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Megaloceros giganteus was the largest deer to ever exist. The huge animal would have stood 2.1 meters (over seven feet) tall at the shoulders and had antlers more than 3.65 meters (12 feet across). During the Late Pleistocene (the glacial epoch immediately prior to the Holocene) the giant deer ranged from Lake Baikal in northern Asia across all parts of Europe down into northern Africa.
In English, Megaloceros giganteus, is more commonly known as the Irish Elk, a name which is something of a misnomer since the creature lived across broad swaths of three continents and was not actually very closely related to elk and moose. The name was originally adopted because many nearly perfect fossils of the Megaloceros were found in the great peat bogs in Ireland. So perfect were the skeletons that a misguided biological theorist, Thomas Molyneux, used the remains as evidence that no species ever went extinct (a question which was at the forefront of science at the end of the eighteenth centery). Molyneux believed that the Irish Elk skeletons were actually those of large moose or elk and that divine providence would never allow an animal to disappear forever from earth. Unfortunately Molyneux was completely mistaken. The great zoologist, Georges Cuvier comprehensively proved that the Megaloceros was very distinct from living Moose and Elk and was therefore gone from the world. It is strange to think that there was a time as recent as the nineteenth century when natural philosophers argued about whether extinction was possible or not.
Although the Irish Elk coexisted with humankind for a long time, sadly something went awry and the great beast went extinct at least 7,700 years ago. Strangely, overhunting by humans was probably not the reason the Megaloceros died out. However the actual reason for the extinction of the magnificent mammal has been a long standing cause of dissent among paleontologists. An obsolete school of thought held that the creatures’ antlers became so immense that the beasts could no longer hold their heads up. A likeminded school of thought believed the antlers (which grew larger and larger in response to female’s preference for a mate with big antlers) left the animal unable to compete with smaller and more nimble competitors. A new theory concentrates on the amount of calcium and phosphate necessary to grow such stately and humungous antlers. As vegetation changed in response to the end of the ice age, the poor Irish Elks could not get enough of the proper nutrients and began to suffer like old ladies from osteoporosis. A final answer to the mystery is still outstanding.
Turkeys have been widespread and successful since the early Miocene (23 million years ago). Since their robust bones fossilize quite well, a number of extinct turkeys are known to paleo-ornithologists (including two genera which do not exist today, the “Rhegminornis” and “Proagriocharis”).
The best known of these vanished turkeys is the Californian Turkey, Meleagris californica, which died out about ten to twelve thousand years ago as the ice ages ended and human settlements became common. The Californian turkey had a shorter beak and a stockier build than contemporary turkeys but it was a similar creature and probably shared many of the habits and vocalizations familiar to us. Its remains have been discovered profusely in the tar pits of southern California, where it must have been preyed on by the great carnivores of that Pleistocene. Californian turkey bones have also been found in camp middens of ice age humans, whose love of succulent turkey dinners may have combined with climate change to usher the poor birds to extinction.