging to the carrot family with lots of small white or pink flowers. It is found growing in damp meadows, wetlands and woodlands.

 

Ant hills
- mounds of earth created by ant colonies to live in.

 

Anti-Corrosion Devices
- devices that prevent or minimize destruction (corrosion) by water and air.

 

Aplite
- an intrusive igneous rock with a very fine grained texture, composed largely of the minerals quartz and feldspar.

 

Ash
- a tree of moderate or large size, pollinated by wind. The Common Ash is native in Britain.

 

Atrypa
- a common brachiopod fossil, found in shallow waters.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Bar-Tailed Godwit
- a large wading bird which is a visitor to Britain, usually in spring or autumn. It is seen on shores and estuaries and is recognised by its long slender bill.

 

Beech woods
- woodlands dominated by beech trees; large deciduous tree with smooth bark.

 

Bilberry
- a shrub up to 60 centimetres tall found growing on upland moors and in some types of woodland. It has edible black berries.

 

Bivalves
- a general term for two-shelled marine animals, a mollusc. Present day examples include cockles, mussels and oysters.

 

Blow Holes
- Round, vertical hole through a sea-cliff. When water and air are forced into the hole through wave action, jets, fountains and sprays of water can occur.

 

Braiding
- the formation of multiple small channels of water running through sediment in streams and rivers. Braiding is characteristic of rivers that carry a heavy sediment load.

 

Brent Goose
- a small goose, a winter visitor to Britain with black, white and grey plumage. Found on seashores and estuaries, it eats mainly grass and weed.

 

Bryozoa
- sponge-like marine animal, often superficially resembling corals. Found as fossils in rocks.

 

Butterbur
- a tall stout streamside plant with pink flowers and very big leaves that grow up to 60 centimetres across. There are separate plants for the male and the female.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Chalk Pits
- area quarried for chalk. Once abandoned, it can become an important sheltered wild life habitat.

 

Chalk
- a type of limestone. Chalk is white in colour and very fine grained. It is formed by the accumulation of minute shallow marine organisms. The white cliffs of Dover are a well-known chalk deposit of Cretaceous age.

 

Chancre
- a small painless nodule on the skin.

 

Cheddar Pink
- a plant of rocky areas with fragrant pink flowers.

 

Clams
- edible sea creatures that live between two tightly closed shells. They burrow in sand or mud on the seashore.

 

Coastal Succulents
- Thick-leaved plants that store fresh water, found growing in sandy areas along coasts.

 

Colonies
- groups of one kind of animal or plant that live closely together.

 

Common Centaury
- a plant with small pink flowers and which grows up to 40 centimetres tall. It is found in dry areas such as grasslands, sand dunes and woodland clearings.

 

Coots
- black aquatic birds with a white forehead and bill. They are found in lakes and rivers.

 

Coral
- marine (rarely freshwater) organism that lives in shallow water, often in groups (colonies, reefs). Found over a wide span of Earth history, the Great Barrier Reef is a present-day example of a series of coral reefs.

 

Cormorant
- a large black and brown sea bird that dives underwater for fish and eels to eat.

 

Corrosion
- chemical breakdown of a material by water and/or air. Rust on cars is a common product of corrosion.

 

Cotoneaster
- a rare shrub with small pink flowers, then red berries later in the year.

 

Crags
- rock exposures that have a jagged, cliff like appearance or outline. Often crags are found jutting out from cliffs.

 

Cretaceous
- the interval of geological time from about 140 to 65 million years ago. the Cretaceous is the last period of the Mesozoic era and is also the longest geological time period.

 

Cricket
- a small jumping insect similar to grasshoppers but with long antennae. the male makes a chirping noise to attract females by rubbing together special appendages on its wings.

 

Crossbill
- this bird is a member of the finch family and gets its name from the way the tips of its beak cross. the male is red and brown, and the female is green, yellow and brown. They are found in woodlands where they eat seeds, especially from fir cones.

 

Curlew
- an attractive brown bird of shores, mudflats and moors with a long curved bill. Its call is a plaintive "curlwee" sound.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Damselflies
- small non-stinging insects, similar to dragonflies but generally smaller and they fold their wings when at rest.

 

Deposits
- rock or unconsolidated material laid down by water, wind or ice.

 

Devonian
- the interval of geologic time from about 410 to 360 Million Years ago. the Devonian is part of the Palaeozoic era.

 

Diorite
- an intrusive igneous rock with a coarse grained texture composed mainly of the minerals plagioclase feldspar, pyroxene and hornblende.

