Friday, July 24, 2015

Irish Elk Domesticates


The take home here is that the Irish elk was been domesticated during the Early Holocene at least.  This is important because this meant that while it was been hunted to extinction in the wild as was the Orox it survived as a source of milk, meat and plausibly as an important riding animal.  

That also explains their disappearance.  Once the cow arrived, milk was more readily supplied and the animal was possibly far more tractable.  That left them as riding animals and once again tractability was shaky if reports with moose are any guidance.  Thus the emergence of a more useful horse spelled the extinction of any domesticated elk.

I expect we will be able to recover the genome and from that restore the species as well..  .


Monday, 6 July 2015 

Spectacular Megaloceros painting (© Zdenek Burian);postID=7168954927183704942
One of the most spectacular members of the Eurasian Pleistocene megafauna was the Irish elk Megaloceros giganteus. Formally described in 1799, it is also aptly known as the giant deer, as its largest known representatives were only marginally under 7 ft tall at the shoulder and bore massive antlers spanning up to 12 ft, but did this magnificent species linger on into historic times?

Below is an account of mine devoted to this tantalising subject and dating back to 1995, when it appeared in my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors. It is followed by various fascinating updates, including some significant palaeontological discoveries made since my book's publication but of great pertinence to the question of post-Pleistocene survival for this species.

But first – here is the relevant excerpt from my book:

The Irish elk Megaloceros giganteus was one of the largest species of deer that ever lived. It was also one of the most famous - on account of the male's enormous antlers, attaining a stupendous span of 12 ft and a weight of over 100 lb in some specimens. Sadly, its common name is misleading, as this impressive species is only very distantly related to the true elk (moose), and, far from being an Irish speciality, was prevalent throughout the Palaearctic Region, from Great Britain to Siberia and China.

Nonetheless, it is to Ireland that we must turn for the majority of clues regarding Megaloceros - because in contradiction to the accepted view that it died out here 10,600-11,000 years ago (just prior to the Holocene's commencement), certain accounts and discoveries from the Emerald Isle have tempted researchers to speculate that this giant deer may still have been alive here a mere millennium ago.

Restoration of the Irish elk, prepared in 1906 by Charles R. Knight (public domain)
According to accounts documented by H.D. Richardson in 1846, and reiterated by Edward Newman in the pages of The Zoologist, the ancient Irish used to hunt an extremely large form of black deer, utilising its skin for clothing, its flesh for food, and its milk for the same purposes that cow milk is used today. Supporting that remarkable claim is a series of bronze tablets discovered by Sir William Betham; inscribed upon them are details of how the ancient Irish fed upon the flesh and drank the milk of a great black deer.

These accounts resurfaced two decades later within an examination of the Irish elk's possible survival here into historic times by naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, in which he also documented an intriguing letter written by the Countess of Moira. Published in the Archaeologia Britannica, this letter recorded the finding of a centuries-old human body in a peat bog; the well-preserved body was completely clothed in garments composed of deer hair, which was conjectured to be that of the Irish elk.

Most interesting of all, however, was the discovery in 1846 by Dublin researchers Glennon and Nolan of a huge collection of animal bones surrounding an island in the middle of Lough Gûr - a small lake near Limerick. Among the species represented in it was the Irish elk, but of particular note was the condition of this species' skulls. Those lacking antlers each bore a gaping hole in the forehead, which seemed to have been made by some heavy, blunt instrument - recalling the manner of slaughtering cattle and other meat-yielding domestic animals with pole-axes, still practised by butchers in the mid-to-late 1800s. Conversely, this species' antlered skulls (one equipped with immensely large antlers) were undamaged.

Irish elk skeleton (Wikipedia/GNU General Public License)

Did this mean that the antler-less (i.e. female) Irish elks had actually been maintained in a domestic state by man in Ireland, as an important addition to his retinue of meat-producing species? Prof. Richard Owen sought to discount such speculation by stating that the mutilated skulls were in reality those of males, not females, and that the holes had resulted from their human killers wrenching the antlers from the skulls.

However, this was swiftly refuted by Richardson, whose experiments with fully-intact skulls of male Irish elks showed that when the antlers were wrenched off they either snapped at their bases, thereby leaving the skulls undamaged, or (if gripped at their bases when wrenched) ripped the skulls in half. On no occasion could he obtain the curious medially-sited holes exhibited by the Lough Gûr specimens. Clearly, therefore, these latter skulls were from female deer after all, explaining their lack of antlers - but what of the holes?

