Of Deer, Elk and Moose Antlers

It's possible the showy antlers of male deer, elk and moose have played a more subtle role in species evolution and survival than first appears.

| March/April 1989

  • deer, elk and moose - skeleton of Megaloceros giganteus
    Deer, elk and moose are all from the same family, but the branch that produced Megaloceros giganteus (aka the Irish Elk) is now extinct. This regal creature sported the most impressive headgear of any known deer. 
    ILLUSTRATION: KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
  • deer, elk and moose - antlered male moose at rest
    The moose is still found across much of northern North America. 
    ALAN CAREY
  • deer, elk and moose - two male moose antlers down in rutting battle
    Rutting battles are highly ritualized affairs. 
    ALAN CAREY
  • deer, elk and moose - walking wapati and wapati at rest
    The wapiti, our modern elk, sports dramatic antlers, though less massive than those of the moose.
    ROGER AND DONNA AITKENHEAD/ANIMALS ANIMALS
  • deer, elk and moose - painting of Irish elk
    Artist's rendering of the Irish elk. Did that massive rack serve a purely practical purpose? 
    C.R KNIGHT COURTESY DEPARTMENT OF LIBRARY SERVICES/AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
  • deer, elk and moose - map of modern moose range in North America
    Map shows the current range of moose species in North America.
    DON OSBY

  • deer, elk and moose - skeleton of Megaloceros giganteus
  • deer, elk and moose - antlered male moose at rest
  • deer, elk and moose - two male moose antlers down in rutting battle
  • deer, elk and moose - walking wapati and wapati at rest
  • deer, elk and moose - painting of Irish elk
  • deer, elk and moose - map of modern moose range in North America

Peat bogs have proven to be among nature's most efficient vaults for the long-term preservation of organic matter. The peat marsh environment's near-neutral pH, high concentrations of bone-decalcifying minerals, and subaquatic exclusion of oxygen combine to form a superb mummifying and fossilizing medium.

From peat bogs in northern Europe have come the Grauballe and Tollund mummies and other millennia-old human bodies so remarkably preserved that flesh and muscle, hair, even facial expressions appear almost lifelike. But perhaps the most intriguing remains to emerge from the bogs are those of a long-extinct Eurasian deer, Megaloceros giganteus, the Irish elk. From them, wildlife scientists have pieced together the remarkable history of deer, elk and moose.

A mature Irish elk stag stood to more than seven feet at the shoulders, could weigh in excess of 1,500 pounds and carried antlers weighing up to 95 pounds and spanning as much as 168 inches from tip to tip. That's a spread of 14 feet. Think of it. The greatest spread on record for the North American elk is a comparatively humble 63 1/2 inches.

This outrageous headgear ranks as the most massive ever worn by any animal, extinct or living, almost doubling that of today's champion, the Alaska-Yukon moose. Early on, in fact, it was presumed from the palmate structure and great size of its antlers that the Irish elk was a moose.



Why, then, was the creature dubbed an elk rather than a moose? Because "elk" (from the ancient Greek alee ) is what Europeans call the animal known here in North America as the moose. But no matter, for the extinct ruminant was no more a moose than it was an elk. What it was, some leading evolutionary biologists now believe, was an early relative of today's Eurasian fallow deer.

Further, the Irish elk was Irish only insofar as Irish peat bogs were the first to yield its remains; subsequently, many antlers and some entire skeletons have been exhumed from bog sites in England, Germany, and many far-flung elsewheres. Because the Irish elk was designed for life in a temperate climate, it never wandered to the extremes of Siberia and on across the Bering land bridge to North America, as did the moose, caribou and red deer (the latter being the same species as our elk, or wapiti).






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