A discovery by any other name

Ornithologist Max Thompson has long been affiliated with KU’s Biodiversity Institute. But he couldn’t understand why his colleagues were suddenly so adamant about bringing him to KU for a visit.

“I tried in vain to torpedo the visit because I didn’t know the reason,” Thompson says. “Finally a friend of mine convinced me to come to KU for an event that, as it turned out, wasn’t really happening.”

Thompson, a KU alumnus and professor emeritus at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, had donated his collections to the institute when he retired a few years before. His colleagues decided to surprise him by giving his name to a ground-dwelling forest bird from the Philippine archipelago.

“When they showed me the specimen, my face turned red as a beet and I was speechless,” he says. “Most ornithologists only dream of a species being named for them.”

Robsonius thompsoni is commonly known as the Sierra Madre ground warbler.

The songbird — discovered by KU researchers in 2012 — is rotund, with strong legs, weak wings, and a high-pitched call. It’s also a ventriloquist, so even if it’s right at your feet, it sounds as if it’s far away.

“A fossil goose, a bird louse, and a point of land in Antarctica are named for me,” Thompson says. “But nothing was as exciting as seeing a bird specimen with my name on it.”

For centuries, the names of species, fossils, geological formations, and even stars have honored those who had a part in their discovery. These Jayhawk researchers are among those with scientific namesakes.

Pluto discoverer gets personalized asteroid

Clyde Tombaugh is known for discovering the planet Pluto, but it is Asteroid 1604 that bears his name.

As a young man in Burdett, Kansas, Tombaugh built a refractor telescope from discarded tractor and automobile parts. Astronomers at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona were so impressed they offered him a job. There, in 1930, he discovered Pluto, a long-hidden dwarf planet.

Another astronomer at Lowell, Carl Otto Lampland, discovered an asteroid a year later and asked to name it for Tombaugh.

Tombaugh went on to attend KU and at the end of his distinguished career was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame. He died in 1997 at the age of 91. His ashes are aboard the New Horizons probe, which will reach Pluto in 2015, about the same time 1604 Tombaugh will again be observable from Earth.

Bird-like dinosaur named for KU twin sisters

Even as children, identical twins Celina and Marina Suarez wanted to discover a new dinosaur.

“All of us paleo nerds always dream about such a thing happening, but never think it will,” Celina says.

As graduate students excavating in Utah in 2004, they spotted a bone protruding from a hillside and soon uncovered the fossils of an unknown troodontid species.

“It was really exciting to be the first people to see the remains of animals that have been gone for millions of years,” Marina says.

That fossil-rich site is now known as the Suarez Sisters’ Quarry, and the small, birdlike dinosaur they discovered bears the Latin name of the twin Suarezes. Paleontologists believe the Geminiraptor was fast and smart, with big eyes and dexterous claw-tipped hands.

Celina and Marina Suarez have doctorates in geology from KU.

Icy chasm bears name of KU engineering professor

In Antarctica — near a glacier named for Darwin and a mountain range named for Queen Elizabeth — lies a subglacial trench named for Prasad Gogineni, a KU distinguished professor of engineering.

Gogineni leads the National Science Foundation’s Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets — CReSIS — a multi-institution research effort to map the world’s glaciers with ice-penetrating radar. He and his research team identified the characteristics of the trench, hidden by ice 3 kilometers thick.

CReSIS has helped map Antarctica’s bedrock, find a hidden aquifer the size of Ireland, and discover an ice-covered canyon in Greenland that is deeper than the Grand Canyon.

“One of KU’s missions is to make discoveries that change the world, and Professor Gogineni has been key to advancing that mission,” says Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. “His work is providing new insights in fields vital to understanding our planet, so it is a unique and fitting honor that his achievements will be recognized in this way.”

Tiny ancient beast tagged for natural history museum director

One of the earliest mammals – a prehistoric ancestor of shrews, hedgehogs, and moles – once lived and thrived on insects in the tropical jungles of what is now North America. Fifty million years later, when paleontologist Richard Stucky discovered the animal’s fossil in Wyoming, he decided to name it for his mentor and colleague, Leonard Krishtalka.

Krishtalka is director of KU’s Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. He and Stucky are collaborating on defining the taxonomy of nyctitheres and have worked at the Buck Spring Quarries, where the fossils were found, for about 15 years.

“I named it after Krishtalka because of his mentoring in the early stages of my career and for his research on the group of fossil mammals to which it belongs,” says Richard Stucky, curator of paleoecology and evolution at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

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