 

Dipper
- bird of rocky streams, it has dark brown and black plumage. the male has a white breast. They eat aquatic insects which they dive and swim for.

 

Dunlin
- common small shore bird that wades in the mud to reach its food, typically small molluscs.

 

Dykes
- an intrusive igneous rock body that cuts through the adjacent rock structure. Dykes are often tabular in nature and vary in width from a few centimetres to tens of metres and can be traced for several kilometres, e.g., the Cleveland Dyke in Northern England can be traced for about 200 km.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Elder
- a native shrub or small tree growing to about three metres tall. It has aromatic white flowers and black berries.

 

Embayment
- indentations in a landscape (e.g., a bay), or curved indentations in a group of exposed rocks or crystals

 

Endemic
- a plant or animal that is only found in a certain habitat or area.

 

Epidote
- a common metamorphic mineral, green in colour.

 

Estuarine
- the environment of an estuary where freshwater from a river mixes with seawater at the widened river mouth.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Feral
- animals which have escaped from captivity or domestication to become wild.

 

Flint
- a form of chert (silica, SiO2) found in chalk deposits, flint is a chemical sedimentary rock that forms from the remains of silica-bodied organisms.

 

Formation
- the term used in the local classification of rocks to define a geological unit that can be mapped. Formations are classified according to the physical features of the rock. Formation names usually include the geographical location where the rock was originally described together with the nature of the dominant rock type, e.g., Durness Limestone.

 

Fossil Fauna
- the collection of animals and organisms represented by a group of fossils, such as those occurring in one rock bed.

 

Fossils
- Remains of organisms and creatures, buried by natural processes and preserved in rocks. They can be the remnants of the hard parts of animals (shells, bones) or imprints (traces, casts and mould). Soft body tissue is very rarely preserved.

 

Fulmar
- an ocean bird that breeds on the cliffs of Britain. It has white and grey plumage.

 

Fungi
- a group that includes moulds, mushrooms and toadstools. Fungi grow on organic matter and scatter spores to reproduce.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Gannet
- the largest British seabird with a wingspan of up to six feet. They are white with black wing tips and a bluish-white bill.

 

Gastropods
- Marine, freshwater and sometimes terrestrial animals with a whirled shell. Present day examples include whelks, limpets and snails.

 

Geology
- the science of the earth focussing on the composition, structure and origins of different kinds of rocks.

 

Geomorphology
- the study of the shape of the Earth’s surface (both terrestrial and oceanic) and/or surface processes, for example the study of landforms like rivers and sand dunes.

 

Giant Hogweed
- this plant can grow up to 5 metres tall with leaves up to 1 metre long. It was introduced to the British Isles and is now found on stream edges and other wet areas.

 

Glacial Clay
- fine grained sediment, sometimes bearing larger pebbles and boulders, that is deposited by ice action. Glacial clay is often called till (or tillite for the hardened rock version).

 

Glacial Erratic Pebbles
- pebbles, stones and boulders that are transported by glaciers, and deposited up to several hundred kilometres from where they originated.

 

Glacial
- associated with glaciers and ice, also an Ice-age period where the land is covered by ice.

 

Glacial Outwash
- gravel and sands deposited by meltwater streams at the edges of glaciers.

 

Glastonbury Thorn
- a hawthorn which originates in the Middle East. It grows in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey where legend has it that it sprung from where Joseph of Arimathea had laid his staff.

 

Gold seams
- a vein or layer of gold in a rock formation.

 

Gorge
- a narrow opening between two hills, or a rocky ravine.

 

Granite
- a plutonic igneous rock, medium to coarse grained in texture containing the minerals quartz, alkali feldspar, biotite and hornblende. Granite forms by the cooling of magma deep in the Earth’s crust.

 

Grey Plover
- usually a winter visitor to Britain, this wading bird is typically seen at the sea shore.

 

Grottos
- small caves or caverns.

 

Guillemot
- an ocean bird that remains at sea except to breed. It has black or grey-brown plumage and dives for fish to eat.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Hawthorn
- a thorny shrub or tree with white or pink flowers, followed by red berries later in the season. It has lobed leaves.

 

Heronry
- a nesting and breeding area for herons.

 

Hoary Rock-rose
- not a rose at all but a shrub with grey-downy leaves and small yellow flowers.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Ice Age
- a period of geologic time during which glacial activity dominates and the land surface is covered by ice.

