It was a typical autumn day in 2018, when
two fishermen set off into the waters of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. As they pulled up their net, they noticed
something different among all the freshly caught fish: something very large and very
strange. It was a catch of epic and ancient proportions,
one that had not been seen by human eyes for thousands of years. They had dragged up a beautifully preserved
skull and antlers of Megaloceros giganteus, an extinct beast more commonly known as the
Irish Elk. Now those two fishermen certainly weren’t the
first people to encounter Megaloceros. The fact is, the archaeological record is
full of evidence that our ancestors lived alongside and interacted with these giant
mammals for millennia. But what happened when they did interact,
when humans met this megafauna? Did we, perhaps, love them to death? Or is it possible that the Megaloceros simply
lived … too large? Megaloceros was one of the largest members
of the deer family ever to walk the Earth. Despite being called the Irish Elk, it’s
actually not very closely related to either of the two species known as elk today. Instead, its closest living relatives seem
to either the red deer or the fallow deer. But we actually know a great deal about what
Megaloceros probably looked like in life, because it inspired our human ancestors to
immortalize it in art. It often appears in cave paintings dating
to the Late Pleistocene Epoch, most famously in Lascaux and Cougnac Caves of France. And we know these figures represent Megaloceros,
because of the one detail that the Ice Age artists took pains to capture: the animal’s
enormous antlers! Thanks to these depictions, we know a lot
of other details about Megaloceros that we’d never have known otherwise — like that it
had dark stripes that contrasted with its pale head and neck. And attached to its shoulders was a distinctive
hump, probably made of fat, because it’s not on its skeleton. And of course, there were the antlers! At their largest, the antlers of Megaloceros
giganteus could reach 3.7 meters wide and weigh up to 45 kilograms! Even today, it holds the record for having
the largest antlers of any deer species. Most experts believe that those giant features
were used as a signifier during mating season, resulting in natural selection pressures for
larger antlers. But the antlers weren’t just prized by females;
they may also have been important for humans in many parts of the world. Because, these giant deer weren’t only found
in Ireland. Megaloceros actually lived throughout Europe,
northern Asia, and northern Africa, and was used by different people in different ways. Many archaeological sites have been found
with fragments of antlers that were modified by humans for their use. Take, for example, the site known as Wulanmulun
in Nei Mongol, China. The site dates back somewhere between 30,000
and 70,000 years ago. And there, tools have been found that were
made from the antlers of Megaloceros – including a hammer Meanwhile, at sites in Spain and France from
just over 30,000 years ago, we’ve found more antler fragments that were modified by
humans. And interestingly enough, these fragments
appear to have been made from antlers that had been shed, having fallen off before regrowing
again the next summer. This implies that humans may have scavenged
and collected the antlers, rather than just hunting the deer for them. And one of the most unique — and frankly
coolest — artifacts made from Megaloceros material is an intricately carved dagger from
around 7,000 years ago, recovered from a peat bog in Russia. But along with providing material for tools,
Megaloceros may also have held a special, less tangible significance for humans. Some experts think the frequent appearance
of Megaloceros in cave art and in unusual archaeological contexts, like deep within
caves, suggest that its antlers and bones could have been used in shamanistic religious rituals. So, if these animals were so valuable to our
species, then what happened to them? What went so wrong for Megaloceros? Well, as is the case with many extinctions,
the precise cause, or causes, are still up for debate. The most popular hypothesis is known as the
Antler Theory, and it places the blame on the very thing that made Megaloceros so fascinating
and memorable. This idea was first suggested in 1830 by an
Irish physician named John Hart, who thought that the massive size of the antlers must
have required an equally massive amount of blood to grow and maintain. Once the antlers were shed, he thought, there
would have been such a rush of blood back into the brain that males may have suffered
seizures or strokes. Another idea from the same period was that
the antlers were so big that Megaloceros would’ve constantly gotten tangled up in trees or bodies
of water, causing them to either starve or drown. But most of these theories predate the publication
of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, so they don’t take into account the
concepts of natural selection and adaptation. So by the 1930’s, most of these early hypotheses
were challenged using allometry, the study of the relationship between body size, shape,
and growth rate. And these studies found that the antlers of
Megaloceros grew in proportion with the rest of their bodies, so it’s not like the headgear
could’ve grown too big for them to handle. But that doesn’t mean that those huge features
still weren’t a big problem. In the 1990’s, a new version of the Antler
Theory emerged that many scientists actually agreed with. This model suggested that Megaloceros required
a lot more nutrients than other megafauna, and that might have contributed to their downfall. Because of their antlers, Megaloceros would
need a consistent supply of both calcium and phosphorus in order to restore the nutrients
that they lost during growth and shedding. So any slight decline in their food supply
would have had an enormous impact on their ability to survive. In addition, the amazing size of the antlers
may have made sexual selection very exclusive: If only the males with the very largest antlers
were being selected, then the species as a whole might have suffered a fatal drop in
genetic diversity. But if Megaloceros had been so successful
for thousands of years, why would its antlers suddenly have become such a drag? As with so many things, the demise of the
Megaloceros seems to be, ultimately, about timing. During their heyday in the Pleistocene Epoch,
they thrived in extremely cold environments, often living through periods of glaciation
followed by slight warming. But in the Late Pleistocene, as the climate
started to change, Megaloceros populations became increasingly restricted to modern day Russia. This is likely because the open grazing lands
that had once sustained them were now turning into dense forests that the species struggled
to survive in. And that brings the Antler Theory back into
play. As the Pleistocene faded, Megaloceros – which
was mainly a grazing species – lost its ideal environment for feeding. Populations began to dwindle, especially given
that males needed a lot of nutrients to support their oversized headgear. And to make matters worse, the newly forested
environment may have made it difficult for the Deer with larger antlers to get around,
which may have also displaced some of the population. So perhaps, because of the combination of
high sexual selection and the dwindling population of large-antlered males, birth rates began
to drop. But the death blow might’ve been the hunting
habits of our own human ancestors, who likely had a taste for Megaloceros. For example, remains of Megaloceros from the
Early Holocene site of Sosnovy Tushamsky in Russia show clear evidence of having been
butchered. According to recent radiocarbon data from
other remains found in Russia, Megaloceros had completely disappeared about 7,600 years
ago. But since then, specimens have kept being
discovered — including many that were fished out of Irish peat bogs, where the oxygen-poor
environment kept the bones well preserved. And, it’s not just the remains that have
been preserved for all of these years. Depictions of Megaloceros in art and folklore
throughout history have kept their memory alive as well. For example, Irish poet Seamus Heaney used
the imagery of a Megaloceros skeleton being recovered from a bog, as part of his series
of poems about the famous “bog bodies” of Ireland. And Megaloceros also graces the Northern Irish
coat of arms to this day, representing the natural environment of the country. Whether in body or spirit, the so-called Irish
Elk continues to capture our imaginations. And like our ancestors thousands of years
ago, we continue to keep them alive through stories and art – reminders of the time when
we met this majestic megafauna. Thanks to this month’s Eontologists: Patrick
Seifert, Jake Hart, Jon Davison Ng, and Steve. If you’d like to join them and our other
patrons in supporting what we do here, then by all means go to patreon.com/eons and make your pledge! Thank you! Thank you for joining me in the Konstantin
Haase Studio! If megafauna are your thing, then check out
our episode “Life, Sex & Death Among the Dire Wolves”.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. Any giant squirrel in the ranks of the lost mega mammals? Super weasel like Incredible Hulk wolverine? How big have beavers been in the past?

