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Posts Tagged ‘Irish elk’

At the German Hunting and Fishing Museum in Munich, most of the animals on display are modern animals that can be found in Germany.

However, the remains of two Pleistocene species are also on display.

When I saw the first of these two creatures, my heart started beating really hard. I had seen photos of its massive frame and huge palmated antlers. To see the skeletal remains of one up close was a truly remarkable experience.

Of course, I am talking about the so-called giant Irish elk, giant deer, or shelk/Schelch (Megaloceros giganteus). This big deer was probably more closely related to fallow deer and not the two modern species that we call elk.

The stags’ antlers were likely for display purposes only. Because they were so large and positioned out to the sides, they really couldn’t have fought with them without damaging them. The hinds likely preferred to mate with only those stags with the most impressive antlers, and thus, the trait was maintained within the species, even though those antlers were quite unwieldy–especially when forests returned to Northern Europe at the end of the last Ice Age and the animals were forced to traverse dense forest.

The other Pleistocene species on display at the museum is a cave bear (Ursus spelaeus).

This animal was a close relative of the brown/grizzly bear species and the polar bear. It also lived during the Pleistocene.

Viirtually all of its remains have been found inlimestone caves, which is why the species go its name and may be the reason for its extinction.

One theory goes that these bears never utilized anything but limestone caves for their hibernation dens.  As human populations increased, these caves became occupied, and many bears froze or starved to death during the winters. Because sows give birth to their cubs during hibernation, many cave bears likely perished as tiny cubs that were born out in the elements. Brown bears used a wider array of hibernation sites, and when humans took over caves, they simply went elsewhere. This allowed the brown bear to thrive even with expanding human populations.

One must remember that bears learn from their mothers how to forage and where to hibernate. We can see something similar to this situation today with grizzly bears and polar bears. Grizzly bears are omnivores, and the sows teach their cubs how to forage for a lot of different foods. Polar bear sows teach their cubs how to hunt marine mammals over the frozen arctic sea. When a polar bear is force to live on the land, it cannot utilize the land resources as well as a grizzly bear can. The polar bears did not learn how to properly forage on land as cubs, and when they must do so,  they are at a loss.  It is likely that cave bear sows taught their cubs to hibernate in caves, but when the caves became occupied, they did not have any skills that allowed to find alternate hibernation sites.

Neanderthals may have worshiped cave bears.  Many skulls and bones of cave bears have been in caves that have been associated with Neanderthal remains. Some of these bones and skulls ahve been placed in ways that indicate an arrangement for ceremonial purposes.

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Schelch

From the Nibelungenlied:

“The hunting fellowship gave Siegfried thanks. Thereafter he speedily slew a bison and an elk [moose], four strong ure-oxen [aurochsen], and a savage shelk (?)

My first question is what is a shelk or “Schelch” as it was known in Middle High German. The text I have suggests that it is some species of large wild deer.

All of the other animals in that text are known to have been native to Germany, at least at some point. Moose are extirpated from German with the last one killed in West Prussia in 1830. Aurochsen are extinct, although they have been recreated and their descendants live on in European domestic cattle. European bison exist in very limited herds in Eastern Europe. There are, however,  plans to stock two herds in Northern Germany and the Netherlands.

As far as I know, though, no one has mention what a “shelk” is.

The animal most often suggested is what we English speakers call an Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus), which is not exactly an accurate name. This animal had a wide range in Eurasia, and it was neither a member of the genus Cervus or a moose. It is possible that some of these animals could have lived on in remote areas of Eurasia until the late Middle Ages, although the last accepted remains of Irish elk lived 7,700 year ago. In Irish, this animal was called a selg. In fact, one legend suggests that the Irish wolfhound once coursed these animals. Probably not.

Now, just before this hunt of ungulates, a lion is killed. Lions  (cave lions) once did live in Europe, but at this time, lions were not native to Europe. They were offered as a menagerie species.  So maybe the narrative wishes to embellish a bit.

However, there are these artifacts. It is very possible that these animals worked their way into German and Irish folklore through contact with the people to the east.  This folklore carried through the generations, eventually appearing in old literature of the German-speaking peoples.

However, it is possible that a relict population of these animals lived in Europe much later than we previously thought. It might explain why this animal is mentioned as a common game species, along with elk (moose), aurochsen, and bison. It is possible, and I would be delighted if someone found the remains of one of these animals that dates to an even later date.

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