XANTUS, Louis John

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John Louis Xantus (1825-1894)

XANTUS DE VESEY, Louis John (1825-1894), Hungarian-born naturalist who sailed for America in 1851. From 1852-1855 he served as a topographer with the Pacific Railroad Survey. Xantus joined the American army in 1855 and was posted in Kansas where he worked under surgeon Dr. W. A. Hammond, one of Spencer Baird’s collectors for the Smithsonian. Through Hammond, Xantus developed his interest in natural history and in collecting specimens. Xantus was transferred to Texas through the influence of Spencer Baird, and also became a collector for the Smithsonian. He was discharged from the army in 1857 and joined the United States Coast Survey as a tidal observer working in Baja California where he collected copious numbers of specimens, including unknown species of fishes.

In (April) 1859 en route to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Xantus collected an adult male pigeon guillemot (Cepphus columba ssp. eureka), then commonly called a “sea pigeon,” tagged as San Nicolas Island. This specimen is one of the earliest known biological specimens from the California Channel Islands, and is located in the United States National Museum of Natural History (#23389). In 1864 Xantus became United States Consul in Manzanillo, Mexico. He returned to Hungary in 1864 and finished his career at the National Museum in Budapest. Xantus’s murrelet (Synthliboramphus hypoleucus), which nests on six of the eight California Channel Islands, is named in his honor, as is the genus of island night lizard, Xantusia, found on Santa Barbara Island and adjacent Sutil Rock, and on San Nicolas and San Clemente islands.

  • Zwinger, Ann (ed.) Xantus. The Letters of John Xántus to Spencer Fullerton Baird from San Francisco and Cabo San Lucas 1859-1861. Los Angeles: Dawson's (1986). Baja California Travel Series #48.

Palmer, T. S. Nomenclature of California Birds in Condor 30(5):267-268 September-October 1928:

XANTUS DE VESEY, Louis John “Born in Csokonya, Hungary, October 25, 1825; died in Budapest, Hungary, December 13, 1894. A Hungarian collector who came to America while still a young man and enlisted in the army. He served as hospital steward at Old Fort Tejon, California, for about two years, during which time he collected extensively and described a number of new birds including Hammond's Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondi), Cassin's Vireo (Vireo cassini), and the Southern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis). He also collected at Cape San Lucas and later while acting as U.S. Consul, at Colima, Mexico. After his return to Budapest he became custodian of the museum, made a trip to the East Indies, and in 1884 took an active part in the International Ornithological Congress in Vienna. He was one of the most energetic of the early collectors and his name is very properly borne by several species of California and Lower California birds, including Xantus' Murrelet (Brachyramphus hypoleucus), Xantus' Screech Owl (Megascops a. xantusi), Xantus' hummingbird (Basilinna xantusi), and Xantus' Jay (Aphelocoma c. hypoleuca), the last three exclusively of Lower California.”

Xantus’s murrelets (Synthliboramphus hypoleucus) nest on six of the eight California Channel Islands. By far, the largest breeding population is found on Santa Barbara Island where they nest during the spring in burrows on the steep hillsides and cliffs. Numbering a few thousand, this is the largest known breeding population of Xantus’s murrelets in the world. When the chicks are 48 hours old, they instinctively leave their nests in the middle of the night and tumble down into the ocean. There they meet their parents and swim out to sea where they will spend the rest of their lives, returning to land only during nesting season. Xantus's murrelets are not known from San Nicolas or Santa Rosa islands.

Xantus collected on

  • San Nicolas Island (1859)
  • Guadalupe Island (1859)

Island Collections~
San Nicolas Island J. L. Xantus NMNH 1859 USNM-23389 Cepphus columba eureka Birds

In the News~

March 29, 1859 [Letter: John Xantus to Spencer Fullerton Baird]: “My dear Sir, As I informed you in my letter from S. Francisco of the 13th inst—I left that place the following day in the German barque Wilhelm Kirchner. We had a fair wind, and made the Guadalupe island on the 17th, the 4th day out. We passed outside the island and to my good look we got becalmed just a few 100 yards off the island. We had a dead calm the whole day, so the whole night, & as there was no prospect for a breeze, the Captain of the bark landed a boat on my request. We were several hours on the island & had a good hunt. The island is of the shape of a ham, thus: and guarded on the north end by 3 immense Rocks, & by 5 perpendicular ones on the south side. All those Rocks were covered by countless birds, seals, & sea elefants, & there were inumerable turtles on the beach.—The island is 15 miles long from N to S, and 8 miles wide at the widest part. The island has a fine cove, were vessel of any size might anchor, but the entrance cannot be effected with Eastern gales, which blow continuously from July to November, as the entrance is not protected from E.—The cove on the S point of the island is only by small boats accessible, as it is entirely covered with sunken rocks, and there are very high rollers which can be heard at a great distance like thunder of cannons.—The whole island is of a volcanic formation, rising up to the height of 2500 feet, and covered entirely with gigantic cactacea if innumerable genera & species, and some acacias. Along the cove there are groves of high heavy timber, and some tall palms [The native palm, Erythea brandegeei, is named for T.S. Brandegee, who collected in Baja California, largely under the auspices of the California Academy of Sciences, at the turn of the century] as there is a fine spring (designated on the other side by) discharging copious water into the sea. I noticed but a few land birds; a jay [Aphelocoma corulescens, Scrub Jay], a guiraca [Grosbeak species], 2 species of swallows, and some small parus like birds [Parus inornatus, Plain Titmouse], all unknown to me. I noticed also a Caprimulgus [now Phalaenoptilus nuttallii, Poorwill], the fish crow [Corvus assifragus, Fish Crow, does not occur in Baja California], the Zonotrichia leucophrys [now Zonotrichia leucophrys, White-crowned Sparrow], & the Emberiza grammaca [now Chondestes grammacus, Lark Sparrow], to a Buzzard [Cathartes aura, Turkey Vulture] much like the B. Swainsonii [Buteo swainsonii, Swainson's Hawk].—Of mammals we noted two specimens of a dark colored Lepus with extremely long ears, but considerably smaller to the L. Californ. There are plenty white rats likewise [rats are not native and likely came in with a ship], which build their particular nests on the Cerus giganteus; and we saw many tracks of mice, but we could not see the latt. The island is well wooded & well watered, there are fine places for a tide gauge also, and in addition there are about 10 thousand goats on the island, which would furnish abundantly fresh meat, as it coast [sic] only bullet and powder.—As the island is not inhabited, & far from land, naturally it is the randervous of the milliards of sea fowls during the breeding season; and I believe it would be a good station for some new branches of Natural History. The evening on the 18th sprang up a fine breeze again, we set sails, & made Cape San Lucas on the 22nd morning...”

July 25, 1917 [SBMP]: “Island birds described by U. C. Interesting bulletin tells of beauties of archipelago... When the young Xantus murrelet first tries to swim in the sea at three or four days old, big fish devour a good many, despite the surprising aquatic skills of the fledglings.”

Xantusia riversiana » island night lizard