An elk that wasn’t an elk

A herd of the giant Megaloceros giganteus.

Standing proud: A herd of the giant deer Megaloceros giganteus during the closing years of the Pleistocene. (Art by Tabitha Paterson)

To see an Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus) in all its glory, visit the National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin. Here, skeletons of this magnificent beast are articulated, proudly towering higher than the visitors. What really stands out are the incredibly enormous antlers, spanning 3.6 metres across! Standing face to face with a skeleton of Megaloceros you can imagine the awe-inspiring beast, roaming in herds across Europe around 13,000 years ago, at the very twilight of the Pleistocene.

Commonly known as the ‘Irish Elk’, Megaloceros was neither exclusively Irish, nor an elk. This giant was the largest deer to have ever existed; it’s closest relative, the Fallow Deer (Dama dama), was less than half the size! Elks were prancing around Europe, and there were earlier, larger species of Moose. But Megaloceros giganteus was the largest, and perhaps the most impressive and regal of the Old World deer family Megalocerini.

Around 17,000 years ago humans saw these glorious creatures and created their own interpretations of them on the cave walls at Lascaux, with others at Cougnac. These exquisite paintings depict M. giganteus with speckled coats and dark shoulder hair that accentuated a distinctive hump. Ancient paintings give an ancient animal its colour, but it is the skeleton where we can learn about its life. The vertebrae along its shoulders had longer dorsal processes (a hump) which may have been used as a fat reserve; or perhaps for extra muscle to keep the head and those huge antlers up.

The deep and ancient lake sediments underneath the famous bogs in Ireland have produced some of the finest complete skeletons so far discovered. The first recorded finds were unearthed from County Meath bogs in 1588, but it was in 1697 when aristocratic scholar Thomas Molyneux described these remains as belonging to a moose, that the epithet of Irish Elk was adopted. It would be 1812 before naturalist Georges Cuvier would identify the great antlers as belonging to a totally different family than moose or elk. During the 19th century, many natural philosophers thought the Irish specimens were a unique breed. But this majestic deer thrived all over Europe where there were grasslands and herbaceous plants, shown in the wear on their teeth. The name of Irish Elk persisted, along with beautifully preserved skeletons makes Megaloceros the most famous prehistoric beast in Ireland.

The post-Ice Age world of Megaloceros was very different from today. It thrived during a period known in Irish palaeoecology as the Woodgrange Interstadial around 11,000 – 12,000 years ago. Interstadials are short periods of slightly warmer temperatures in between times when ice pushed its way down through Europe (a glacial period). We would think the Woodgrange Interstadial was cold today, but compared to the glacial time preceding it, it was a tropical haven! It was a favourable time for plants to grow, and animals to thrive.

Fossil finds indicate that Megaloceros shed their antlers every year. Modern fallow deer scent glands are larger than those of the Giant Deer (located just below the eyes) so it is unlikely that they relied greatly on scent to attract the females. Their magnificent size may have meant that they could have just intimidated rivals without needing to fight at all, although it appears likely that they did. A study into the engineering of the antlers and associated muscles in the late 1980s were used for fighting.

Fascinatingly, there are very few recognised female skeletons of Megaloceros, but lots of males (the National Museum of Ireland has 6 female skulls and 200 male skulls!). One theory is that antler-free female skulls were mistaken to be horses by natural philosophers in the early 1800s and so were  discarded. We’ve got it on the best authority, Dr Ruth Carden, Research Associate at the National Museum of Ireland, that some horse and cow skulls have been mistaken for Megaloceros. These new findings, along with future publications might mean a reassessment of what we thought we knew about the last of the Giant Deer in Ireland and the UK.

A proud, handsome male Megaloceros giganteus standing protectively over his mate.

A proud, handsome male Megaloceros giganteus standing protectively over his antler-less mate. (Art by Tabitha Paterson)

Around 12,700 years ago, the Woodgrange Intersadial (that short wamer period) gave way to a much colder period known as the Younger Dryas (also known as the Nahanagan Stadial in Ireland and the Loch Lomond Stadial in England). This sudden cooling may have been caused by melting ice sheets changing the ocean currents. With the extreme cold came the loss of vegetation and with that, the loss of the giants. The days of the Irish Elk were coming to an end.

Wonderfully old books about the Pleistocene have images of ‘cavemen’ hunting Megaloceros with spears. In Ireland, humans arrived around 2,000 years after these giant deers became extinct there. The cold wet climate combined with shorter seasons for plants to grow hit these herds badly, eventually dwindling so much that they had vanished forever from the beautiful Irish landscape.

Megaloceros hung on into the Holocene (the Epoch we are living in now), until around 7,500 years ago in the Ural mountains. As the climate changed, so did the vegetation. Herds migrated northwards following the luscious grassy steppes at the tips of the ever melting ice. There is little evidence that humans hunted these great beasts to extinction. It is more likely that human presence in their environment along with their habitat being decreased by changing climate attributed to these magnificent beasts disappearing completely.

Addendum: Immense thanks to specialists Mr Nigel Monaghan and Dr Ruth Carden of the magical and wonderful Natural History Museum in Dublin for their input and valuable additional knowledge. If you are visiting Dublin, a visit to their museum – known to us as the ‘Dead Zoo’- is a must.  You won’t just get some superb Megaloceros skeletons and multitudes of other fascinating things, but an experience of stepping back in time to the time. The building is so perfectly maintained as a Victorian museum, that an episode of the BBC series Ripper Street was filmed there. The building will enchant you, from the frolicking goat-shaped hedges outside, to its association with Dr Livingstone (I presume!).

Written by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)

Art work by Tabitha Paterson (@TabithaPaterson)

Further Reading:

Coxon, P. (2008), ‘Landscapes and Environment of the last glacial and interglacial transition: a time of amazing rapid change in Ireland’, Irish Naturalist Journal. (29) 1-19. [Abstract only]

Gould, S. J. (1974) ‘Origin and function of ‘bizarre’ structures – Antler size and skull size in ‘Irish Elk’, Megaloceros giganteus’, Evolution 28 (2), 191-120. [Full article]

Hall, V. (2010) The making of Ireland’s Landscape. Cork: Collins Press.

Kitchener, A. (1987), ‘Fighting behaviour of the extinct Irish elk’, Modern Geology. 11. 1-28.

Lister, A. et al. (2010), ‘The phylogenetic position of the giant deer Megaloceros giganteus‘, Nature. 438 (7069) 850-853. [Abstract only]

Stuart, A. J. et al. (2004), ‘Pleistocene to Holocene extinction dynamics in giant deer and woolly mammoth’, Nature. 431 (7009) 684-689. [Abstract only]

Worman, C. & Kimbrell, T. (2008), ‘Getting to the hart of the matter: Did antlers truly cause the extinction of the Irish Elk?’, Oikos (9). 1397. [Abstract only]

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19 Responses to An elk that wasn’t an elk

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  15. Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth says:

    “….a much colder period known as the Younger Dryas (also known as the Nahanagan Stadial in Ireland and the Loch Lomond Stadial in England). ”

    So what was it called in Scotland?

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