for National Geographic News
A huge Ice Age deer with antlers spanning 10 feet (3.5 meters) has been traced to its closest living relative, thanks to DNA science.
Scientists at University College London studied DNA and skeletal remains of the extinct giant deer, or Irish elk, to construct its family tree. This is the first time this method has been used to reveal an extinct animal's living descendants, according to the study team.
The researchers found that the giant deer, which stood seven feet (two meters) tall at the shoulder, is closely related to the modern fallow deer, a much smaller species that still inhabits the former haunts of its Ice Age relative throughout Europe.
The giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus) roamed Europe and Central Asia alongside humans until its extinction some 8,000 years ago. The animal was just one of a number of colossal deer species that no longer exist today.
The new findings, described in the journal Nature, appear to end a hundred-year debate over which of today's smaller deer species is closest to the extinct giant mammal.
"The main contender had been the red deer because of skeletal similarities," said co-author Ian Barnes, an evolutionary biologist at University College London (UCL).
"There has also been some discussion as to whether the giant deer is a completely different animal, which sits on its own in that group," he added.
Now the combination of DNA analysis and bone comparisons with living deer suggests that fallow deer are the "sole living example of the giant deer tribe," Barnes said.
Barnes' colleague at UCL, lead author Adrian Lister, said, "The fact that DNA survives in fossil bone that is thousands of years old is an exciting bit of science in itself.
"Now we can analyze these ancient DNA samples from the bones of a mammal that has been extinct for over 8,000 years and show that they are directly related to a living deer."
This technique for linking extinct species with modern relatives could also be useful in the search for human origins, the researchers added.
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