When Did the Irish Elk Go Extinct?

Largest Deer Ever - Irish Elk
© Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock.com

Written by Rebecca Mathews

Published: July 15, 2022

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Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus) are the stuff of legends. They were the biggest deer to ever live on Earth, with antlers spanning far wider than their height. Sadly, Irish elk have died out, and all we have left are fossils and cave paintings made by early humans. So, why did they die out, and when? Let’s answer the burning question, “when did the Irish elk go extinct?” to learn more about this massive and magnificent ice age deer.

When Did the Irish Elk Go Extinct?

Largest Deer Ever - Irish Elk

Irish elk went extinct in the last ice age around 10,000 years ago.

©Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock.com

Irish elk went extinct in the last ice age around 10,000 years ago, and they weren’t the only type of megafauna to die out at that time. Saber-tooth tigers, cave lions, mastodons, and dire wolves were just a few of the other 37 species that became extinct too.

Precise carbon dating puts the latest Irish elk skeleton age at 7,760 years old. We may find other fossilized remains in the future, but for now, this is the extinction date scientists work to.

Why Did Irish Elk Go Extinct?

Woolly mammoths, and Irish elk, were driven to extinction by climate change and human impacts.

©Mauricio Anton / Creative Commons – Original

Scientists still debate the reasons why Irish elk became extinct.

Their fossils remains were first discovered in 1695 in Dardistown, Dublin, Ireland, by an Irish doctor called Thomas Molyneux. Early paleontologists suggested they died out because their huge antlers were too cumbersome. They thought their antlers became entangled in forest greenery when they were hunted by humans.

That may have been the case for some Irish elk, but modern scientists think they died out for several reasons.

The first was climate change. As Earth left its last ice age and warmed up, the environment changed. This meant that Irish elk food sources were limited, and their numbers began to dwindle.

Besides climate change, human hunting may have played a part in their extinction. Irish elk were large and provided a lot of meat and warm skins for humans to use. Experts think a combination of climate change and human hunting led to a slow extinction.

This article in Quaternary International explains a bit more about why and when Irish elk went extinct in the last ice age using radiocarbon dating as evidence.

How Long Did Irish Elk Live For?

Because there is no living Irish elk, it’s almost impossible to tell how long they lived. We can get an idea from their closest living relative, the fallow deer.

You might think that elk are the closest modern relative to Irish elk, but they weren’t actually elk at all. Irish elk were deer, and their closest living relative is the fallow deer that lives for 10-12 years.

Where Did Irish Elk Live?

Irish elk roamed and grazed grasslands.

©Ikiwaner / CC BY-SA 3.0 – Original / License

Although they are called Irish elk, these massive deer lived in Northern Asia, Europe, and Northern Africa. They inhabited grasslands, boreal steppe, woodland, and forests. These areas were full of grasses, spruce trees, herbs, shrubs, and various greenery that herbivorous Irish elk ate. Experts think they had to eat 90 pounds (40.8 kilograms) of fresh forage daily to support their antler growth.

They’re called Irish elk because so many remains are found in Irish bogs. Irish bogs are especially good at preserving remains because there’s little oxygen to breed bacteria that destroy organic remains.

Today, you can find Irish elk skeletons in a variety of places, including Warwick Castle in England, and the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Washington, U.S.

The Hobbit- Battle of the Five Armies includes a digitized animation of a giant Irish elk. King Thranduil rode it into battle!

How Big Were Irish Elk Antlers?

An Irish elk grew extremely large antlers. Fossilized skeletons indicate a grown adult carried antlers 3.65 meters wide (12 feet). That’s the equivalent length of a refrigerator on each side of their skulls or the height of an African elephant!

Their antlers weighed up to 88 pounds (39.9 kilograms), so they had incredibly strong neck muscles to carry the weight. Their huge antlers required high-quality vegetation, and as this became less available over the years, Irish elk antlers decreased in size.

What Did Irish Elk Look Like?

Irish elk were around 2.1 meters tall (6ft 11 inches) and weighed 990-1,320 pounds (449.05-598.74 kilograms).

Palaeolithic humans lived the same time as Irish elk and created cave art that remains today. They painted Irish elk 17,000 years ago in Lascaux cave, southwestern France.

In the early humans’ pictures, Irish elk have light-colored bodies with a dark stripe on their backs and another from shoulder to rump. They also had a dark throat collar and a dark-colored hump between their shoulders.

Was The Irish Elk Bigger Than A Moose?

Irish elk were the same size as Alaskan moose but had double-sized antlers.

In overall size, the Irish Elk was about the same size and weight as an Alaskan moose, but its antlers were much larger. The largest moose antlers were 75 inches (6 feet 3 inches) and totally dwarfed by Irish elks’ 143 inches (12 feet) antlers!

What Preyed On Irish Elk?

Large carnivores of the ice age preyed on Irish Elk. They included the two-meter-long cave lions, saber-tooth tigers with 7-inch teeth, and dire wolves that were 25% bigger than our current gray wolves.

Of course, humans preyed on Irish elk as well. Their antlers are still hanging in the great houses of Europe and must have been prized by early humans along with their warm fur and abundant meat.

Irish elk, cave lions, saber-tooth tigers, and dire wolves are all extinct now.

Can Irish Elk Be Brought Back?

Some scientists hope that Irish elk and other extinct megafauna animals can be brought back using DNA extracted from fossilized remains and DNA from their closest living relatives.

An Irish elk is a member of the Cervidae family. This family is made of herbivorous mammals with hooves and antlers. There are numerous species, so fingers crossed scientists can bring this extinct deer back. It’s not something that will happen soon, but no one knows what scientific advances might happen in the future.

The question of when the Irish elk went extinct is an important one because it gives insight into climate change and human behavior toward wildlife and the environment. Perhaps Irish elk extinction can teach us valuable lessons about the importance of taking care of planet Earth.


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About the Author

Rebecca is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on plants and geography. Rebecca has been writing and researching the environment for over 10 years and holds a Master’s Degree from Reading University in Archaeology, which she earned in 2005. A resident of England’s south coast, Rebecca enjoys rehabilitating injured wildlife and visiting Greek islands to support the stray cat population.

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