Out of Bounds

12 Feet, Tip to Tip

I’m fascinated by the megafauna wiped out during the warming that spread across Earth at the end of the last glacial period

By Rob Breeding

I’ve found a few sheds in my time. Not a lot, but if you’re outdoors in deer country you’re bound to stumble on some. Two- or three-point mule deer antlers mostly, on the Chukar Grounds.

They’re great distractions for bored, chew-prone canines.

For some folks shed hunting isn’t a byproduct but the goal. They set out in the spring looking for sheds, hitting the prime grounds where elk and deer hang out at the tail end of winter. This is where most deer and elk drop their antlers, before they head for summer range. 

My friend the Elk Hunter has a knack for finding sheds. At times I got the impression she could look out across a plain from a faraway vantage point and spot a glint of elk antler under the sagebrush. I exaggerate, but only a little. When she finally grew tired of her collection she received a sizable payment from the traveling antler collector to haul it off.

The Elk Hunter did her shed collecting in modern-day Wyoming. If she’d hunted sheds during the Pleistocene Epoch, in what became present-day Ireland or the Eurasian steppe, her collection might have been considerably larger as she would have likely been collecting antlers of now-extinct Irish elk.

I’m fascinated by the megafauna wiped out during the warming that spread across Earth at the end of the last glacial period, or ice age, about 12,000 years ago. Critters such as cave bears or saber-toothed cats or Irish elk, my favorite extinct ungulate, are a reminder of how much diversity was lost in that time at the end of prehistory. 

North America might have seemed a wildlife nirvana to members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but the real megafaunal party was rocking about 15,000 years earlier.

Irish elk were neither elk nor Irish, at least not exclusively so. The deer were as large as an Alaska moose — we think bulls weighed up to 1,500 pounds — and ranged from the Emerald Isle to central Asia, though they never crossed the Bering Land Bridge.

The biggest specimens stood nearly seven-feet tall at the apex of their humped shoulders. Even more than size, Irish elk are known for their antlers, the largest so far discovered. These antlers grew outward from the deer more parallel to the ground than upward, such as those of Rocky Mountain elk. These large palmated racks spread as wide as 12 feet across, from tip to tip.

This remarkable breadth led some early researchers to speculate these overgrown antlers may have hastened the Irish elk’s path to extinction, thinking they were obviously too cumbersome for woodland creatures. The ungainly antlers — originally and most commonly found preserved in Irish peat bogs — led some researchers eager to disprove Darwin’s theory of natural selection to create their own hypothesis: orthogenesis.

Orthogenesis, now abandoned by the scientific community, suggested a species evolved in a linear way guided by some internal driving force. To the orthogenesists, Irish elk were driven to produce larger and larger antlers until they reached such massive size the animals could no longer support them. 

So the overburdened beasts fell and died in Irish bogs, pickling the antlers for posterity.

A modern evaluation of Irish elk suggests they were undone by the same forces that left North America with more pedestrian megafauna: climate change, human hunting and disease.

Pinning the species’ extinction on any one explanation is too simplistic. It’s ultimately unknowable anyway as the humans roaming about the Russian steppe 10,000 years ago didn’t have Ph.D.s in biology nor a clue about the revelatory nature of repeatable experiments. We’ll never be certain, but at least our guesses are now based on science rather than a hunch.

I’m guessing modern-day shed hunters would have been giddy upon discovering an Irish elk shed. 

The largest would have stood nearly as tall as the shed hunter.

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