Old bones unearth new date for giant deer's last stand

October 06, 2004

A new investigation into extinctions caused by climate change has revealed that the giant deer, previously thought to have been wiped out by a cold spell 10,500 years ago, instead survived well into the modern era.

University College London (UCL) scientists scoured the continent to collect dozens of ancient bones and teeth which, when radiocarbon dated, revealed that the Eurasian giant deer survived to 7,000 years ago, much later than previously thought.

Giant deer first appeared about 400,000 years and roamed much of the Eurasian continent alongside the woolly mammoth. The magnificent beasts - 2 metres in shoulder height with antlers spanning 3.5 metres - appear to have made their final stand in the Ural mountains on the boundary of Europe and Asia, possibly the last haven for a species which was being progressively wiped out by climate change and the spread of ice sheets, according to the study by UCL Professors Adrian Lister and Tony Stuart, published in the latest issue of Nature.

Unfortunately for these majestic beasts, the extra three thousand years takes them well into the modern era when Stone Age hunting was at its most refined. The question is, did early man develop an appetite for supersized deer?

Professor Adrian Lister says: "Although we can now bring the extinction date forward by 3,000 years or so, we still can't tell what actually killed off these beasts. Man could have been the ultimate destroyer, but climate change might also have been the culprit. This is the mystery we have yet to solve.

"A double-whammy of intense cold spells around 20,000 and 10,500 years ago had already taken their toll on these striking beasts. The last of the giant deer, squeezed out of Europe, seem to have taken refuge in the southern Ural mountains near the Black Sea. The next question we need to address is what finally killed them off, whether it was hunting, agricultural clearing of land or changes in climate or vegetation."

Up until 20,000 years ago the giant deer, Megaloceros giganteus Blumenbach, was found across the middle latitudes of Eurasia, from Ireland to east of Lake Baikal. The males would have had to feed extensively to sustain the annual growth of their huge antlers. Indeed, it is thought that the antlers would have prevented males from entering even moderately dense woods, at least for part of the year, and one former theory for their extinction was that the seasonal nutrient requirements for the antlers alone might have killed off the species.

Traditionally, woolly mammoths were believed to have gone extinct around the same time as the giant deer, together with all the other extinct 'Ice Age' beasts such as the woolly rhino and saber-toothed cat, between about 12,000 and 10,000 years ago. However, a recent discovery found that the mammoth survived on Wrangel, a remote arctic island, until 3,600 years ago. The latest discovery shows that the giant deer also broke through this 10,000 year barrier to enter the modern era.
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University College London

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