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It's who, not what, killed the last Irish Elk

MARIE NOLAN UNTIL now it has always been believed that climate change led to the extinction of the Irish Elk. But new evidence suggests it was Stone Age hunters and not the weather that killed off the majestic beast which stood more than 6ft tall at the shoulder with antlers spanning 11ft.

The evidence shows that the Irish Elk, Megaloceros giganteus or Giant Deer, which experts believed had been wiped out by a cold spell 10,500 years ago, survived well into the modern era.

The animal would therefore have lived at a time when Stone Age hunting was at its most refined which means humans, rather than the last Ice Age, may have driven the Irish Elk into extinction.

Giant deer first appeared about 400,000 years ago and roamed much of the Eurasian continent. Scientists from University College London found fossil evidence that their last haven was in the Ural mountains, where they survived up to 7,000 years ago.

Professor Adrian Lister, who reported the findings in the journal Nature, said: "Although we can now bring the extinction date forward by 3,000 years or so, we still can't tell what actually killed off these beasts.

"Man could have been the ultimate destroyer, but climate change might also have been the culprit. This is the mystery we have yet to solve. A double-whammy of intense cold spells around 20,000 and 10,500 years ago had already taken their toll on these striking beasts.

"The last of the giant deer, squeezed out of Europe, seem to have taken refuge in the southern Ural mountains near the Black Sea. The next question we need to address is what finally killed them off, whether it was hunting, agricultural clearing of land or changes in climate."

Until 20,000 years ago, the Irish Elk was found across the middle latitudes of Eurasia, from Ireland to the east of Lake Baikal. Males would have had to feed extensively to sustain the annual growth of their huge antlers.

Experts think the antlers would have prevented males from entering even moderately dense woods, at least for part of the year. At one time it was thought that the nutrient requirements of the antlers might on its own have been responsible for killing off the species. Woolly mammoths were previously thought to have gone extinct at about the same time as the giant deer, together with other Ice Age beasts such as the woolly rhino and sabre-toothed tiger between about 10,000 and 12,000 years ago. Then scientists found that mammoths lived on Wrangel, a remote Arctic island, as recently as 3,600 years ago.

The new discovery shows the Irish Elk also broke the 10,000-year barrier.

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