Irish elk depicted on a postage stamp issued by France in 2008 (© French Philatelic Bureau)

As Gosse noted in his coverage of Richardson's researches, it is significant that the skulls of certain known meat-yielding mammals present alongside the Megaloceros skulls at Lough Gûr had corresponding holes - and as Gosse very reasonably argued: "As it is evident that their demolition was produced by the butcher's pole-ax, why not that of the elk skulls?".

After presenting these and other accounts, Gosse offered the following conclusion:

"From all these testimonies combined, can we hesitate a moment in believing that the Giant Deer was an inhabitant of Ireland since its colonisation by man? It seems to me that its extinction cannot have taken place more than a thousand years ago. Perhaps at the very time that Caesar invaded Britain, the Celts in the sister isle were milking and slaughtering their female elks, domesticated in their cattle-pens of granite, and hunting the proud-antlered male with their flint arrows and lances. It would appear that the mode of hunting him was to chase and terrify him into pools and swamps, such as the marl-pits then were; that, having thus disabled him in the yielding bogs, and slain him, the head was cut off, as of too little value to be worth the trouble of dragging home...and that frequently the entire carcase was disjointed on the spot, the best parts only being removed. This would account for the so frequent occurrence of separate portions of the skeleton, and especially of skulls, in the bog-earth."

19th-Century engraving of an Irish elk (public domain)
Although undeniably thought-provoking, the case of Megaloceros's persistence into historic times in Ireland as presented by the above-noted 19th Century writers has never succeeded in convincing me - for a variety of different reasons.

For instance, there is no conclusive proof that the large black deer allegedly hunted by the ancient Irish people really were surviving Megaloceros. Coat colour in the red deer Cervus elaphus is far more variable than its common name suggests; and, as is true with many other present-day species of sizeable European mammal, specimens of red deer dating from a few centuries ago or earlier tend to be noticeably larger than their 20th Century counterparts.

Similarly, the Lough Gûr skulls' ostensibly significant contribution to this case rests upon one major, fundamental assumption - that they are truly the skulls of Megaloceros specimens. But are they? Precise identification of fossil remains is by no means the straightforward task that many people commonly believe it to be.

Reconstruction of an Irish elk at Ulster Museum (© Bazonka/Wikipedia)
Perhaps the greatest of all mysteries associated with this case, however, is that subsequent investigations of Megaloceros survival in Holocene Ireland as specifically inspired by the researches of Gosse and company, and formally documented in the scientific literature, are conspicuous only by their absence. (In September 1938, A.W. Stelfox of Ireland's National Museum, in Dublin, did consider this subject, but without reference to any of the above accounts.) Yet if the case for such survival is really so compelling and conclusive, how can this investigative hiatus be accounted for?

Seeking an explanation for these assorted anomalies, I consulted mammalian palaeontologist Dr Adrian Lister [then at Cambridge University, England, now at London's Natural History Museum] - who has a particular interest in Megaloceros. Confirming my own suspicions, Dr Lister informed me that it is not unequivocally established that the female Lough Gûr skulls were from Megaloceros specimens, and he suggested that they might be those of female Alces alces, the true elk or moose, which did exist in Ireland for a time during the Holocene (though it is now extinct there). Certainly in general form and size, female Alces skulls seem similar to the Lough Gûr versions.

In contrast, Lister agreed that the enormous size of the antlers borne by the male Lough Gûr skulls indicated that these were bona fide Megaloceros skulls; but as he also pointed out, although their presence in the same deposits as the remains of known domesticated species is interesting, without careful stratigraphical evidence this presence cannot be accepted as conclusive proof of association between Megaloceros and man.

Irish elk depicted on a postage stamp issued by the Republic of Ireland (Eire) in 1999 (© An Post)

During his Megaloceros account, Gosse included some reports describing discoveries in Ireland of huge limb bones assumed to be from Megaloceros, which were so well-preserved (and hence recent?) that the marrow within them could be set alight, and thereby utilised as fuel by the peasantry, or even boiled to yield soup!

Yet once again, as I learnt from Dr Lister, these were not necessarily Megaloceros bones - especially as the limb bones of red deer, moose, and even cattle are all of comparable shape and form, and can only be readily distinguished from one another by osteological specialists (who do not appear to have been granted the opportunity to examine the bones in those particular 19th Century instances, and the bones were not preserved afterwards). Furthermore, on those occasions when exhumed bones used for fuel purposes have been professionally examined, none has been found to be from Megaloceros.