 

Ice plants
- cold and drought-tolerant plants with fleshy leaves. They form a dense low growing mat.

 

Igneous
- a rock type that is formed from the cooling and solidification of molten material such as magma or lava. Igneous rocks can be intrusive (e.g., granite plutons) or extrusive (e.g., volcanic lava flows).

 

Indigenous
- a descriptive term for an animal or plant indicating that it originates naturally from the area concerned.

 

Insects
- one of many types of small creatures without backbones. They have a head, thorax, abdomen, two antennae, three pairs of jointed legs and one or two pairs of wings. Insects have an external skeleton.

 

Ironstone
- a sedimentary rock rich in iron minerals.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Jersey Green Lizard
- growing up to 35 centimetres long, this large reptile is found on sand dunes and heaths around the coasts of Jersey and Guernsey. It has a bright green colour. Populations have declined considerably in the last 100 years.

 

Jurassic
- the period of geological time from about 200 to 140 million years ago. The Jurassic is the middle period of the Mesozoic era.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Karst Caves
- caves formed by the sub-surface dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone and dolomite. Collapse of surface rocks into such caves produces steep-walled valleys.

 

Kingcup
- otherwise known as marsh marigold, these bright yellow flowers are found growing in marshes or bogs.

 

Kittiwake
- a bird of rocky cliffs. It has white and grey plumage and is distinguished from other gulls by its black legs and black wing tips. It can feed on the sea surface and dive for fish.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Land grasses
- grasses found growing on land as opposed to the sea (sea grasses). A large group of plants, these are the ‘true’ grasses.

 

Larch
- a deciduous conifer tree that has soft woody cones. It has bright green needles and produces very tough timber. It is known for its rapid growth.

 

Larvikite
- a plutonic intrusive igneous rock, coarse grained in texture, composed mainly of the mineral plagioclase feldspar which gives the rock an iridescent black-blue sheen when polished. It is named after the type location of Larvik in Norway.

 

Lichen
- an organism which consists of an algae and a fungi living together in a mutually beneficial relationship. There are many species found growing in distinctive patches on different surfaces including tree trunks and rocks.

 

Lilac
- a flower introduced in the sixteenth century that has become naturalized. It has large, strongly-perfumed flowers.

 

Lime Kilns
- Large ovens the size of buildings, constructed outdoors to burn limestone at high temperatures to produce quicklime. Quicklime is an important soil fertilizer and can also be mixed with sand to form a building mortar.

 

Limestone
- a sedimentary, carbonate rock composed almost entirely of calcite. Limestone can be composed of calcite precipitated by marine organisms such as corals (organic limestone) or made up of broken shell fragments and calcite crystals (clastic limestone) or chemically precipitated in warm, shallow seas (evaporite limestone).

 

Limestone Pavements
- bare exposures of limestone rock, where rain water has dissolved the limestone along vertical joints (lines of weakness), resulting in deep cracks (grikes) and depressions forming between the flat, smooth blocks (clints) of limestone, e.g., Ingleborough in Yorkshire.

 

Loess
- sedimentary deposits of fine grained windblown dust often originating from the last Ice-Age.

 

Lower Carboniferous
- the first part of the Carboniferous period of geological time, from about 360 to 320 million years ago (known as the Mississippian in North America). Rocks belonging to the Lower Carboniferous are dominantly marine in origin.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Mammal
- the class of animals which human beings belong to. Mammals have a backbone; they are warm-blooded and have hair or fur. Female mammals feed their young with milk. Other mammals include dogs, rodents, bats and whales.

 

Mammoths
- very large prehistoric creatures belonging to the same family as elephants. They lived at the end of the last ice age and grew up to 3.7 metres tall and weighed up to 8 tonnes.

 

Marine fossils
- fossils of sea creatures.

 

Marsden Rock
- a rock unit that belongs to the Marsdenian sub-division of the Carboniferous period of geological time.

 

Metamorphic
- a rock type that is formed by structural and chemical changes to pre-existing rocks. The changes most commonly occur in response to differences in pressure and temperature, e.g., marble is a metamorphic rock formed from the re-crystallization of limestone.

 

Mid-Carboniferous Period
- the middle part of the Carboniferous period of geological time (about 320 million years ago).

 

Migrating
- moving from one habitat to another. This is usually more or less regular, in response to changing seasons, for breeding purposes or in response to more favourable weather or habitat.

 

Millstone Grit
- a series of interbedded sandstones and shales that were deposited during the early part of the Upper Carboniferous.

