coyote brush

San Nicolas Island

San Nicolas Island is the most remote of California's Channel Islands. It is part of Ventura County. The 14,562 acre (58.93 km² or 22.753 sq mi) island is currently controlled by the United States Navy and is used as a weapons testing and training facility. The uninhabited island is defined by the United States Census Bureau as Block Group 9, Census Tract 36.04 of Ventura County, California. Although the island is officially uninhabited as of 2000 U.S. Census, it is estimated that the number of military and civilian personnel on the island numbers at least 200 at any given time. The island has a small airport and several buildings.


San Nicolas was originally the home of the Nicoleño people, who were probably related to the Tongva of the mainland and Santa Catalina Island. It was named for Saint Nicholas by Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno after he sighted the island on the saint's feast day (December 6) in 1602. The Nicoleños were evacuated in the early 19th century by the padres of the California mission system after a series of conflicts with Russian-led Aleutian fur trappers decimated their population. Within a few years of their removal from the island, the Nicoleño people and their unique language became extinct.

Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

The most famous resident of San Nicolas Island was the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island", called Juana Maria; her real name was never known to anyone on the mainland. She was left behind (explanations for this vary) when the rest of the Nicoleños were moved to the mainland. She resided on the island alone for 18 years before she was found by Captain George Nidever and his crew in 1853 and brought back to Santa Barbara. She died seven weeks later, her system unprepared for the different nutritional and environmental conditions in central California. Her story was the basis for Scott O'Dell's Newbery Medal-winning 1961 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Rocket experiments

Between 1957 and 1973, and in 2004, U.S. military research rockets were launched from San Nicolas Island. The launchpad was situated at . It remains part of the Pacific Missile Range.


Composed primarily of Eocene sandstone and shale, much of the island also has marine terrace deposits of Pleistocene age, indicating that it was probably completely submerged at that time. The entire western part of the island is covered with reddish-brown eolian dune deposits laid down during the early Holocene. In some places these deposits are more than 10 meters deep. Small quantities of volcanic rocks (primarily andesite) exist on the southeast end of the island.

Stone available to natives for tool making on San Nicolas Island was largely limited to metavolcanic (including porphyritic metavolcanic) and metasedimentary (mainly quartzite) rock. The metavolcanics are found in the form of cobbles within conglomerates and cobble-bearing mudstones. This material is dense and not easily workable.


There is little ecological diversity on San Nicolas Island. The island was heavily grazed by sheep until they were removed in 1943. Overgrazing and erosion have removed much of the topsoil from the island. Despite the degradation, three endemic plants are found on the island: Astragalus traskiae, Eriogonum grande subspecies tamorum, and Lomatium insulare.

The dominant plant community on the island is coastal bluff scrubland, with giant coreopsis, Coreopsis gigantea and coyote brush, Baccharis pilularis the most visible components. The few trees present today, including California fan palms, Washingtonia filifera, were introduced in modern times. However, early written accounts and the remains of ancient plants in the form of calcareous root casts indicate that, prior to 1860, brush covered a portion of the island.

There are only three species of endemic land vertebrates on the island; the island night lizard, Xantusia riversiana, deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus exterus, and island fox, Urocyon littoralis dickeyi. Two other reptiles, the common side-blotched lizard, Uta stansburiana, and the southern alligator lizard Elgaria multicarinatus, were at one time thought to be endemic, but an analysis of mitochondrial DNA indicates that both species were most likely introduced in recent times.

Large numbers of birds can be found on San Nicolas Island. Two species are of particular ecological concern: the western gull, Larus occidentalis, and Brandt's cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus, both of which are threatened by feral cats and island foxes. The Navy is attempting to remove the cats in order to protect the birds' nesting areas.

References in popular culture

San Nicolas appears as the titular isle in Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins, as well as that novel's sequel, Zia. It is also the setting for the computer video game Rise of the Triad.


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