  2. In America and in Eurasia, arrival of humans coincide with declines of most large mammals and extinction and many of them. Coincidence? Or consequence ?

  3. I would really look forward to a PBS Eons video on the evolution of quills throughout mammalia. Lots of interesting content to cover there – in at least 5 different ancestral lines!

  4. I was a megaloceros main back before the anthropocene "upgrade". It was pretty great. Stupid humans ruined everything.

  5. But why are the antlers so huge? To radiate a huge amount of heat? You need cooling, baby I'm not fooling. Way down inside…

  6. I want to see an eons about our sense of balance, how the semicircular canals developed, and how sense of balance happened to develop in animal evolution. I was inspired by the Sci Show “3 senses you didn’t know you had”

    I love this show! Great episode!

  7. Arent these things prehistoric? how coud the medeival irish know about them without modern scientific discovery tools?

  8. Meanwhile Moose are doing just fine in the forests of Canada. Let’s be real… the giant deer got hunted to extinction.

  9. I've been to the National Museum of Ireland a few times, and as you walk in these giant stags tower over you. They're amazing.

    I would pronounce Lough Neagh like a horse's neigh, but it sounds like the northern pronunciation in the recording I think 🙂

  10. Stupid ancestors hunt them to extinction.
    But can you blame them? they were more animal than "human" and they were completely ignorant to everything we are aware of nowadays.

  11. Thank you so much for the clear English captions (not auto generated)! They help me soooo much. I am not hearing impaired, but the way my brain works, my mind drifts off in a million different directions when someone is speaking to me. I've never been able to learn unless I was reading the text and hearing it, simultaneously. So again, thank you. You made my favorite YouTube channel of all time EVEN BETTER!

  12. I really wish scientists talking about the Quaternary Period would stop tossing into the conversation the hunting of Megafauna to extinction. When one studies Hunter Gatherers, NEVER is it seen that these people wastefully kill prey animals. In fact, the exact opposite is true.

    We HAVE to stop projecting our modern narcissism and apathy onto these people. Technologically we are superior than hunter gatherers. Morally, the vast majority of us are far less so when it comes to the rest of life on this planet.

  13. Megaloceros is possibly my favorite Cenozoic Prehistoric Animal, they are so fascinating! I’m so happy you guys finally made a video on them! Thank you!

  14. I'd like to see a video on the other deer species and the antelopes, especially the pronghorns whose family was much larger in the Miocene/Pliocene epochs. The American pronghorn the last of its kind.

  15. BBC news has just posted an article about a 1.6m tall penguin that lived in New Zealand ! Video pleeeeeaaaaassssseeeee !

  16. I have been watching these videos for a while now so I must say, I wish PBS Eons was my school and Mr Blake was the principal. They made me fall in love with natural science all over again.

  17. You’re just like that one guy with the glasses that does the stuff ,he was on the dinosaur cannibal thing 😐

  18. In a time when giant deer walked Eurasia
    When the land was swamp and caves were home
    In an age when prize possession was fire
    To search for landscapes men would roam

  19. Maybe humans would have reveered them as almost like a deity. Native Americans often coveted and protected important essential animals or plants while maintaining a balance.

  20. Megafauna are absolutely terrifying. Giant animals that are just larger than life, more powerful than anything that has come after them, majestic and out of reach. Terrifying and beautiful

  21. Had they lived anytime "recently", you know hunters would've picked them all off like how we almost killed all the bison.

  22. The most likely reason for the extinction is a cataclysm, probably a meteor impact about 12800 years ago. A wide variety of megafauna disappeared around this time. There is a woolly mammoth graveyard with over 1000 individuals dating to that time in Siberia with the mammoths legs broken, flash frozen, with buttercups still in their mouths.

  23. A while ago I aswered a questionary by eon on the community tab asking about topics, feedback and stuff. One thing that I remember mencioning was how closed captions were helpful for me – since english is my second language and some sciency names I do not know. Since then, I don't think they up a video without CC. Thank you so much for your work, Eons team! ♥