Request: Irish elk

May 16, 2012 • 6:16 am

UPDATE: several readers provided photos of the male and female; the best is from Sigmund, who pointed me to the flanking dimorphic elks in the geology building of his own university, Trinity College Dublin. Look at that antler dimorphism! On a related note, the renowned Irish paleontologist Sir Arthur (Artie) O’Dactyl has just described an enormously large living mollusc which, in honor of this cervid, he’s named the “Irish whelk.”

And offers yet another theory for why the Irish Elk went extinct:


I have been searching for a photo of a skeleton of a female Irish Elk, but every photo I can find depicts the remains of males, who of course had the largest antlers of any deer that ever lived (90 pounds of antlers on a five-pound skull, and the males had to regrow their antlers each year!).  The species is, of course, extinct. I’d like to see the sexual dimorphism, though, especially because a sophisticated theologian, Ian Barbour, has used the Elk as an example of a purely detrimental evolutionary change that contravenes neo-Darwinian theory. Barbour is apparently unaware of sexual selection and sexual dimorphism.  It’s ironic that although sophisticated theologians are always going after biologists for not knowing theology very well, these same theologians repeatedly get their biology wrong.

I know that the species (Megaloceros giganteus) was sexually dimorphic, but have been unable to find photographic documentation.  Readers who have access to photos of female skeletons: send me one.  Thanks. Here’s a male:

[Update: “Horns” has been corrected to antlers. Antlers grow each year as bony outgrowths covered by a thin skin (called velvet), which eventually is rubbed off by the deer to form the mature antler. Horns are not shed annually, have a bony core, and usually have a keratinous covering (e.g. cattle, sheep, antelope), but may have a skin covering (e.g. giraffes). Thanks to all who noticed!]

53 thoughts on “Request: Irish elk

  1. An example of sexual discrimination? The one I know from the UCL Grant Museum is male.
    Jerry, you have an extra ‘e’ in giganteus by the way…

  2. Why today would we have sophisticated theologians? Talking about a detrimental evolutionary change that contravenes Darwinian principles; that even contravenes common sense.

      1. Female reindeer (and their American vicar, caribou) have fully formed antlers. There may be other deer in which female have fully formed antlers, but I know of no cases in which they have smaller or rudimentary antlers.

        1. I’m pretty sure that Rangifer females do have smaller antlers than males.
          Apparently antlered females are occasionally seen in other cervids too. Interesting.

          1. Thanks for the neat reference. I’d not noticed that female caribou antlers are smaller. In the small sample I’ve looked at closely, I’d not noticed a distinct dimorphism, and thus missed the difference.

  3. That female Irish elk that we are finding comes from the Great britain’s Museum of Natural History. Some day I have got to go and see that wonderful place.

  4. There’s a moral in the story of the extraordinary difficulty (as anyone can confirm for themselves) of finding pictures of female (so-called) Irish elk. Teachers and journalists alike all commit the sin of selecting only the most dramatic picture… we just can’t help it. We are terrified of not being dramatic or exciting all the time. How much of the world’s understanding of science is distorted by this kind of selectivity?

    1. This observation has far more general application than you may realize. The Royal BC Museum has a costume collection, but it’s largely ball gowns and such. A friend who used to work there said they’d been looking for years for a union suit hand-knited by the women of the Cowichan Indians for loggers to wear, but have never found one. The supposition is that being mere underwear, when they wore out they were torn up into rags.

      Some readers may be familiar with the Cowichan sweaters

      I’m sure that other museums have similar difficulties: very hard to find examples of once common, but humble, goods used in everyday life. [Does the Smithsonian have a collection of Mormon sacred undies including all the various versions they’ve had over the years? Very likely not, though they are a notable element of American life, esp. now that we have the possibility of a Mormon becoming Dear Leader!]

  5. Ian Barbour, has used the Elk as an example of a purely detrimental evolutionary change that contravenes neo-Darwinian theory. Barbour is apparently unaware of sexual selection and sexual dimorphism.

    Females not having big antlers would certainly be evidence in favor of sexual selection. Females having big antlers might be a problem for the sexual selection hypothesis…but is still not evidence for creation.

    30 years after McLean and they’re still pushing its contrived dualism. Tell Barbour that if he wants to show a solid case for special creation or ID or whatever, he should tell us what positive evidence for special creation would be. Then he should go out there and dig up that evidence.

  6. I got given out to for calling it an elk! I was told to call it the giant Irish deer because it’s not related to the extant species of elk.

    1. As always, arguing about vernacular names is completely pointless.
      Depending on where you are in the world today, ‘elk’ means either Alces or Cervus.
      All ‘elk’ are types of ‘deer’ if ‘deer’ means the family Cervidae.

    2. Following customary usage and relatedness, it is probably best called the Irish giant deer, but as the other reply notes, there is no simple correspondence between common names and cervid genera. I have taken advantage of the frequent call to replace “elk” with “deer” to point out to students that the animal is potentially misnamed two ways – it is not strictly Irish and not strictly an elk. I then recall how we said the same thing earlier in the class about the pestiferous Mormon cricket – it is not a cricket (but a katydid) and is not a Mormon!

