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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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 (macroevolution.net). 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Xantus), these are the species that have been named after him:

Animals:
Plants:
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 4X4.com http://www.quigley4x4.com/Gallery/NissanProducts/NissanProductPhotos.aspx



References:

Eugene M. McCarthy. "John Xantus." Accessed 2/27/2015. http://www.macroevolution.net/john-xantus.html#.VPDS3i48ElA

Wikipedia. "John Xantus." Accessed 2/27/2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Xantus

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