Most members of the genus were extremely large animals that favoured meadows or open woodlands, with most species averaging slightly below 2 metres 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 metre tall. The various species of the Cretan genus Candiacervus – the smallest of which, C. rhopalophorus was just 65 cm 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 the European Elk (Moose) and the American Elk. 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.
Species in chronological sequenceEdit
- M. obscurus
Earliest known species from the Early Pleistocene of Europe. Had long, crooked antlers.
- M. luochuanensis
Early to Mid-Pleistocene species in the Shaanxi Loess of China.
- M. verticornis
Early to Mid-Pleistocene species, closely related to M. obscurus. Lived throughout Southern Europe. Suspected of being the ancestor of the Mediterranean species.
- M. antecedens
Very similar to M. giganteus, to the point where it is often regarded as a paleosubspecies of the latter. The antlers were more compact, and the tines near the base large and palmate. Lived in Mid-Pleistocene Germany.
- M. pachyosteus
Mid-Pleistocene China and Japan. Had long, curved antlers.
- M. savini
Mid-Pleistocene species, slightly larger than a caribou, first fossils found near Sainte Savine, France. Its antlers were straight, with thorn-like prongs. The lowermost prongs near the base were palmate.
- M. cazioti
Dwarf Mediterranean species from the Late Pleistocene of Sardinia and Corsica. About 1 metre at the shoulders, and is believed to be descended from M. verticornis. It survived until 5080 BCE.
- M. dawkinsi
A Late Pleistocene species native to Great Britain, very similar to M. savini. The first human inhabitants of Britain may have encountered it, as some antler fragments have been found carved into crude tools.
- M. giganteus
Largest, best known, and among the last species of the genus, about 2 metres at the shoulders. Lived throughout Eurasia, from Ireland to China during the last Ice Age.