Thanks to a science teacher in India, an asteroid has been named after the critically endangered Akikiki.
April 20, 2016
One of Hawaii’s most endangered native birds, the Akikiki, recently received an unexpected honor: an asteroid has been named after it.
The idea for the unusual moniker—most asteroids receive the name of their discoverer—came from Prakash Vaithyanathan, a teacher in Chennai, India. As part of a lesson on at-risk and extinct species around the world, Vaithyanathan asked his middle school students to adopt nicknames of endangered birds. He hoped the exercise would spur more interest in the animals and their plight, and he was pleasantly surprised when seven girls wanted to be called Akikiki. (The top scorer on a science quiz ultimately got to keep the title.)
The children’s enthusiasm got Vaithyanathan wondering about taking the name game to another level, potentially sparking interest in imperiled wildlife beyond his classroom. Encouraged by his students, he wrote to the International Astronomical Union in May 2015 to see if it would be possible to name a celestial body after an endangered bird or flower. The IAU responded the same day with a yes and asked what species he had in mind. He suggested Akikiki, not only because it was so popular among his students, but also knowing that the IAU was about to hold its triennial meeting in Hawaii. It took nearly a year, but in December the asteroid formerly known as 7613 officially became Akikiki.
Lisa “Cali” Crampton, project leader for the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, was “thrilled and excited to hear that someone from across the world cares about our endangered species here in Kauai.” (She first learned of the asteroid receiving the avian appellation when Auduboncontacted her for this story.)