Evolution and taxonomy of Ice Age deer

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

Due to their dynamic evolution and abundance as fossils, deer have been the focus of intense research. There is no agreement, however, on the validity of individual species and subspecies and their inter-relationships.

This project aims to reconstruct the relationships between deer populations that lived in Europe between 2.5 million years ago and the present. It is improving our understanding of current global diversity and the distribution of deer.

Giant and fallow deer

We are reconstructing the relationships between extinct deer species that 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

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.

Red deer project

This project aims to reconstruct the origins of diversity within the living red deer group, as well as its distributional and genetic changes through the last ice age up to the present.

Project background

The red deer, Cervus elaphus, is one of the most widespread large mammals, extending across Europe, northern Asia and North America. It is also one of the most adaptable, surviving in habitats ranging from dense woodland to open forest, and from subarctic to Mediterranean latitudes. The species is also divided into a number of subspecies differing in size, coat, antler details and other features.

Red deer research
  1. We are combining genetic and morphological evidence from modern deer and ancient remains to reconstruct the history and pattern of origin of the living subspecies complex. How recent are the patterns we observe today? Are all the subspecies sufficiently distinct and with a unique evolutionary history to warrant their separate conservation?
  2. Using ancient DNA, we have traced the origin of modern European red deer, identifying in particular a refugium in ice-age Spain from which modern western European deer spread.
  3. We have shown that the species formerly spread much further north, into arctic Siberia, and was probably prevented only by environmental factors on the Bering Land Bridge from crossing into North America earlier than it did, about 15,000 years ago, around the same time as humans.

Project staff

  • Dr Marzia Breda 
    University of Ferrara, Italy
  • Dr Meirav Meiri
  • Prof Ian Barnes


  • 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.
  • Breda, M. & Lister, A.M. 2013. Dama roberti, a new species of fallow deer from the early Middle Pleistocene of Europe, and the origins of modern fallow deer. Quaternary Science Reviews 69: 155-167.
  • Meiri, M., Lister, A.M., Higham, T.F.G., Stewart, J.R., Straus, L.G., Obermaier, H., Gonzales Morales, M.R. 2013.  Late-glacial recolonization and phylogeography of European red deer (Cervus elaphus L.). Molecular Ecology 22: 4711-4722.
  • Meiri, M., Lister, A.M., Collins, M.J., Tuross, N., Goebel, T., Blockley, S., Zazula, G.D., van Doorn, N., Guthrie, R.D., Boeskorov, G.G., Baryshnikov, G.F., Sher, A. & Barnes, I. 2014. Faunal record identifies Bering isthmus conditions as constraint to end-Pleistocene migration to the New World. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 281(1776): Article No. 20132167. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.2167)