 

Minotaur Beetles
- large black beetles that get their name from the three horn-like protuberances that are just behind the head of the male.

 

Mudflats
- also known as tidal flats. Open expanses of mud that the tide washes over twice each day. They are rich in plant and animal life.

 

Mullet
- quite a large fish often found in coastal waters. They suck food up from the sea floor which they filter before eating.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Oolitic Limestone
- a limestone rock composed entirely of ooliths, which are small, round particles that have a grain as a nucleus, around which layers of calcium carbonate accumulate.

 

Ormers
- single-shelled molluscs. In some parts of the world ormers are considered a delicacy.

 

Oystercatcher
- a bird that is typical of rocky and sandy shores. It has glossy black and white plumage and a long orange bill.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Palaeozoic
- an era of geological time, from 570 to 245 million years ago.

 

Pegmatite
- an igneous rock that is very coarse grained in texture, and granitic in composition containing the minerals quartz and alkali feldspar. Most pegmatites form as veins or lens-shaped bodies.

 

Permian
- the period of geologic time from about 280 to 225 million years ago. The Permian is the last period in the Palaeozoic era.

 

Plate Tectonics
- a theory formulated in the 1960s that states that the crust of the Earth is composed of a number of tectonic plates that move in response to upper mantle convection. At the margins of these plates there is considerable tectonic, volcanic or seismic activity.

 

Precambrian Rocks
- rocks from the Precambrian era of geological time. The Precambrian covers about 90% of geological time, from the formation of the Earth’s crust to the start of the Palaeozoic era. Precambrian rocks are the oldest rocks on Earth and are thus often metamorphosed, though some sedimentary rocks containing fossils can be found.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Quarry
- a place where stone or gravel has been, or is being extracted.

 

Quarternary
- the period of geologic time from about 2 million years to the present day. The Quarternary is the second period of the Cenozoic era.

 

Quartz
- common rock-forming mineral, composed of crystalline silica (SiO2). Quartz is usually colourless and quite hard.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Raised Beach
- ancient beach deposits that have been raised above the current sea level, and hence mark the position of former shorelines. They can be raised either by tectonic uplift or by lowering of the sea level.

 

Razor Fish
- small fish that gets its name from the sharp edges on its head.

 

Razorbills
- birds of the ocean that visit rocky cliffs to breed. They have black and white plumage. Their distinctive dark bill has a white stripe across it.

 

Redshank
- a wading bird easily recognised by its bright orange legs, found on mud-flats and marshes.

 

Reed Bunting
- found in reed beds, this small brown and white bird eats insects.

 

Reed Mace
- a tall marsh plant with large seed heads that produce masses of downy seeds.

 

Relics
- landforms and features that have survived despite decay and erosion.

 

Ringed Plover
- a small wading bird found on the sands by the edge of the sea. It has light grey-brown and white plumage, with black bands across its head.

 

River mouth
- the lower end of a river where it meets the sea or a lake.

 

Rock Faces
- the main surface, side or exposure of a rock form, e.g., a cliff face.

 

Rock Formation
- a group of rocks that can be related by the way in which they form, and the time period that they form in.

 

Rock Outcrop
- rocks that are exposed at the surface of the Earth.

 

Roe
- a general term given to the eggs or ovaries of fish.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Salt Lagoons
- a body of water containing a lot of dissolved salt (NaCl). Salt lagoons have no outlet to the sea and can either be along the coast, or in more arid regions they are located in higher areas. the Dead Sea is an example of a Salt Lagoon.

 

Salt Marshes
- tidally flooded estuaries and river mouths that form coastal wetlands, rich in marine life.

 

Sandstone
- sedimentary rock composed of sand sized minerals (quartz and feldspar) and grains cemented together.

 

Sarsen Stones
- vertical standing large stones (monoliths) that were often placed by ancient people for astronomical or religious purposes. Stonehenge and the Avebury Stone Circle both contain Sarsen stones.

 

Scalloping
- curved, indented edge of a rock layer or man-made structure.

 

Scallop
- a type of shellfish.

 

Scots Pine
- native to Scotland, this tree has grey-green needles and woody cones.

 

Scree
- sloping loose rock debris, usually at the base of a cliff face.

 

Shag
- a slightly smaller bird than the cormorant, although still quite large. It has glossy, metallic green plumage. Found exclusively on wild rocky cliffs.

 

Shelduck
- a marine duck with bright rust, green, black and white plumage. Found on the coast, sand-dunes and mud-flats.

