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The Elk (Cervus Canadensis)

The Elk (Cervus Canadensis)

The Elk (Cervus Canadensis) is one of the world’s largest deer: adult male elk can weigh up to 331 kg (730 lb) and stands 1.5 m (4.9 ft) at the shoulder.  The magnificent antlered beasts are believed to have originated in Beringia, a now vanished steppeland which connected North America and Asia during the Pleistocene.  The poor Elk suffers substantial name confusion.  In Europe, moose (Alces alces) are known as elk.  When Europeans arrived in North America, they thought the animals were similar so they christened Cervus Canadensis as “elk”.  Native Americans called the creatures wapiti.  Now elk are known by the European name “Elk” in America and the American name “wapiti” in Eurasia (so that they are not confused with moose which are still called elk).  Ugh!

The current range of elki/wapiti (dark green) versus the original range (pale green)

The current range of elki/wapiti (dark green) versus the original range (pale green)

Elk currently live in the great grasslands of northern China/Siberia and in the unpopulated western reaches of the United States and Canada (where they tend to be found in places like Wyoming and Colorado), however their range was once much more extensive.  Before development and farming became universal, elk could be found in South China and in the Eastern United States.  Kentucky has been experimenting with returning the great Elk herds to lands where they once last roamed wild before the Civil War.  Obviously nobody wants to abandon farmlands or private forests to the ungentle hooves of a giant deer-monster, but Kentucky was extensively and abusively strip mined.  The mountains were blasted down and great tracts of worthless wasteland was left.  Far-sighted conservationists imported elk from out west, and the animals flourished tremendously.  In less than two decades the Kentucky herds have become the largest in the nation outside of the world’s largest herd in Wyoming!

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The elk have brought tourism and national interest to their new (old?) home but there have been problems too as elk refuse to jump out of the way of cars and angry drivers, refusing to yield the right-of-way, drive blithely into the immense creatures (to the benefit of neither party).  The elk also damage cultivated trees and gardens.  Yet issuing hunting permits in order to manage the herd has brought waves of hunters.

A votress of Artemis poses with a trophy elk.  Have I mentioned how BIG elk are?

A votress of Artemis poses with a trophy elk. Have I mentioned how BIG elk are?

Additionally, the elk are beautiful–and were here before we were (well, probably… it’s a little hard to tell when humans came across Beringia, but we had to get there from Africa, whereas the elk started out there).  Nearby states are also excited by the programs so Virginia, Ohio, and West Virginia may soon also have beautiful deer monsters of their own for the first time in centuries!

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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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