The deer of the genus Megaloceros - literally "Great Horn"; see also Lister (1987) - were found throughout Eurasia from the late Pliocene to the Late Pleistocene, and were important herbivores during the Ice Ages. The largest species, M. giganteus, better known as the "Irish Elk", is also the best known.
Most members of the genus were extremely large animals that favored meadows or open woodlands, with most species averaging slightly below 2 meters at the withers. Many of the Mediterranean species, on the other hand, were textbook examples of insular dwarfism, such as the Sardinian (and Corsican; the two were joined for much of the Pleistocene) M. cazioti, which was barely 1 meter tall. The various species of the Cretan genus Candiacervus - the smallest of which, C. rhopalophorus was just 65 centimeters high at the shoulder - are sometimes included in Megaloceros as a subgenus.
As the name "Irish Elk" implies, the larger species were somewhat similar in general habitus to red deer such as the American Elk or Wapiti. However, this has by now been shown to be a consequence of their increased size. The actual relationships are with the fallow deer genus Dama, and the genus was part of a Late Neogene Eurasian radiation of fallow deer relatives of which today only 2 taxa remain.(Lister et al. 2005, Hughes et al. 2006)
While most studies place all species in Megaloceros, sometimes the genus is considered more restricted in scope. In the most extreme case, it might be limited to M. antecedens and M. giganteus, the others being separated in Praemegaceros (European lineage) and Sinomegaceros (East Asian lineage). While the latter is probably valid as a subgenus, the former taxon requires more research as to its relationship with Megaloceros sensu stricto and Candiacervus in particular.
The giant elk mystery ; In an excerpt from his latest book, Michael Viney examines the history and demise of the great Irish elk and deer
Sep 13, 2003; Among the odder events on the rooftops of Dublin city in the spring of 1985 were protracted, slow-motion battles between two...