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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Famous Naturalist Profile: John Xantus

In many ways, our region is a naturalist’s paradise. Vast tracts of wildlands combined with impressive topographical relief and California’s rare Mediterranean climate create a landscape that boasts incredible biological diversity, including numerous species that occur nowhere else in the world. This combination has lured nature enthusiasts to our rugged mountains for centuries and the San Emigdio/Tehachapi has been home to some of the most prolific and influential western naturalists. In particular, one name stands out as a sort of “Godfather” of natural history in this area. 

Although John Xantus was not the longest-tenured, or even most well-liked person to observe the flora and fauna of the San Emigdio and Tehachapi Ranges (stories abound of Xantus’ haughty demeanor and tendency to exaggerate), the contribution he made to science during his time here is matched by few. Born Xantus Janos in Hungary, he immigrated to the United States in 1851, fleeing the Austro-Hungarian war. Finding few prospects for employment, Xantus enlisted in the US Army in 1855. While in the Service, he worked under the tutelage of Army surgeon John Hammond and became an adept amateur naturalist, learning to collect and preserve specimens to send to museums.

Xantus' hummingbird, named after John Xantus. By marlin harms (Flickr: Xantus's Hummingbird, Hylocharis xantusii) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
In 1856, Xantus was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and by 1857, he had moved to Fort Tejon, in Grapevine Canyon. In this role, he was asked to be a collector for the National Museum of Natural History and soon become “one of Spencer Fullerton Baird’s most prolific collectors.” (Zwinger 1986, vii). Roaming the rugged and wild country of this region, Xantus made collections of anything he could find to send back to Washington D.C. During these collecting trips, he became the first westerner to describe species such as Hammond’s flycatcher (named after Xantus’ mentor, John Hammond), and Cassin’s vireo. He mentions seeing California condors regularly, but failed to make a collection of this bird or its eggs. 

Xantus' sketch of a wrentit in Zwinger 1986.
Between 1857 and 1859, Xantus sent “1,794 bird skins, 145 mammals, 229 containers of fishes and reptiles, 211 nests and 740 eggs, 107 bottles of insects. . . 140 skulls, 14 bales of pressed plants, and 17 packages of minerals” (Zwinger 1986, xxii-xxiii) to Baird in Washington D.C.

Although these methods of collecting rare species are no longer seen as ethical in a time declining populations, such activities formed an important foundation for our scientific understanding of the world’s flora and fauna. He documented his experiences in a series of letters to Baird, which can be read in the 1986 volume, John Xantus: The Fort Tejon Letters, edited by Ann Zwinger. Upon leaving Ft. Tejon, Xantus attended an expedition to Baja, where he continued to make discoveries and send them to Baird. By 1872, he had moved back to Hungary and continued his collecting career as the Director of the Budapest Zoo and Botanic Garden ( He died in 1894.

Although the name John Xantus is not often mentioned alongside such greats as John James Audubon, he made an indelible mark on our understanding of natural history. In his honor, subsequent scientists have named a number of species xanti, xantusii, or xantiana. He even has a whole family of lizards named after him! According to Wikipedia (, these are the species that have been named after him:

The Conservancy is pleased to report that it will be adding to this list of things named after the great naturalist by naming our forthcoming 4X4 tour van the SS Xantus.

A preview of the SS Xantus. Photo from Quigley


Eugene M. McCarthy. "John Xantus." Accessed 2/27/2015.

Wikipedia. "John Xantus." Accessed 2/27/2015.

Ann Zwinger, ed. John Xantus: The Fort Tejon Letters. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986

Friday, February 20, 2015

Weather summary update: Winter 2014/2015

Stormy weather and wild lenticular clouds over the Tehachapi Mountains of Tejon Ranch.

We are obsessive weather watchers here in the arid west, and this winter has been of particular interest in hopes of easing our desperate drought worries. Here on Tejon Ranch, we have seven weather stations that document precipitation, temperature, and wind speed: two in the San Joaquin Valley, two in the Tehachapi Mountains, and three in the Antelope Valley. This data gives us a discrete glimpse into the specific conditions on the Ranch, and is an important tool to our understanding of patterns in biological responses. For example, this year we are seeing an unexpected influx of a nasty invasive species, Brassica tournefortii (Saharan mustard), in areas with few or no previous observations. Early rainfall and warm temperatures coupled with very little January and February rainfall (traditionally our wettest months) may have provided favorable growing conditions for this arid-adapted invader, and has prompted us to quickly organize work parties to remove these already maturing plants in areas of special concern. In future when weather patterns again appear favorable for this species, we will spend extra time monitoring these areas early so that we can plan our treatments more efficiently. Thus, monitoring weather data can offer us a little more information about how to proceed with effective seasonal conservation management on the Ranch, and in these uncertain times every useful tool is valued!

Below is a synopsis of the recorded temperature and precipitation values from the San Joaquin Valley, Tehachapi Mountains, and Antelope Valley regions of the Ranch for November through January. Stay tuned for regular seasonal updates.