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The phylogenetic position of the ‘giant deer’ Megaloceros giganteus


The giant deer, or ‘Irish elk’, has featured extensively in debates on adaptation, sexual selection, and extinction. Its huge antlers—the largest of any deer species, living or extinct—formed a focus of much past work1,2,3,4. Yet the phylogenetic position of the giant deer has remained an enigma. On the basis of its flattened antlers, the species was previously regarded as closely related to the living fallow deer5,6,7. Recent morphological studies8, however, have challenged that view and placed the giant deer closer to the living red deer or wapiti. Here we present a new phylogenetic analysis encompassing morphological and DNA sequence evidence, and find that both sets of data independently support a sister-group relationship of giant and fallow deer. Our results include the successful extraction and sequencing of DNA from this extinct species, and highlight the value of a joint molecular and morphological approach.

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Figure 1: Phylogenetic relationships among deer species based on molecular and morphological analyses.
Figure 2: Examples of morphological characters.

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We thank A. Currant, A. Friday, D. Hills, P. Jenkins, P. Kosintsev, L. Martin, N. Monaghan, T. Stuart, A. Vorobiev and E. Westwig for sampling and access to material; P. Grubb, D. MacHugh, C. O'hUigin and K. Wolfe for discussion; T. Burke and A. Cooper for laboratory facilities; P. Forey, J. Masters, A. Mitchell and M. Sánchez-Villagra for advice on cladistics; A. Murray and R. Rabinovich for technical assistance; and V. Geist and Stackpole Books for permission to reproduce the drawings in Fig. 2a. C.J.E. was supported by the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology Basic Research Grant Scheme. I.A.vP was funded by BBSRC.

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Correspondence to I. Barnes.

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Competing interests

Sequences are deposited in GenBank under accession numbers AM072730–AM072749. Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Notes

This file contains the Supplementary Methods and Discussion, Supplementary Figures 1 and 2, Supplementary Tables 3-9. This is a detailed account of methods used in both morphological and molecular analysis, with a discussion comparing results with previous studies. Tables and Figures showing sample and radiocarbon details, primer and cloning sequences, distance matrices, and GENBANK accession numbers. (DOC 252 kb)

Supplementary Table S1

Morphological character and character state descriptions; sample sizes and character scores on all taxa. (XLS 53 kb)

Supplementary Table S2

Morphological data transformed ready for analysis. (XLS 33 kb)

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Lister, A., Edwards, C., Nock, D. et al. The phylogenetic position of the ‘giant deer’ Megaloceros giganteus. Nature 438, 850–853 (2005).

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