When Did The Irish Elk Go Extinct

When Did the Irish Elk Go Extinct?

Written By: Ian @ World Deer

The Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus) is known to be one of the largest deer species that ever roamed the earth. Also referred to as the Irish deer or giant deer, the Irish Elk can grow up to 7 feet in length and weigh over 2,000 pounds. When standing, it could be as tall as 7 feet.

Besides its large build, perhaps the most striking feature of the Irish Elk were its antlers. Lengthwise, the antlers of the male Irish elks typically span 12 feet from tip to tip, but some of the largest male Irish elks are thought to have grown their antlers up to 14 feet in length.

If this species were still alive now, you can just imagine how intimidating they can be if you were to see one up close. Unfortunately, the Irish elk has long become extinct.

When Did the Irish Elk go Extinct?

Based on the fossils found in Europe and Asia, the Irish Elk had lived during the Pleistocene era approximately over 2.5 million years ago. So when did the Irish elk go extinct exactly?

Fossil remains showed that the Irish Elk went extinct around 11,000 to 13,000 years ago, sometime between the Pleistocene and Holocene eras. In this period known as ”the last ice age” a sudden drop in temperature in several areas in the Northern Hemisphere caused massive glaciers, ice caps, and ice fields to form.

The abrupt cooling of temperature, coupled with the change in habitat and low food supply eventually led to the extinction of the Irish Elk species.

Extinction of the Irish Elk

Many factors could cause animal endangerment and extinction. Rare catastrophic phenomena like meteor strikes could easily wipe out large masses of wildlife.

Naturally occurring forces such as pollution, climate change, spread of diseases, or competition for food and habitat could lead to animal population to decline in numbers and eventually, die out. Overharvesting or overhunting poses a threat to many animal species and could lead to their extinction.

In the case of the Irish Elk, scientists believe that a number of reasons caused the giant deer to go extinct.

Younger Dryas

The Younger Dryas occurred approximately between 11,600 to 12,900 years ago and lasted for about a thousand years. The term came from the flowering plant called Dryas octopetala that grows typically in cold environments like those in North America and northern Eurasia.

According to studies, the Younger Dryas occurred due to the influx of large amounts of glacial meltwater to the North Atlantic region. Specifically, when the Laurentide Ice Sheet began melting, it caused Lake Agassiz, one of the largest and oldest lakes in North America, to expand and discharge fresh meltwater into the Atlantic Ocean.

The large quantity of freshwater flowing into high-density seawater in the North Atlantic Ocean may have prevented the seawater from moving downward, and slowed down the thermohaline circulation (a process that depends on the seawater’s salinity and temperature) and may have been the catalyst for the rapid change in climate.

During this period, the rapid cooling in the Northern Hemisphere, specifically in the North Atlantic region, caused glaciers to grow and form vast ice fields. These extreme glacial conditions affected countries like Ireland and Great Britain, where many fossil remains of the Irish Elk had been discovered.

The extreme cold could have made it difficult for the Irish Elk to survive.

Size and Weight of their Antlers

The disproportionate size of the antlers of the Irish Elk could have played a huge part in its survival. With the enormous size of their antlers, Irish elks could intimidate other animals when hunting for food or displaying strength and dominance especially during mating season.

However, scientists also hypothesized that the size and weight of the Irish Elk’s antlers could have led to its extinction. Growing nearly 12 to 14 feet in length and weighing up to 90 pounds, the Irish Elk’s antlers could have slowed down their mobility while foraging for food.

Their large antlers could also easily become entangled in shrubs or branches of trees, which could have prevented Irish elks from running away from predators.


While little evidence is known, some experts theorized that becoming prey to both humans and other wild animals may have also led to the Irish Elk’s extinction. It is possible that early human species may have hunted and killed off the giant deer, after the discovery of cave drawings of giant deer in regions like Southern France.

Larger creatures such as the woolly mammoth could also have easily pursued and killed the Irish elk.

Timeline of the Irish Elk’s Existence

The earliest fossilized evidence of the giant deer placed their existence during the Pleistocene period, some 400,000 years ago. At this time, the giant deer thrived together with other large creatures called megafauna.

The Pleistocene era also saw the existence of now-extinct mammals such the mammoth, saber-toothed tiger, and mastodons as well as other terrestrial fauna like the Megalania Prisca or the world’s largest known lizard.

The last ice age took place during the upper or late Pleistocene era, about 13,000 years ago. Survival during this period had been extremely difficult for many of the wildlife. 

The climate was extremely cold and food sources were low since most of the planet had been covered in ice or snow. This not only led to the extinction of the Irish elk or giant deer, but also of other megafauna.

However, recent discoveries reveal that a number of Irish elk may have survived the last ice age. Fossil records of the giant deer which were unearthed in Russia indicated that the Irish elk had been alive sometime around 8,000 years ago.

During this time, the planet was transitioning to a warmer climate, contrary to what occurred 12,000 years ago in the last ice age. As forests grew as a result of the warming climate, there were less grasslands left for the giant deer to graze and forage.                         

