Extinct Giant Deer Survived Ice Age, Study Says

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
October 6, 2004

Saber-toothed cats, mastodons, giant sloths, woolly rhinos, and many other big, shaggy mammals are widely thought to have died out around the end of the last ice age, some 10,500 years ago.

More recently, however, evidence has emerged that at least two of the spectacular megafauna of the Pleistocene era (1.6 million to 10,000 years ago) clung on until recent times.

In the 1990s mammoth remains found on an island north of Arctic Siberia revealed the animals still roamed a tiny corner of the planet just 3,600 years ago. Tantalizingly, this was almost a thousand years after the first pyramids were built in ancient Egypt.

Now a new study, published tomorrow in the science journal Nature, suggests that another striking mammal, the Irish elk, likewise lived way beyond the last ice age.

The Irish elk is also known as the giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus). Analysis of ancient bones and teeth by scientists based in Britain and Russia show the huge herbivore survived until about 5,000 B.C.—more than three millennia later than previously believed.

The research team says this suggests additional factors, besides climate change, probably hastened the giant deer's eventual extinction. The factors could include hunting or habitat destruction by humans.

The Irish elk, so-called because its well-preserved remains are often found in lake sediments under peat bogs in Ireland, first appeared about 400,000 years ago in Europe and central Asia. It stood 7 feet (2.1 meters) at the shoulder. Adult males had massive antlers that spanned 12 feet (3.7 meters) and weighed up to 88 pounds (40 kilos).

Through a combination of radiocarbon dating of skeletal remains and the mapping of locations where the remains were unearthed, the team shows the Irish elk was widespread across Europe before the last "big freeze." The deer's range later contracted to the Ural Mountains, in modern-day Russia, which separate Europe from Asia.

Last Stand in Siberia

The giant deer made its last stand in western Siberia, some 3,000 years after the ice sheets receded, said the study's co-author, Adrian Lister, professor of palaeobiology at University College London, England.

"The eastern foothills of the Urals became very densely forested about 8,000 years ago, which could have pushed them on to the plain," he said. He added that pollen analysis indicates the region then became very dry in response to further climactic change, leading to the loss of important food plants. "In combination with human pressures, this could have finally snuffed them out," Lister said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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