Extinct giant deer's descendant found in UK

September 04, 2005

UCL (University College London) scientists have found that the closest living relative to the extinct Irish Elk (giant deer) lives on our shores. The team tested for DNA and skeletal features to prove that the giant deer - which roamed across Europe and Siberia with prehistoric man and is the subject of numerous cave drawings - has its DNA in common with the fallow deer, one of the most widespread deer in the UK since their introduction by the Normans in the eleventh century.

The results, published online by Nature, contradict recent morphological studies (looking at skeletal features) which placed the giant deer closer to the living red deer. Professor Adrian Lister and Dr Ian Barnes, UCL Department of Biology, prove the link with the fallow deer by basing their findings on DNA sequence evidence taken from the long-extinct deer and an analysis of the key characteristics it has in common with modern deer.

The fallow deer (or Dama dama) is the last surviving member of the megacerine (giant deer) fossil group and has changed considerably since its prehistoric origins. Although its lineage can be seen in the antlers - the fallow deer has the same flattened antlers that the giant deer was renowned for - in size, the modern day deer is comparatively small.

The giant deer (or Megaloceros giganteus - meaning gigantic antlers) lived from 400,000 years ago to its extinction 8000 years ago and would have towered over its descendant, reaching a shoulder height of around two metres with antlers spanning 3.5 metres (10 feet).

Deer from around the world (including the southeast Asian axis deer, the hog deer and fallow deer) were DNA tested and their characteristics - such as antlers, skull and teeth size & shape - were studied. Two giant deer were used; one found in the Ballynamintra Cave, Waterford, Ireland which was around 13,000 years old; the other taken from Kamyshlov Mire in western Siberia.

Dr Lister said: "The fact that DNA survives in fossil bone that is thousands of years old is an exciting bit of science in itself. Now we can analyse these ancient DNA samples from the bones of a mammal that has been extinct for over 8000 years and show that they are directly related to a living deer - more importantly we've found its closest living descendant."
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University College London

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