In conclusion: far from being proven, the case for post-Pleistocene survival of Megaloceros in Ireland is doubtful to say the least. Nevertheless, this is not quite the end of the trail. As noted by zoologist Dr Richard Lydekker, and more recently by palaeontologist Prof. Bjorn Kurten, the word 'Schelk', which occurred in the famous Nibelungenlied (Ring of the Nibelungs) of the 13th Century, has been considered by some authorities to refer to specimens of Megaloceros alive in Austria during historic times; other authorities, conversely, have suggested that a moose or wild stallion is a more plausible candidate.

Irish elk statue at Crystal Palace, London, originally created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins during the 1850s (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Whatever the answer to the above proves to be, far more compelling evidence for such survival was presented in 1937 by A. Bachofen-Echt of Vienna. He described a series of gold and bronze engravings on plates from Scythian burial sites on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Dating from 600-500 BC and now housed at the Berlin Museum, the engravings are representations of giant deer-like creatures, whose antlers are accurate depictions of Megaloceros antlers! Undeniable evidence at last for Holocene survival?

The enigma of these engravings has perplexed palaeontologists for decades, but now a notable challenge to their potential significance has been put forward by Dr Lister, who has provided a convincing alternative explanation - postulating that the engravings were not based upon living Megaloceros specimens, but rather upon fossil Megaloceros antlers, exhumed by the Bronze Age people. This interpretation is substantiated by the stark reality that out of the hundreds of Holocene sites across Europe from which fossil remains have been disinterred, not a single one has yielded any evidence of Megaloceros.

True, absence of uncovered Holocene remains of Megaloceros does not deny absolutely the possibility of Holocene persistence (after all, there are undoubtedly many European fossil sites of the appropriate period still awaiting detection and study). Yet unless some such finds are excavated, it now seems much more likely that, despite the optimism of Gosse and other Victorian writers, this magnificent member of the Pleistocene megafauna failed to survive that epoch's close after all, like many of its extra-large mammalian contemporaries elsewhere.

That was where the matter stood back in 1995 – but not any longer!

Irish elk lithograph from 1895 (public domain)

On 15 June 2000, a paper published in the scientific journal Nature and co-authored by Dr Lister revealed that a near-complete Megaloceros skeleton uncovered in the Isle of Man (IOM) and a fragmentary antler from southwest Scotland had recently been shown via radiocarbon dating to be only a little over 9000 years old, i.e. dating from just inside the Holocene epoch – the first unequivocal proof that this mighty deer did indeed survive beyond the Pleistocene.

Intriguingly, however, as also disclosed in this paper, the Isle of Man's Holocene specimen's skeleton was statistically smaller (by over two standard deviations from its mean) than all Irish Pleistocene counterparts also measured in this study, indicating a diminution in body size for Megaloceros as it entered the Holocene, at least on the Isle of Man. Conversely, the antlers for this specimen and also the Scottish antler were well within the Irish size range for adult males.

The Isle of Man separated from the British mainland around 10,000 years ago. Consequently, it may be that the decrease in body size recorded for the IOM specimen measured in this study (if typical and not merely a freak specimen) is a result of this island's relatively small size rather than a strictly chronological effect. 

Irish elk statue at Berlin's Tierpark (© Markus Bühler)

But that is not all. On 7 October 2004, once again via a Nature paper, a team of researchers that included Dr Lister revealed via radiocarbon dating of uncovered skeletons that Megaloceros survived in western Siberia until at least circa 5000 BC, i.e. some 3000 years after the ice-sheets receded. Age-wise, these are currently the most recent Megaloceros specimens on record, and demonstrate that the Irish elk existed during the Holocene in two widely separate localities.

So who knows? Following these exciting finds, perhaps other Holocene specimens, and possibly some of even younger dates than those presently documented, are still awaiting scientific unfurling?

Also of note is that on 8 June 2015, the journal Science Reports published a paper from a research team co-headed by Dr Johannes Krause revealing that Megaloceros remains recovered from cave sites in the Swabian Jura (Baden-Württemberg, southern Germany) dated to 12,000 years ago. Until now, it had been believed that this giant deer species had become extinct in Central Europe prior to, rather than after, the Ice Age. Moreover, the DNA techniques used in identifying the remains as Megaloceros showed that this species is actually more closely related to the fallow deer Dama dama (as long believed in the past) than the red deer (as more recently assumed).

Early photograph of an Irish elk skeleton (public domain)

One final Megaloceros mystery: On 4 July of this year (2015), Hungarian cryptozoological blogger Orosz István posted a short but very interesting item about a supposed mythological beast that I had never heard of before – the hippocerf (a name combining the Greek for 'horse' with a derivation from the Latin for 'deer'). He stated that it was said to be half horse, half deer (hence its name) and, of particular interest, that some (unnamed) researchers believed that it was based upon a Megaloceros population surviving into historic times. Orosz had obtained his information from a brief entry on this creature that appears on the Cryptidz.Wikia.Com website.