Estimating the Extinction Date

As early as 1695, an Irish physician named Thomas Molyneux published the description of the giant deer based on fossil remains discovered in Dublin, Ireland. According to Molyneux’s description, the fossilized remains had huge antlers and were from an elk family.

Additionally, he thought they were Northern moose rather than Irish Elk, which hadn’t yet perished into extinction. Due to the low oxygen levels in Irish peat bogs, giant deer carcasses were frequently discovered there. Consequently, the giant deer came to be known as the Irish elk.

Although several giant deer remains were found in Ireland, there were also giant deer fossils discovered in other parts of the planet. In 1746, antler fossils of the Irish Elk were discovered in Yorkshire, England.

Soon after, Irish elk remains were also discovered in Siberia, China, Africa, and other parts of Western Europe.

How Do Scientists Measure an Organism’s Extinction Date?

Scientists typically use carbon 14 or radiocarbon dating to determine the age of a fossil. American physicist Willard F. Libby developed this method in 1946.

It has been one of the most effective techniques for dating fossils and archaeological artifacts that range in age from 500 to 50,000 years. Pleistocene anthropologists and researchers in related domains frequently use radiocarbon dating in estimating the extinction date of an organism.

Using this method, scientists analyze samples of organic material from fossils to determine their carbon 14 content. After getting the carbon 14 content, it is then compared to modern-day radiocarbon samples.

Carbon 14 content is continuously present in nature and organisms absorb it through the air they breathe or the food they eat. When an organism dies, it is no longer unable to take in carbon 14.

The half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 ± 40 years, which means that for the next 5,730 years, half of the radioisotope that is present at any particular time will spontaneously disintegrate. Because carbon-14 decays at a constant pace, it is possible to determine the date of an organism’s demise by analyzing the quantity of radiocarbon it still contains.

Other Extinct Megafauna

Besides the Irish Elk, several other megafauna went extinct during the last ice age that occurred during the upper Pleistocene era.

Below are some of the creatures that became extinct some 8,000 to 14,000 years ago.

Woolly mammoth

The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is probably one of the most recognizable megafauna that went extinct during the last ice age. It stood about 12 feet tall, weighed six to eight tons, and had 15-foot curving tusks for digging up food and defending against predators.

Fossils of the woolly mammoth that were unearthed in Siberia revealed that they existed more than 8,000 to 10,500 years ago. However, a fossil tooth discovered in Wrangler Island, an island in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of northeastern Russia, showed that the woolly had survived until about 4,000 years ago before becoming totally extinct.

Dire wolf

The dire wolves that the children of House Stark owned in G.R.R. Martin’s book collection the Game of Thrones were actually based on the dire wolves that existed during the Pleistocene era.

Dire wolves became extinct approximately 9,500 years ago. Its two subspecies, the Aenocyon dirus guildayi and Aenocyon dirus dirus, are also extinct. Several fossilized remains of the dire wolf have been unearthed in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California and in Florida as well as along the Mississippi River valley.

Dire wolves have a wolf-like appearance and possess similarities in height and length as modern wolves, However, DNA research indicates that the dire is closely related genetically to jackals instead of gray wolves.

The dire wolf’s sinister-sounding name comes from its Latin name, Canis dirus, which means “terrible wolf.”

Saber-toothed tiger

Belonging to the genus Smilodon, the saber-toothed tiger first appeared during the Eocene era (approximately 56 million years ago) and became extinct about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Despite its name, the saber-toothed tiger is more closely related to leopards and shares the same color as the African lions.

Many of its remains were found in North and South America. Saber-toothed tigers are renowned for having upper canines that resembled blades and could grow up to 8 inches long.

There is significant discussion regarding the causes of the extinction of saber-toothed tigers because during their existence, they were regarded as one of the apex predators.

Similar to the Irish elk, experts believe that the primary reason these other megafauna went extinct is due to the abrupt climate change that happened towards the end of the Pleistocene era.

The sudden cooling in the regions where they lived made searching for shelter and food difficult. Researchers also believed that they were hunted down by early human species.

Scientists deem it essential to study the extinction of megafauna like the Irish elk. These large creatures thrived for tens of thousands, if not millions of years, before becoming extinct.

Their extinction raises significant questions on what changes occurred in the planet and the effect of those changes on a variety of aspects, including the composition of vegetation, changes in the planet’s climate and the structure and processes of the ecosystem.

Final Thoughts: When Did the Irish Elk Go Extinct?

The Irish elk, which is actually not an elk nor lived exclusively in Ireland, went extinct some 11,000 to 13,000 years ago, towards the end of the Pleistocene era when the last ice age occurred.

Just like other extinct megafauna that roamed the planet, the Irish elk’s extinction was due to the frigid climate that made adaptation and survival difficult for them to find shelter and food.

While their size and antlers are truly fascinating, there is still a lot more to learn about the Irish elk. Little information is known about their food preferences, hunting strategies, or mating habits.  

If you want to see a real-life version of the Irish elk, you can find their skeletal remains in castles and museums. 

Picture of By: Ian from World Deer

By: Ian from World Deer

A passionate writer for WorldDeer using the most recent data on all animals with a keen focus on deer species.

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