Our first highlight, chosen by head of learning and access at the museum, Jack Ashby, is the skull and antlers of Megaloceros giganteus – a male giant deer (also called an ‘Irish Elk’ but it isn’t an elk and didn’t only live in Ireland), known to his friends as ‘Elkie’. According to the late Steven Jay Gould, he’s the largest of his kind in Europe and possibly the world.
In the past year the specimen had to be removed for refurbishment of the building, and stored off site due to its huge size. This involved a complicated and amusing trip down Gower Street on a trolley, much to the amazement of passers by. There are pictures of the move, and some scared faces of Museum staff as expert contractors attempted to rehang the specimen. Immediately after the images were taken, the team decided the scaffolding was too small to fit the beast, and the operation was aborted. The deer returned to offsite storage, to be mounted successfully (after a another trip up and down Gower Street) a week later.
Elkie is now displayed just outside the Museum, in the foyer of the UCL Biological Sciences Building (the Darwin Building), on the site of Darwin’s London home. The specimen first came to the Museum in the 1960s when a member of the Zoology Department was on holiday in Ireland and saw the antlers hanging on the wall of a pub, and offered to buy them.
Elkie’s species lived from 400,000-7000 years ago ranging from Siberia to Ireland. They stood around 2m tall (about the same size as a large red deer) but the males had the biggest antlers of any animal, reaching 3.6m from tip to tip.
These antlers would have been regrown every year – we’re talking about 45kg of bone, much more than a human skeleton. This specimen is a dark brown colour and very well preserved (even to a genetic level). This is because it was excavated from a peat bog, which is a superb anaerobic environment for keeping things stable.
Evolutionary biologists at UCL extracted ancient DNA from museum specimens like this and discovered the species was most closely related to modern fallow deer (which share the flatter antlers). They also moved the extinction date forward from 10,000 to 7000 years on the basis of the studies. The species probably went extinct as a combination of reduced population size as the climate changed at the end of the last ice age, and hunting by humans at that time.
See Elkie and thousands of other zoological treasures at the Grant Museum. With thanks to Jack Ashby.