Evolution and taxonomy of Ice Age deer

The project aims to reconstruct the relationships among the different extinct deer species which lived in Europe between 2.5 and 0.5 million years ago.

We are investigating the following groups:

  • giant deer (Megacerine), ancestors to the Irish deer of the last Ice Age
  • comb-antlered deer (Eucladocerine), possible ancestors to the giant deer group
  • fallow-like deer, possible ancestors to the modern fallow deer

Project background

Many deer species

Sharp climatic oscillations during the Ice Ages led to deer evolving and differentiating very rapidly, producing a high number of species.

Because of this, and because of their abundance as fossils, they have been the focus of intense research. However, there is no agreement on the validity of the individual species and on their inter-relationships.

Fossil deer classification

Fossil deer are usually classified based on the morphology of their antlers, because of their frequency in collections. But antlers are very variable structures that can differ greatly between individuals and also from year to year in the same individual.

In contrast, teeth and limb bones are more conservative elements and are strongly influenced by natural selection. We are investigating minor morphological differences in the limb bones and teeth which could potentially be used to characterise the different species.

Current research

This project involves:

  1. Assessing the validity of previously described species by studying the original descriptions and the material on which they were based at the Natural History Museum, other UK museums, and in continental Europe.
  2. Identifying morphological and metrical characters typifying each species by analysing key collections where teeth and limb bones are clearly associated with antler material.
  3. Reconstructing the relationships among the different species based on the similarity or differences of the various characters.
  4. Investigating the evolution of varied form among the different species in relation to changing climate and habitat.

The research is funded by the European Commission through a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship 2009-2011.

Project staff


  • Breda M (2005) The morphological distinction between the postcranial skeleton of Cervalces/Alces and Megaloceros giganteus and comparison between the two Alceini genera from the Upper Pliocene–Holocene of Western Europe. Geobios, 38: 151 -170.
  • Lister AM,  Edwards CJ, Nock DAW, Bunce M, van Pijlen IA, Bradley DG, Thomas MG and Barnes I (2005) The phylogenetic position of the 'giant deer' Megaloceros giganteus. Nature, 438: 850 - 853.
  • Lister AM, Parfitt SA, Owen FJ, Collinge SE and Breda M (2010) Horses, deer and pigs from the early Middle Pleistocene of Britain: metric comparison and biostratigraphic significance. Quaternary International, 228: 157 -179.