Danielle Crowley investigates one of UCD’s largest and most mysterious zoological treasures, the skeleton of an Irish elk.
On the second floor of Science West, opposite two glass cases of many species of stuffed birds, stands a primeval giant.
This is our Megaloceros skeleton, alternatively known as the Giant Irish Deer or the Irish elk. Around the size of a modern moose, but with antlers stretching around 3.5m from tip to tip and weighing up to 40kg, these animals were extremely large. After becoming extinct in Ireland around 10,500 years ago, this species’ closest living relation is the relatively diminutive fallow deer, which should be familiar to anyone who has visited the Phoenix Park.
The story of the specimen itself remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. The plaque at its feet states that it was presented to UCD by the “Right Honourable Earl of Mayo,” however there is no name after this title and no date listed.
The skeleton has moved around quite considerably during its life on exhibition. When first presented to UCD, it resided in the College of Science, which was then situated on Merrion Street. It only moved to the Belfield Campus in the 1960s.
It then moved to Newman House, an exquisite Georgian building on St. Stephen’s Green which was originally part of the UCD campus, for an exhibition showcasing the college’s history. The story does not stop there, as it went on to the Natural History Museum and was a member of the cast of creatures forming the exhibit on extinct Irish mammals. It spent twenty years there, until finally, in the summer of 2003 it was returned to UCD.
“This move involved hoisting the deer on to an open-top truck and driving it to campus with an entourage of two other cars.”
As one may imagine, moving such a large skeleton is not an easy task. This move involved hoisting the deer on to an open-top truck and driving it to campus with an entourage of two other cars. This must have been quite the spectacle, made even more dramatic by close encounters with trees and an ESB van. On its arrival to UCD, it then had to be moved on to its podium, and one final challenge remained: getting the skull with its 4 metre antler span up the narrow stairs. Fortunately, this was achieved without incident. Antoinette Fennell described the move as “nerve-wrecking” in the first issue of the newsletter Zoology Gnus, which was launched on the day the skeleton was officially unveiled.
“The backdrop painting is of Ballybetagh Bog,” says Professor Tom Bolger, Professor of Zoology in UCD, “and was painted by Billy Clarke. It features other animals that lived in Ireland at the time.” The Ballybetagh Bog near Glencullen in Wicklow is a significant location as over 100 fossils have been found there. Animals the painting depicts include a golden eagle, a wolf, and the Megaloceros as it would have appeared in when living.
For a time, the elk had been kept in a room which is now a science lab in Science West. “It was formerly a museum,” says Bolger of the labs’ former use, “but to allocate adequate lab space the specimens were moved.” These specimens are those that feature in the corridors of Science West, and a large skeleton of an aquatic mammal still hangs from the Lab 106’s ceiling.
Bolger praises the elk skeleton. “It’s a complete skeleton, and an impressive specimen, so it matters scientifically.”
“Much of this specimen’s history remains unknown, and no one knows much about it”
Despite this, much of this specimen’s history remains unknown, and people know little about it. This is a common phenomenon, particularly with old fossils and animal specimens that may have been privately owned and which have changed hands many times. Animals such as the Irish elk, whose skeletons are relatively common, were regularly distributed to different institutions (the zoological museum in Trinity College also has one) but often without any form of documentation.
Meticulous documentation of paleontological and zoological finds is a relatively new protocol, and as time passes the history of the people who owned and cared for specimens is often lost.
Despite the mystery, or maybe because of it, the Science West elk is well worth a visit. When standing before it, take a moment to marvel at the scale of this magnificent creature, and wonder at the ancient world it called home. As a species that was one of many giant animals that are believed to have gone extinct due to human hunting pressures, it serves as a poignant reminder that the natural world is delicate. If we are not careful we may consign many other spectacular animals to a similar fate.