Irish elk survived after ice age ended

New fossil finds indicate that the Irish elk, previously thought to have gone extinct at the end of the last ice age, survived in some spots for several millennia more.

Megaloceros giganteus actually was a giant deer that stood more than 2.1 meters high at the shoulder, about the size of today’s bull moose. Antlers sported by male Irish elk spanned up to about 3.6 meters (almost 12 feet) and weighed about 40 kilograms (88 pounds), says Anthony J. Stuart of University College London.

Ecological changes drove Irish elk from central and western Europe at the height of the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago, but the creatures recolonized the continent and the British Isles about 14,500 years ago.

The youngest Irish elk fossils found in Europe—ones previously thought to mark the species’ extinction—date to around 12,000 years ago. That’s also about when the last ice age was ending. Many scientists have suggested that factors such as ecological change, virulent disease, and hunting by people wiped out many large mammal species at that time.

Now, fossils found at two sites in western Siberia reveal that the Irish elk survived there at least until 7,650 years ago. Carbon-dating tests performed by scientists at two laboratories verify those ages.

Stuart and his colleagues describe their analysis in the Oct. 7 Nature.

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