Sign In | Create an Account | Welcome, . My Account | Logout | Subscribe | Submit News | Contact Us | Home RSS

Giant deer fossils teach us how the earth changes

October 23, 2010

Deer hunters can only dream of antlers this large on a deer. It is proof of what was possible and common a long time ago. Since the extinct GIANT DEER or IRISH ELK is long gone, it still raises lots of comments among scientists of how an animal this large could cope with headgear so big. Well, it did, and it flourished for many ten of thousands of years on open grassland and tundra landscapes much different than what we humans are familiar with today.

Today's photo is of a reconstructed animal located in the Safari Club International Wildlife Museum in Tucson, Ariz. When one walks into the exhibit hall where the Giant Deer is posed against its habitat backdrop, one is immediately taken by the huge size of its antlers. The body is easily as big as or bigger than our common American moose. An adult male Megaloceros stood almost 7 feet tall at the shoulder and is estimated to have weighed 1,600 pounds. Females would tip the scales at about 1,000 pounds. Scientists now know that this deer was a giant fallow deer.

Geologic time frames are hard to grasp. Yet one must acknowledge that the earth cools and warms and repeats this ebb of long term natural cycles that drastically alters plant and animal life zones across the continents. When the last glacial period was drawing to a close, plants slowly colonized the soils and moved north as the ice edges from melting glaciers moved north. Of course this all took lots of time, geologically speaking, and animals followed the plants.

Article Photos

The GIANT DEER, or misnamed Irish Elk, (Megaloceros giganteus), is long gone from the landscapes of Europe and Asia. It lived in the middle to late Pleistocene time frame, roughly 400,000 until about 7,700 years ago. These latest fossilized specimens came from an island area north of Siberia. Its impressive antlers could span up to 12 feet and weigh almost 90 pounds. Many large antlers of this animal adorn castles in Scotland.  People digging peat from bogs found many skeletal remains and large antlers. The Natural History Museum in Dublin has a significant collection of bones of this giant deer species.

The estimated and known fossil record of this ancient deer places its range from Eurasia, the bogs of Ireland, and east all the way to Lake Baikal and Siberia. Records also come from North Africa. A related form is also known from northern China. Cave paintings from Lascaux in France are proof of a time when early humans knew of this giant deer.

During the Late Pleistocene, many other large animals were part of the fauna of that time. There was a bison, much larger in body size than our modern day bison, with horns almost straight out that measured 6 feet from tip to tip. There were giant cave bears, ground sloths, woolly rhinos, saber-toothed cats and mastodons. Even in the relatively colder climate of those times, large body size is a mechanism for the efficient conservation of body heat. To maintain a constant temperature, a small animal must burn more energy because it has a larger surface area relative to its mass. The reverse is true for large bodied animals.

As the climate of the earth warmed into the present inter-glacial phase, large animal body size was a disadvantage in addition to plant life changes that were too much to adapt to. Many species of large mammals disappeared from the earth forever. It is an ages old rhythm of the earth.

The giant deer was a swift runner on land relatively level, hard and open. Its large rib cage held big lungs and a large heart. Long legs propelled it away from predators, most likely wolves. Young deer of this species are classified as cursorial, meaning that they are born quite large with long legs. They had to quickly learn to walk and then run alongside their mothers. Mothers had to be able to provide rich milk which they extracted from nutritious and digestible forage.

Male giant deer expressed their vigor through antler growth, a barometer of sorts for the females to judge fitness and forage finding abilities of males. It turns out that willow buds and twigs were hugely important for giant deer, a vegetation type closely associated with post glacial environments.

While males may have used their antlers to battle other males, this is not likely. Those big antlers held high and straight on were primarily for intimidation of rival males. Battles were avoided just by the body language of big bulls.

Antlers on any member of the deer family are discarded each year in later winter or early spring. Antlers re-grow during late spring and summer. It takes good food high in calcium and phosphorous to assist in the growth of new bone (antlers) from the skull each year. Deer in a sense rob their own bones to provide part of the new antler nutrients and then gradually replenish those minerals during the summer from the vegetation they eat.

If this author ever travels to Ireland someday, you can find me in that country's Natural History Museum, learning as much as I can about the wildlife of past times. Fossils teach us how the earth changes.


Iowa has a MOOSE on the loose in Clay County. An Iowa DNR press release tells of a moose in the vicinity of Langdon, a little town north northeast of Spencer. The moose is likely a young male that has wandered southward from Minnesota. About every three to five years, an errant moose makes its way into the Hawkeye state. I'm sure it is quite confused by all the corn fields it encounters. For motorists, this is one deer you do not want to see at night on a highway while driving 55 mph.


Northeast Iowa in Allamakee County had a verified black bear sighting in the Yellow River State Forest area. Unfortunately, there are reports of people feeding the bear, a very, very bad idea. The saying goes in many western states that "a fed bear is a dead bear." It means in the long run that the bear will have to be put down due its confrontations with humans. Just let it find its own foods.


LEAF COLOR on our deciduous trees is a fall time treat. The brilliance factor is related to weather condition before and during the time the chlorophyll in the leaves is dwindling. Temperature and moisture are the main influences. During the day, lots of sugars are produced in the leaf but cool nights and a gradual closing of leaf veins prevent those sugars from moving out. These conditions - lots of sugar and lots of light - spur production of brilliant anthocyanin pigments. We see those as reds, purples and crimson.

Deciduous trees drop their leaves to help survive cold winters. Stems, twigs and buds are able to survive extreme cold. Tender leaf tissues would freeze, so plants must either protect their leaves or shed them. Evergreens, trees in the pines, spruces and hemlocks, retain their needles or scale-like foliage with a heavy covering of wax. In addition the fluids inside the needles contain substances that resist freezing.

Nature has adapted its plant life to cope with Iowa's hot summers and freezing cold winters. We humans must adapt also to the coming of another winter with warm clothes, warm dwellings and foods to heat our body. So stay warm, and go for a hike in the forest. Look up and enjoy the splendid color show in the tree tops.


"On the Move" is the theme for the Nov. 3 session of the Preschool Story Hour at the GrimesFarm & Conservation Center. The story hour is held from 10 to 11 a.m. on the first and third Wednesday of each month. Bring your little ones out for fun stories and a short walk outdoors.

On Nov. 4, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the Brown Bag Bunch will meet at the GrimesFarm & Conservation Center. Bring your lunch and enjoy a program on Monarch Migration. Naturalist Diane Pixler will show a power point presentation of her trip to Mexico to see the thousands of Monarch Butterflies who make the trip during their annual migration.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



I am looking for: