The naming of very large deer seems to cause all manner of confusion. The Giant Deer Megaloceros giganteus, formerly known as the Irish elk, is not really an elk – which in itself (in North America anyway) is a moose. It is, as sequencing of its DNA has shown, actually most immediately akin to the fallow deer. An awful lot of them have however been dug up in Irish bogs and, as anyone who has encountered one of the many Megaloceros skeletons on display in our museums will testify, ‘Giant’ is no misnomer. But they’re not exclusively Hibernian and we do have Giant Deer bones from many caves (and open sites) in Wales and England – including Ffynnon Beuno and Cae Gwyn in the Clwydian Range.
The cause of the demise of this deeply evocative species, the stags of which were crowned with a majestic beam of antlers, has been the subject of much debate. Of late, much megafaunal extinction has been pinned on us via an ‘overkill’ hypothesis. That is to say; the disappearance of big beasts from landscapes around the globe – all of them once akin to those that we now solely associate with the Serengeti in terms of their profusion of life – was caused by excessive hunting on the part of a burgeoning Homo sapiens population. On current evidence it seems difficult to dispute this.
However, with Megaloceros this doesn’t stack up. By the time humans arrived in Ireland they’d already been gone for a couple of thousand years. Maybe they just failed to adapt to fluctuating temperatures 10,500 years ago – another powerful affirmation of the ‘adapt or die’ maxim. But equally, we might reflect on the truism which reminds us that ‘all things must pass’. Put very simply – because of a whole range of factors within an ever-changing world – their time had gone.