Giant Deer

Giant Deer—The giant deer was about the same size as the moose, but its antlers were enormous. Some are more than 3.6 m across. (Renata Cunha)

Scientific name: Megaloceros giganteus Scientific classification: Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Artiodactyla Family: Cervidae

When did it become extinct? The most recent remains yet recovered of the giant deer have been aged at around 7,000 years using radiocarbon dating, but the species could have survived into more recent times. Where did it live? This deer was a found throughout Europe and east into central Asia.

Several well-preserved skeletons of this splendid beast have been found in the peat bogs of Ireland, which is why it used to be familiarly known as the "Irish elk"; however, its range was not restricted to Ireland. Bones of this animal have turned up all over great swathes of Europe, and more rarely, in Asia, and it was certainly known by our forebears.

The giant deer was another species from the group of mammals collectively known as megafauna. Like many of the animals that adapted to the cold conditions of the ice age, the giant deer grew to a great size. In stature, it was a little larger than an average moose (Alces alces), measuring about 2.1 m at the shoulder. This is impressive enough, but the antlers of the male were enormous. Skeletons have been found with antlers weighing 40 kg, which have a span of more than 3.6 m. Why this deer should have such huge adornments on its head has been a source of heated debate for some time, but it is now generally accepted that like the majority of extravagant male adornments found in nature, the antlers were a product of sexual selection and no bigger than expected when we take into account the size of the animal that carries them. In deer and their relatives, the size and structure of their antlers is important when it comes to the breeding season. A male deer's antlers are a measure of how strong and fit he is. In many cases, two male deer do not have to fight to work out who is the more dominant as simply posturing and showing off the antlers will suffice, but when the need arises, they are potent weapons, and stags will lock antlers, wrestle, and attempt to injure one another.

By looking at the size, structure, and placement of the giant deer's antlers on its head and the structure of the animal's skull, it is very likely that males of this species fought, especially when two equally matched stags crossed paths. The bone at the top of the skull was also very thick (3 cm), a necessary reinforcement if the head was not to be sheared in two by the forces exerted during a fight. It has been suggested that after some bellowing and posturing, a pair of well-matched stags lowered their heads in between their front legs and locked antlers. Using all their body weight, they tried to inflict wounds on the flanks of their opponent. A pair of fighting giant deer stags straining and kicking up clouds of dust must have been a magnificent sight.

It is likely that, as with other deer, the antlers of the male giant deer were shed annually. Growing such enormous structures from the top of the head must have placed great stress on the male, who must have had to increase his food consumption considerably to fuel the growth of the gigantic structures. The giant deer's dietary requirements were probably very similar to modern deer, feeding mainly on grasses. It is also possible their great size allowed them access to high-growing vegetation that was out of reach for other deer and browsing mammals.

♦ The span of the giant deer's antlers was a severe handicap in heavily wooded habitats, so we can assume that it was an animal of open country, where it could find abundant food. These open spaces would also have provided the giant deer with some degree of protection from its enemies as predators must have found it difficult to take the deer by surprise.

♦ The National Museum of Ireland has more than 200 specimens of giant deer skulls and antlers, all of which were found in the country's peat bogs and lakes. Peat bogs are excellent preservers of ancient remains as there is very little oxygen present for the bacteria that are responsible for the process of decay. Well-preserved bones and tissue, thousands of years old, can be found in the lake clays, with only peat staining to show for their long entombment.

♦ Most of the Irish specimens have been found beneath the peat in a layer known as lake clays. Geologists know that these clays were deposited between 10,600 and 12,100 years ago and belong to a period of time known as the Woodgrange Interstadial. This period occurred toward the end of the last ice age and was marked by a climate that was similar to today's. This period produced conditions perfect for preservation, which is why we find so many specimens of giant deer from this time.

♦ The most complete skeleton of a giant deer, now on display at the Paleontological Institute in Moscow, was discovered near the Russian town of Sapozhka. This fine specimen really gives a sense of how imposing the living animal must have been.

Further Reading: Lister, A. M. "The Evolution of the Giant Deer, Megaloceros giganteus (Blumenbach)." Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 112 (1994): 65-100; Moen, R. A., J. Pastor, and Y. Cohen. "Antler Growth and Extinction of Irish Elk." Evolutionary Ecology Research 1 (1999): 235-49.

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