The Irish elk was once widespread around the world but ultimately suffered extinction. How big was the Irish elk?
The Irish elk was a similar size and weight to a modern-day moose. It had a shoulder height of approximately 7 feet, with huge antlers spanning as wide as 12 feet. An adult Irish elk likely weighed as much as 1,500 pounds.
For more on the Irish elk and its size, read on.
Despite its name, the Irish elk is not an elk, nor was it exclusively found in Ireland. Its scientific name is the “Megaloceros giganteus” and it was actually a species of deer. It was given the name “elk” because it was much nearer in size to an elk (or moose) than it was to a modern-day deer.
The Irish elk was the largest known deer species. Its enormous antlers could span as wide as 12 feet, while its shoulder height was as tall as seven feet. An adult male weighed as much as 1,500 pounds, meaning it was a similar size to the modern-day moose.
Only adult male Irish elk had antlers and, like many modern stags, they shed them annually before regrowing them. While modern stags often utilize their antlers while rutting in fights with other stags, this was likely impossible for the Irish elk due to the sheer size. Instead, their antlers were primarily decorative.
Irish elk could be found in much of the known world, with remains found in Europe, northern Asia, and northern Africa. It had close relatives in the Far East, particularly in China. Despite this, it has become known as the Irish elk due to the high number of well-preserved remains that have been discovered in the bogs of Ireland.
The exact reasons for the decline and extinction of the Irish elk are debated by researchers. Some have suggested that the animal was unable to find food during the most recent Ice Age and starved to death.
This is complicated somewhat by the fact that fossils discovered in Siberia date from approximately 7,000 years ago when the earth was much warmer than during the Ice Age.
Whether it was the freezing or the warming of the climate that affected the Irish elk, it appears that the sudden shift in climate had a very detrimental effect on the species. Rapid changes in temperature can result in climate loss and more competition for food. Evidence suggests that the Irish elk was almost completely extinct about 8,000 years ago.
Though the bogs and other wet areas of Ireland helped to preserve the skeletons and antlers of the Irish elk, they could not preserve the rest of the animals. Unlike the woolly mammoth, which was sometimes frozen in areas such as Siberia, we can’t know exactly how an Irish elk appeared during its heyday.
We do have some idea of how living Irish elk might have looked, thanks to art on the walls of the famous Lascaux Cave in Montignac, France. There are more than 600 wall paintings in the cave, which provide some of the finest surviving depictions of prehistoric animals such as the Irish elk.
We know that Irish elk were hunted by prehistoric humans. Given their size, they would have been an appealing but dangerous target. However, if they were caught in an Irish bog, the prospect of hunting one surely became far more straightforward.
In 1697, Irish physician Thomas Molyneaux attempted to argue that the modern-day moose and Irish elk were one and the same. He did this to support his argument that God would not allow any of his creations to go extinct.
Regardless of Molyneaux’s claims, there are several differences between a modern moose and an Irish elk, making them distinct species. Fortunately for Molyneaux, he lived a century before the discovery of dinosaur bones.
Despite becoming extinct thousands of years ago, Irish elk remains are relatively common due to how widespread and numerous the animal was at its peak. Their antlers make a remarkable display for any collection of Ice Age findings.
In fact, many examples of Irish elk have been discovered by mistake. In 2018, a group of fishermen in Northern Ireland dragged a skull and antlers out of the water when it became entangled in their net. They initially believed it to be a piece of black oak, due to its dark coloration. It was dated to approximately 10,000 years old.