Needless to say, I soon conducted some online research myself concerning this intriguing creature, but I was not exactly cheered by my findings. With the exception of the above-noted Cryptidz Wikia site and a few others giving only the barest information repeated one to another ad nauseam, plus some imaginative illustrations of it created by various artists on the site, the hippocerf seemed to be endemic to fantasy fighting and other fantasy-style game sites. On these sites, some of the fabulous creatures featured are bona fide mythological beasts but others are complete inventions, dreamed up exclusively for the games, with no basis whatsoever in world mythology. Hence I began to suspect that the hippocerf might be in the latter category, i.e. conceived entirely for fantasy fighting games.

Indeed, apart from its very frequent appearances in Final Fantasy and other fantasy game sites and its popularity as a subject for drawing/painting on deviantart, all that I have been able to trace about the hippocerf online is that it supposedly has the hindquarters of a horse and the forequarters, neck, and antlered head of a deer, and that because of its dual nature, in heraldry it represents indecision or confusion. However, I have yet to find any confirmation of this claim from standard sources on heraldry online or elsewhere (I own several major works on this subject, and none contains any mention of the hippocerf). Nor have I uncovered the names of any of the researchers who have purportedly suggested that this distinctive creature may have derived from Megaloceros sightings in historic times. As for a claim repeated on several websites that the last known hippocerf sighting was in around 600 AD by an early archaeologist called Gregor Ishlecoff, I traced this to a book entitled The Destineers' Journal of Fantasy Nations, authored by N.A. Sharpe and Bobby Sharpe, and self-published in 2009, which proved to be a fantasy novel aimed at teenagers! I also own a considerable number of bestiary-type books on mythological beasts, and again not one of them contains any information regarding the hippocerf.

A pair of moose, depicted in an illustration from 1900 (public domain)
In short, not very promising at all for the supposed reality of the hippocerf as a genuine (rather than a made-up) mythological beast. The only hope for its credibility is if a mention can be traced in an authentic bestiary pre-dating the coming of the internet and fantasy gaming (preferably one of the classic works from medieval or Renaissance times), or in some authoritative work on heraldry. If either or both of these possibilities result in positive info emerging, then it may be that the hippocerf was inspired by the imposing and somewhat equine form of the moose (which inhabited much of Central Europe until hunted into extinction in many parts there by the onset of the Middle Ages). To my mind, this seems like a more plausible option than the survival of Megaloceros into historic times in Europe (i.e. into much more recent times than even the circa 7000 BC date currently known for it there).

Having said that: I can't help but recall a certain noteworthy line from the Krause et al. paper of 8 June 2015 regarding the finding of post-Ice Age Megaloceros remains in Germany: "The unexpected presence of Megaloceros giganteus in Southern Germany after the Ice Age suggests a later survival in Central Europe than previously proposed". Interesting…

If anyone reading this present ShukerNature blog article has information on the hippocerf derived directly from heraldic or bestiary-type sources pre-dating the internet and fantasy-type gaming, I'd greatly welcome details.

Male nilghai depicted on a postage stamp issued in 2001 by Moldova (public domain)
Incidentally, the hippocerf should not be confused (but sometimes is - see below) with the hippelaphos (whose name also translates as 'horse-deer', but from the Greek for 'horse' and the Greek for 'deer'), which is a genuine creature of classical mythology.
Attempts to identify it with known animal species have been made down through the ages by many authorities, including Aristotle (whose account of it recalls a gnu), Cuvier (the Asian sambar deer Rusa unicolor), and 19th-Century German zoologist Prof. Arend F.A. Wiegmann (the Indian nilghai Boselaphus tragocamelus).
Another possibility is Africa's roan antelope Hippotragus equinus, a decidedly horse-like species, as emphasised by its taxonomic binomial, as well as by its French name, antilope chevaline ('horse-like antelope').

A very horse-like specimen of the roan antelope (© Dr Karl Shuker)

In the original Latin version of Aristotle's work, the hippelaphos is termed the hippocervus (being renamed the hippelaphos in the English translation version), a name that is sometimes applied to the hippocerf on various internet sites. Indeed, I wonder if the hippocerf may be nothing more than the hippelaphos (aka hippocervus) distorted and exaggerated by online invention, such as the unsourced claim that some researchers believe it may be based upon a Megaloceros population surviving into historic times. Ah well, you know what they say - I read it on the internet, so it must be true! 

This ShukerNature blog article is an updated excerpt from my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors.

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