DNA pegs Irish elk’s nearest relatives

Analyses of DNA of the Irish elk, which died out after the last ice age, may settle a long-running debate about the massive creature’s place on the deer family tree.

The Irish elk, or Megaloceros giganteus, was actually a giant deer. Adult males were about the size of a bull moose and had broad, flat antlers that could span more than 3.5 meters. Scientists in the 19th century speculated that M. giganteus was closely related to the fallow deer because that living European species also has flat antlers. However, scientists subsequently compared Irish elk body features with those of many deer and suggested that a different species, the red deer, is the extinct elk’s closest living kin.

Now, Ian Barnes of University College London and his colleagues have compared lengthy stretches of Irish elk DNA with analogous genetic segments from members of 10 living deer species. In an upcoming Nature, the researchers report that the best match for the Irish elk’s DNA is that of the fallow deer after all. The team reports that more than 90 percent of the two species’ DNA segments are identical. That level of similarity hints that the species’ last common ancestor lived between 5 million and 4 million years ago, says Barnes. The DNA compared in the study was from mitochondria within cells. The researchers obtained the Irish elk sample from the remains of an animal that lived in Siberia more than 7,000 years ago.

The team’s separate anatomical analysis of 74 skeletal characteristics, such as antler features and grooves on teeth, backs the notion that fallow deer are the Irish elk’s closest living relative.

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