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.


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.



Island Collections~
ISLAND COLLECTOR INSTITUTION DATE NUMBER SPECIMEN
San Nicolas Island J. L. Xantus NMNH 1859 USNM-23389 Cepphus columba eureka Birds




In the News~

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