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 Audubon contacted her for this story.)
Crampton was particularly excited that Vaithyanathan had chosen to honor the Akikiki, which is endemic to the island. “I think it’s a little bit the underdog of bird conservation in Kauai because it’s not bright red or stunning yellow,” she says. Yet she finds the little gray birds endearing, especially the way they work their way up and down their mountaintop trees in search of bugs to eat. “They’re like kids on the uneven parallel bars in gymnastics class.”
The asteroid naming comes at a critical time for the species, whose numbers have plummeted to 500 from about 1,000 in 2010, when it was listed as endangered. The Akikiki faces a wide range of threats in its isolated rainforest habitat. Invasive rats gobble up its young, and invasive plants spread by wild pigs and other non-native ungulates are choking out its native nesting trees. Climate change also poses new risks, as warmer weather allows invasive mosquitoes—which carry deadly avian malaria—to move farther up into mountain habitats historically too cold for skeeters.
The Forest Bird Recovery Project and its many partners are working to slow or reverse the Akikiki’s decline. They have installed rodent traps and ungulate-proof fencing to keep out feral animals. Crampton says they are concentrating their efforts on keeping the bird’s remaining habitat as “as pristine as possible.”
The Akikiki could also receive a much-needed boost from a captive breeding program launched last year by the Forest Bird Recovery Project, the San Diego Zoo Global, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners. The team collected 12 Akikiki eggs from the wild in 2015. All safely hatched, and the young birds live at an indoor facility at the base of Mount Waiʻaleʻale. This year’s breeding season has just begun, and the conservationists collected their first two eggs on March 26. The effort required them to trek over steep, rocky, wet ground in the Alakai Wilderness Preserve while carrying the 40-foot ladder needed to reach the nests high in ʻohiʻa trees. They got there just in time: The eggs they retrieved hatched in an incubator two days later.
The team aims to collect a total of 60 Akikiki over the next few years; that number of birds should ensure there’s enough genetic diversity in the population. Once the threats in the wild are under control, the partners hope to release captive-born offspring back into the wild.
Back in India, Vaithyanathan has been busy fielding phone calls since an article about the Akikiki asteroid ran in The Hindu newspaper in March. “Many people called me to say they are hearing about Akikiki for the first time,” Vaithyanathan says. Not only that, he says, several have since submitted their own endangered species to the IAU. There are a lot of asteroids in need of names: Of the more than 10,000 known in the solar system, fewer than five percent have been given a non-numeric designation. (Suggestions, which must follow a strict naming convention, may be submitted here.)
For his part, Vaithyanathan says he’s glad to have inspired others to draw attention to animals on the edge, and especially proud to have honored the Akikiki. “She is so beautiful,” he says. “Can we afford to miss her?”
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Here's a video of Vaithanathan explaining how he got the asteroid named, and what it means to him, the kids, and the birds.