What’s in a name?

We do our best in Heene Cemetery to be informative about the work of the dedicated team of local volunteers towards its restoration to preserve its unique position as a reservoir of urban wildlife. It is therefore unfortunate that our efforts to display the names of the wonderful variety of animals and plants to be found in the cemetery, and to talk about them on our periodic wildlife walks, are challenged by the large number of confusing names that our wildlife has, and the misunderstandings about the relationships between these animals and plants that have grown up over many years.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2)

None illustrates the challenge more acutely than the word ‘algae’ (singular ‘alga’), which is used for a large number of unrelated groups of organisms well represented in the cemetery. The familiar blue-green algae are in fact bacteria, specifically the Cyanobacteria. Freshwater diatoms found in ponds are golden algae, and around the fringes of ponds you will find yellow-green algae. Related to these two groups, believe it or not, are the brown algae, better known as the brown seaweeds to be seen on Worthing beach. Unrelated to the brown seaweeds are the red seaweeds, also seen on Worthing beach and known as red algae. They in turn are related to the two separate groups with the same name of green algae, one of which forms the unprepossessing green scum on stagnant water and the other is the ancestor of the planet’s glorious range of green plants.

We have a large variety of fungi in the cemetery, and old biology books will refer to fungi as plants, but we have discovered recently that they are in fact animals. This has come as a shock to vegans who have been used to enjoying mushroom soup with a crusty roll and a glass of wine. The roll and wine are made using yeast, which is a fungus and therefore an animal, and so this meal has animal products in every course, which is not quite the point of a vegan diet.

Heene Cemetery, May 2023

The abundant insect life in the cemetery has a further surprise for us because we now know that insects are six-legged crustaceans, whose ancestors were related to shrimps. So, there is no longer any need to wander down to Worthing beach to see crustaceans because we have plenty in the cemetery. Our most colourful insects are the butterflies, but whilst we commonly refer to them by that name biologists now regard the name as redundant because all butterflies are in fact plume moths.

If you find all this puzzling you might decide to console yourself with a meal from the local chippie. The shop sign will say ‘Fish’, but does it refer to the ‘fish’ with bony skeletons, like cod, or the ‘fish’ with skeletons of cartilage, like sharks and rays (rock salmon and skate)? The two groups of ‘fish’ are not closely related. Out-of-date books will tell you that amphibians, such as the frogs and toads that leap about the cemetery, are directly descended from fish, but that descent is not direct.

Slowworm (Anguis fragilis), Heene Cemetery, April 2022

You may think reptiles will offer sanctuary from this confusion. After all, they once dominated the planet for millions of years. They were more widespread than most people realise because strictly lizards, dinosaurs, birds, and even mammals, including humans, are all reptiles because they share reptile ancestry. We are proud of our slowworms in the cemetery, but, despite their name, they too are actually reptiles, related to the lizards. The profusion of bird life in the cemetery is evidence that dinosaurs are not extinct because birds are their descendants, but some have unhelpful names.

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus), Heene Cemetery, July 2021

The long-tailed tit is not a Tit and therefore not related to our blue tits, great tits, and coal tits. The dunnock is often called the hedge sparrow, but it is not kin to the true sparrows, the house sparrow and the tree sparrow. In winter snow buntings have briefly flown over the cemetery, but they have a name they do not deserve for they are not buntings at all. The one raptor to visit the cemetery is the sparrow hawk, and this bird looks very similar to a falcon, but that should not be taken as indicating a relationship. In fact, falcons are close relatives of parrots! No wonder the peregrine falcons are a crowd-pleaser when they nest on Chichester Cathedral.

We humans have not escaped the scrutiny of palaeontology and genealogy, and it is time to accept that we were not the last and most physiologically advanced mammal to have evolved. That honour goes to the whales, shortly after their closest relatives the hippopotamuses. The closest relatives of humans and their primate relatives are the tree shrews, followed by the rodents. So, when you are next in the cemetery, and you see a mouse or rat, don’t forget to give a friendly wave to your nearest and dearest!!

Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), a close relative of yours and mine, Heene Cemetery, July 2020

Written by Brian Day