Tag Archives: elk

Fishermen find 10,000-year-old skull and antlers belonging to extinct giant elk

Deep down, every fisherman hopes today will be the day they will find the big one — but not too many fishermen imagine finding Holocene remains.

The antlers and skull belong to the largest deer species that ever lived. Image credits: Ardboe Gallery.

It was a day much like any other for Raymond McElroy and Charlie Coyle. They went out fishing for pollan (a whitefish) in Lough Neagh, a freshwater lake in Northern Ireland. When they cast their net, they knew they had found something big; they just didn’t know how big — and how old.

“It came up in the net on the side of the boat. I thought it was a bit of black oak to begin with,” McElroy told Belfast Live. “I was shocked to begin with when I got it over the side and saw the skull and antlers. It’s pretty good.”

The skull and antlers belong to a species that used to roam the lakeshore tens of thousands of years ago until it went extinct some ten millennia ago. The skull that the two fishermen found may have been one of the very last that roamed the area.

The intact skull and antlers measured almost 2 meters across (6 feet), and belonged to the Great Elk, Megaloceros giganteus), sometimes referred to as Irish Elk.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”The Irish Elk — the great misnomer” footer=””]It’s funny that the species would be called the Irish Elk, for it is neither exclusively Irish nor an elk. It is, however, the largest known deer species to ever walk the face of the Earth, standing up to up to seven feet at the shoulder (2.1 meters), with antlers spanning up to 12 feet (3.65 meters).

It’s not exactly clear what led to the extinction of this magnificent beast, but it likely has a lot to do with the changing conditions of the Holocene.

Unable to adapt to the changing environmental conditions of the last glaciation or the marked transition that occurred after the final retreat of the ice sheet, the largest deer that ever lived became extinct. It was a study including this species that first started to convince skeptic naturalists that the total extinction of a species was possible.

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Raymond McElroy with his lucky catch Image credits: Ardboe Gallery.

Dr. Mike Simms at the Ulster Museum, who took custody of the finding, commented for Belfast Live:

“It’s the first really good one I have seen in 20 years. They’ve been extinct since 10,500 to 11,000 years ago in Ireland. They hung on Siberia until about 6,500 years ago.”

“They came in (to Ireland) when the weather was great on the grass plains, but then the trees started to grow — giants antlers aren’t great in the forest.”

Find a mate or stay safe? A tricky decision for male deer

Some male elk (a North American species of deer) shed their antlers earlier in the year, which favors them to get better mating partners. However, this also leaves them defenseless for a while — and wolves have picked up on this, targetting them specifically.

A male elk’s antlers are a good indication of strength and fertility, traits which are valued by potential mates.

The main purpose of antlers is sexual selection: males use antlers to compete with each other, and females also prefer males with big antlers, as they indicate strength and fertility. Like other deer, elk shed their antlers over a two-three month period, right after the mating season has ended. This allows them to grow new antlers by the next mating season.

But antlers also serve a secondary purpose — they help defend against predators like wolves, a new study suggests.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”ElkS” footer=””]Also called wapiti, elks (Cervus canadensis) are some of the largest deer species in the world.

They’re native to the forest edge habitats of North America and eastern Asia, but they have also adapted well to the countries in which they have been introduced, including Argentina and New Zealand.

Some cultures cherish them as a spiritual force, yet they are often hunted as game. In Asia, some of their body parts are used in traditional medicine.[/panel]

Wolves, intelligent creatures that they are, picked up on this fact. In a new study published in Nature, University of Montana researchers report that wolves target elk who have shed their antlers, even if they are fitter and apparently more difficult to hunt.

“We show, however, that male elk that cast their antlers early are preferentially hunted and killed by wolves, despite early casters being in better nutritional condition than antlered individuals,” researchers write. “Our results run counter to classic expectations of coursing predators preferring poorer-conditioned individuals, and in so doing, reveal an important secondary function for an exaggerated sexually selected weapon—predatory deterrence.”

So the elk are faced with an interesting trade-off: do they shed their antlers early, and face an increased wolf risk but raise their chances of finding a mate, or do they maintain them more — which keeps them safer, but makes them less attractive?

In this case, safety won, researchers say: uniquely among North American deer, elk retain their antlers long after they fulfill their primary role in reproduction. In other words, as exciting as mating is, not being eaten by wolves takes priority. However, researchers say, the need to regrow antlers results in a trade-off between these two functions — and this trade-off likely influenced the species’ evolution over time.

The study “Predation shapes the evolutionary traits of cervid weapons” has been published in Nature Ecology & Evolution