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Irish Elk (Painting by Charles R. Knight)

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.

A painting of Megaloceros giganteus, from the Lascuax caves (at least 10,000 years old).

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.

Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus) RIP


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