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Gone but not forgotten: Irish elk


Nearly 400,000 years ago a massive deer roamed Europe and Asia, and it has left behind evidence of its impressive frame in Ireland’s peat bogs

The prehistoric Irish elk was a giant deer that stood over 2m tall at its shoulder. It roamed Eurasia from Ireland to northern Asia and Africa more than 7,700 years ago.

Weighing up to 700kg, it was a deer of immense stature – one of the largest ever to have lived. The male’s antlers spanned 4m from tip to tip and were so vast that, unlike most deer, this elk must have been just as impressive viewed sideways as head on.

Called Megaloceros giganteus it was part of the deer family Cervidae, which includes elk, moose, caribou or reindeer, muntjac, red and white-tailed deers, and is thought to have descended from M. antecedens about 400,000 years ago.

Quite why the Irish elk went extinct remains a mystery. For years it was believed that the old adage ‘handsome is what handsome does’ ran true, and that through evolution the antlers had became so unwieldy that the deer could not live normally and so the species died off. However this theory was disproved by American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould in his 1974 essay, which showed they had antlers of a size in appropriate correlation to their massive bodies.

Other cases for extinction put forward include hunting by early humans, habitat loss, and the changing climate that took place at the end of the Pleistocene Era, which lead to a shortened growing season. This would have impacted on the deer’s available diet and resulted in the lowering of the female reproduction output by about 50 per cent.

Perhaps more crucially, it would also have affected the males, as large amounts of calcium and other minerals would be needed to produce those massive antlers. When the climate changed the vegetation was forced to adapt. The result of that is thought to be that the male elk was no longer able to get sufficient nutrients.

This last theory is supported by the fact that many of the Irish elk fossils found in large numbers in Ireland's peat bogs were males that suffered from malnutrition.

One set of antlers was found on the Irish estate of the 7th Marquess of Bath. It now graces the Great Hall at Longleat House in Wiltshire. There are also skeletons on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

With advances in modern science, there is a remote possibility that the Irish elk could walk the world once more and inspire awe with its huge presence. Thanks to the fact that it lived in the icy north during the Pleistocene period, its remains are often well preserved and so would make prime candidates for cloning if ever the day comes to bring it back from extinction.