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May 20, 2011

Irish Deer: the largest deer that ever lived (extinct about 7,700 years ago)

The Irish Elk or Giant Deer, was the largest deer that ever lived. It lived in Eurasia, from Ireland to east of Lake Baikal, during the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene. The latest known remains of the species have been carbon dated to about 5,700 BC, or about 7,700 years ago. The Giant Deer is famous for its formidable size (about 2.1 meters or 7 feet tall at the shoulders), and in particular for having the largest antlers of any known cervid (a maximum of 3.65 meters/12 feet from tip to tip and weighing up to 90 pounds).

Discussion of the cause of their extinction has still focused on the antlers (rather than on their overall body size), which may be due more to their impact on the observer than any actual property. Some have suggested hunting by man was a contributing factor in the demise of the Irish Elk as it was with many prehistoric megafauna, even assuming that the large antler size restricted the movement of males through forested regions or that it was by some other means a "maladaptation". But evidence for overhunting is equivocal, and as a continental species, it would have co-evolved with humans throughout its existence and presumably have adapted to their presence.


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