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How Physically Imposing Was the Irish Elk?

Updated May 16, 2024
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If a trophy hunter ever invented a time machine, he or she could go back to the Pleistocene epoch and end up filling an entire wall with just one prize: the antlers from an Irish elk. Biological evidence suggests that the giant deer species, which first appeared approximately 400,000 years ago and went extinct around 8,000 years ago, stood about 7 feet (2.1 m) tall.

That stature would be impressive on its own, but it's the size of the creature's antlers that was really jaw-dropping: those antlers could measure 12 feet (3.7 m) across.

As massive and frightening as those big branches might have been, noted evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould speculated that they were neither out of proportion, nor intended to be used as weapons. In the 1970s, Gould examined several deer species and determined that the Irish elk's antlers were the right size for its body, especially if it lived in open country. Gould also believed that the antlers would have been too cumbersome for fighting, but they could serve to intimidate male rivals and impress females.

What else about (Irish) elk:

  • The Irish elk was not closely related to either of the modern-day elk species; its closest living relatives are thought to be fallow deer or red deer.

  • Confusingly, the moose (Alces alces) is known as an elk in British English. In North American English, "elk" refers to Cervus canadensis, also known as the wapiti.

  • Despite its name, the Irish elk did not live exclusively in Ireland. Its range reached all the way to Lake Baikal in Siberia.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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