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Wednesday, 14 June, 2000, 18:11 GMT 19:11 UK
Giant elk survived the freeze

The giant elk would dwarf modern man
By BBC News Online's Dr Damian Carrington

The giant Irish Elk survived the last ice age - but probably only just.

The enormous deer, which sported antlers 3.6m wide (10 feet), was thought to have perished along with woolly mammoths in the frozen wastes. But new fossil dating evidence shows that at least some of the beasts survived to warmer times.

The revelation raises the possibility that humans, not the climate, may have driven the majestic creature into extinction.

However, just 20 bone samples from Irish Elks have been dated and the ongoing programme of research is expected to reveal more surprises about how they met their fate.

Accidental discovery

The bone samples were found in the UK on the Isle of Man and in southwest Scotland. They were only dated, using radiocarbon techniques, to determine the age of an interesting geological deposit.

Adrian Lister, at University College London, was surprised when the analysis of two fragments revealed ages of 9,200 and 9,400 years ago. This is long after the previous youngest find, 10,600 years ago.

Dr Lister told BBC News Online: "It's quite possible that the ice age could have squeezed the populations down to one or two relics on the western fringe of Europe, like we see here."

But he pointed out that only 20 radiocarbon dates have ever been obtained for giant elks, leaving the possibility that many elks survived the ice age.

By contrast, over 500 dates have been obtained for mammoths. Data from a Siberian island also show that some mammoths survived the ice age.

Cold spell

The last ice age stretched from 100,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago. Giant elk are known to have existed right across Europe since 400,000 years ago.

But the evidence that they survived the ice age leaves open the possibility that human hunters may have finally wiped out the elks. Against this idea, is the fact that, so far, no post-ice age evidence of human presence has been found in the area before 7,000 years ago.

The new data collected by Dr Lister, and his colleagues, also shows that the elks did not drift through the ice age unchanged. In the UK, at least, they got smaller, which may be the result of food becoming scarce.

Intriguingly though, their spectacular antlers remained as huge: "You would especially expect the antlers to get smaller as they are so-called luxury organs - they should be the first thing to go," said Dr Lister.

"But we found the exact opposite, that these little animals had got relatively large antlers."

This suggests that the need for large, "expensive" antlers outweighs even the threat of starvation.

The research is published in Nature.

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See also:

25 May 00 | Sci/Tech
How life survived the big freeze
21 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Mammoth comes in from the cold
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