 

Sika Deer
- small brown deer with white spots and a white rump. The males have antlers.

 

Silurian
- a period of geologic time from 440 to 410 million years ago.

 

Sinkholes
- depressions in the ground surface where limestone rock has collapsed into underground caves hollowed out by running water.

 

Siskin
- a small yellowish-green bird found particularly among fir trees where it eats seeds of trees and wild plants.

 

Snap Dragons
- annual garden plants found in a variety of colours.

 

Species
- a group of organisms whose members can interbreed and produce young.

 

Stacks
- a pillar like rock formation, found in coastal areas detached from the headland. They form as a result of marine erosion.

 

Stratigraphical Columns
- Diagrams where rock layers are placed in age order with the oldest at the bottom and the youngest at the top. Rock features such as rock type, fossil content and grain size can also be displayed using designated symbols.

 

Sub-species
- the taxonomic category below species. Sub-species usually occur when a population of individuals become isolated from other communities, eventually evolving and becoming slightly different from the main population. Individuals from the main population and the isolated population can still breed together.

 

Swan
- large white bird familiar to ponds, lakes and rivers.

 

Sycamore
- probably introduced by the Romans these trees are very common throughout Britain.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Tarn
- a small mountain lake typically formed after a glacier has melted.

 

Teal
- a small duck found in lakes and pools. the female is brown but the male has a grey body with a green and chestnut head.

 

Teme Bone Beds
- a concentration of semi-complete and fragmented fossil bones. the Teme Bone Beds are a type locality situated on the River Teme.

 

Traces
- marks or imprints left in sediments by the movement or presence of an animal or organism. Trace fossils do not include the animal itself.

 

Travertine
- a type of crystalline, white limestone formed by chemical precipitation of ground waters and hot springs. In limestone caves, travertine forms stalagmites and stalactites, and a more ‘spongy’ limestone called tufa around hot springs.

 

Triassic
- the period of geologic time from about 225 and 190 million years ago. The Permian is the first period of the Mesozoic era.

 

Trilobite
- an extinct marine arthropod. Arthropods are characterised by jointed appendages and segmented bodies. Crustaceans are modern day arthropods.

 

Tropical Rainforest
- evergreen forest with dense undergrowth, found in wet and hot regions of the world near to the equator.

 

Tropical Seas
- seas of the tropics, either side of the equator between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

 

Turnstones
- a wading bird that visits Britain mainly in the winter. It has chestnut brown and black plumage on its back and wings with a white breast.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Valerian
- a plant with small pink or white flowers and strong-smelling roots used in medicinal drugs.

 

Vraic
- a local name for seaweed, originating from Jersey.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Wading Birds
- long-legged birds that wade in water in search of food.

 

Wall Flower
- a type of bedding plant, a great favourite in cottage gardens.

 

Water mint
- a mint plant that grows in marshes and by ponds. It has downy leaves and lilac flowers.

 

Water rat
- not, strictly speaking, a rat, but another name for the water vole

 

Water vole
- the largest British vole; often mistaken for a rat, they grow up to 20 centimetres long. They have dark fur and a long furry tail. They live in the banks of streams and ditches.

 

Watercress
- an edible plant which grows in streams and ditches in running water. It has creeping stems, dark green leaves and small green flowers.

 

Waxwing
- a winter visitor from Scandinavia this striking bird has a chestnut coloured crest on its head and brown and white striped wings.

 

Weathering
- chemical or mechanical breakdown of rock surfaces.

 

Western Hemlock
- a tall, unpleasant-smelling plant with purple spotted stems and fern-like leaves.

 

Wetland
- partially flooded area, sometimes forested, usually adjacent to rivers, or at river mouths where the soil is rich in moisture. Bogs, marshes and swamps are examples of wetlands.

 

Whelk
- a type of sea snail with a spiral shell which has a large oval aperture. Found in shallow waters and mudflats at low tide.

 

Widgeon
- a duck with yellow, chestnut, black and grey plumage. It is found on sandy shores, estuaries and lakes.

 

Wild Flowers
- flowers found naturally growing in the wild.

 

Wildfowl
- wild birds traditionally hunted for food, such as ducks and geese.

 

Winkles
- small sea snails that graze on algae.

 

Wintering
- migration of birds or other creatures to warmer places for the winter.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

Yellow Flag Iris
- a distinctive yellow flower with three big petals and three smaller ones inside. It grows in ponds, by streams or canals, and in marshes, reaching up to 150 centimetres tall.

 

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z