Giant deer survived the ice age

Bones found in southern Germany surprisingly turn out to be relics of megaloceros

The giant deer Megaloceros giganteus survived longer in Central Europe than previously thought. Here is a reconstruction. © Bazonka / CC-by-sa 3.0
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Unexpectedly long-lived: Obviously, the last giant deer did not disappear from Central Europe during the Ice Age. Instead, at least a few copies must have survived until 12, 000 years ago. The evidence of bone finds in two caves of the Swabian Alb. Originally they were considered moose bones, only DNA analyzes revealed their true affiliation, as the researchers report in the journal "Scientific Reports".

The giant deer Megaloceros giganteus was one of the great herbivores of the Ice Age. With a shoulder height of two meters and an antler of up to 3.40 meters span, he was an imposing appearance, which was immortalized by our ancestors in many cave paintings. But with the peak of the last glacial period around 20, 000 years ago, the 1.5-tonne deer from central Europe disappeared - that's what people thought so far. Only in the northwest of Europe, still held some deposits, about 7, 000 years ago, the giant stag finally died out.

But now Johannes Krause of the University of Tübingen and his colleagues have discovered fossil bones of a deer-like animal during excavations in two caves on the edge of the Swabian Alb. Dates showed that these relics are around 12, 000 years old. Because there were no giant deer in this area for a long time, the bones were thought to be the relics of a prehistoric moose.

Unexpected survivors

To be on the safe side, the researchers subjected the bones of a genetic study discovered in the caves Hohle Fels and Hohlenstein-Stadel. They succeeded in gaining mitochondrial DNA from the bones and analyzing their species affiliation. The surprising result: It was clearly bones of the giant deer Megaloceros giganteus.

The fallow deer (Dama dama) is the next living relatives of the giant deer today © Johann-Nikolaus Andreae / CC-by-sa 2.0 us

"This unexpected presence of Megalocerus giganteus in southern Germany after the Ice Age indicates that this giant deer survived longer than previously thought, " say the researchers. There may also have been such survivors in other areas of Central Europe. "It is not easy to distinguish elk and giant deer by the shape of small bone fragments, " says Krause. "It could therefore be even more bones, which were previously assigned to the elk, but come from the giant stag." Display

Competition by red deer and co

The DNA also helped researchers to determine the relationship of the giant deer and a possible reason for their extinction. According to this, today's fallow deer, and not the red deer, is the closest living relative of the giant deer. "Based on the body structure was speculated whether the red deer is closest to the giant stag, we can refute this clearly in our study, " says first author Alexander Immel of the University of T bingen.

His huge antlers were rather a hindrance to the giant deer after the Ice Age. Because at that time forest spread. Alice Chodura / CC-by-sa 3.0

The red deer already seems to have been a competitor of the giant deer, just as the reindeer were, as isotopic analyzes of the bones suggested: "Before the last glacial period, the values ​​differed from all three species, after which there was a clear agreement ", explains co-author Doroth e Drucker. "This indicates a diminishing habitat or an overlapping diet of the deer species."

The researchers speculate that the giant deer had to share the habitat and food with other deer species after the last glacial period. In addition, she was up to 3.40 meters wide antlers little suitable for life in increasingly forested Europe. The giant deer probably faced competition from other species as well as a potential human predation, which ultimately led to the extinction of these impressive deer. (Scientific Reports, 2015; doi: 10.1038 / srep10853)

(Eberhard Karls University T bingen, 08.06.2015 - NPO)