      1. Not only weren’t they elks, they weren’t Irish. They were found all over northern Europe, although some of the most amazingly preserved specimens are in Irish peat bogs. We have a stupendous skull and antlers in the foyer of the Michael Smith building at the University of Manchester.

  7. Antlers, not horns. Two completely different anatomical features.

    Antlers are branching external bones that are shed each year.

    Horns are non-branching bone cores covered by keratin sheaths that last the lifetime of the animal.

    So long as you ignore pronghorns. They have actual horns (bony core surrounded by keratin sheath), but the sheath branches and is shed annually, which the bony core is permanent.

    As far as I know, caribou are the only species where the females have antlers. In species with horns, the females tend to also bear them, though they are frequently smaller. In pronghorns, the females lack the eponymous prongs.

  8. sophisticated theologian, Ian Barbour, has used the Elk as an example of a purely detrimental evolutionary change that contravenes neo-Darwinian theory. Barbour is apparently unaware of sexual selection and sexual dimorphism.

    Or the existence of peacocks.

    The male has a dramatic tail that does nothing but impress the girls.

    This is typical of religious critics of evolution. They quite often have less than a grade schooler’s understanding of evolution but somehow know it is wrong.

    1. “The male has a dramatic tail that does nothing but impress the girls.”

      and that is a detriment in what sense?

      1. It makes flying more difficult, can become caught on underbrush, and it makes it easier for predators to spot the individual.

        1. It was a facetious questioning of how a physical feature that ‘does nothing but attract females’ could be a detriment.

  9. Also, Barbour is apparently unaware of allometry. The Irish Elk has long been a poster child for allometric constraint – at least since Gould 1974 Evolution 28:191-220, and Gould 1973 Nature 244:375-376 (which I do not have in pdf form, am too lazy to walk down to the library and copy, and which Nature Publishing Group wants to charge me $39 to download).

    Someone else has already cribbed the main figure from Gould’s Evolution paper: They left out the caption, but Megaloceros is “M”.

    For contrast, here is a photo of a small-bodied male cervid, Kirk’s dik-dik:

    Have I missed some recent re-interpretation of all this? I still use this in evolution class as an easily understandable example of constraint – the tight allometry between body size and antler size in cervids puts a hard limit on large a cervid can be, regardless of whether the actual selection for bigger is on body size (either sexual or non-sexual) or antler size (presumably sexual). All perfectly neo-Darwinian in either case.

    1. That is my understanding as well. Given its height at the shoulder, antler width is about where it should be relative to the allometric relationship among cervids. I believe the Irish elk was long ago a favorite example of paleontologists who believed in “orthogenesis”- an internal drive to evolve in a certain direction (with a certain inertia) even if it is maladaptive (another example was the sabertooth, which was driven to extinction because their teeth couldn’t help but get too large!). Barbour has virtually no understanding of evolution.

      1. Ack! Now I will suffer from too-quick-to-the-keyboard internet embarrassment forever. Sorry about that slip.

    2. eh. “Tight allometry” is in the eye of the beholder. There is actually plenty of scope for antler size to vary at any given body size.

  10. Thanks for mentioning Sir Arthur! That reminded me of my good friend D. Mellon O’Gaster, who specialized in holistic and reductionistic drosophilology.

    1. I seem to recall reading a suggestion that Irish wolves were rather large, perhaps having once been elk specialists but I am not sure if that is still considered plausible.

  11. Are the dorsal vertebral protrusions another dimorphic feature? They appear to be much longer on the bull.

    1. I believe the dorsal vertebral protrusions (and the accompanying musculature) are indeed thought to be adaptations that go along with the very large antlers on a large deer. They may not be totally decoupled between males and females (because of pleiotropy between the sexes), but would be expected to be smaller in females. Ditto for the thickening of the cervical vertebrae.

    2. Yes I think they are. I think they may be bigger on the male to support the weight of the enormous antlers. Mammoths also had those same protrusions but modern elephants don’t and mammoths had huge curling tusks, much bigger than those of elephants and I think the difference is because mammoth tusks were much heavier. Perhaps it reinforces the vertebrae.

      1. Wouldn’t those (also?) be attachments for larger shoulder and neck muscles holding the heavy head up?

  12. Sigmund: Is the geology building at TCD open on weekends and is it open to the general public?

    It will be on my must-see list next time I’m in Ireland on business …


    1. I’m not sure (I attended Trinity over 20 years ago!) I suspect it is open although perhaps not to the general public. You should be OK to see the skeletons as they are in the entrance hallway. The geology building is very close to the famous Trinity College library that houses the Book of Kells.

      1. Sigmund: Thanks very much, will make a point of seeing both the Irish Elk and the Book of Kells.

        I’m just now reading a history of Ireland (Coohill) and a book of geology of Ireland in preparation for my next visit.


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