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Legendary stag Pokémon Xerneas has a prehistoric doppelgänger

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xerneas

Legendary Pokémon, Xerneas. Copyright: Nintendo

A couple of weeks ago, new Pokémon games X and Y were released. A big difference between the two is the 'legendary Pokémon' you'll eventually have the opportunity to catch. In Y, you'll get some bird-looking thing that doesn't matter, but in X, you'll get Xerneas, a majestic, genderless fairy-type Pokémon with kicky blue chest tufts and a glowing, eight-pronged set of antlers. You might think Xerneas is just an incredibly exaggerated reindeer, but this thing actually existed a few million years ago, minus the kicky blue chest tufts and all the glowing colours.

Behold! The 'brush-antlered' deer, Eucladoceros dicranios:

eucladoceros_dicranios

Eucladoceros dicranios skull at the Museo di Paleontologia di Firenze. Credit: Ghedoghedo; under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This prehistoric species carried with it one of the most impressive set of antlers of any animal on Earth, living or dead, each one stretching to around 1.7 metres long, and ending in no less than 12 prongs, or tines. First described in 1841 by then-Director of the Natural History Museum of Florence, Filippo Nesti, this extinct species existed between 5 million to 10,000 years ago and is known from a handful of specimens uncovered in western Europe and eastern China. Nesti's specimen was discovered in the Upper Valdarno valley of Tuscany, and the species became the first member of an extinct genus of deer known as Eucladoceros.

The Eucladoceros were relatively large, growing to about 2.5 metres long and almost two metres tall at the shoulder, so just a bit smaller than the modern moose. They are considered the first deer to sport extremely elaborate antlers, and E. dicranios had the most elaborate of them all.

Irish elk

Irish elk or great deer skeleton. Credit: Franco Atirador; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

But these aren't the biggest antlers ever found - that honour belongs to the Irish elk, or great deer (Megaloceros giganteus.). Neither elk nor strictly Irish, the great deer was an enormous Ice Age creature with colossal 3.65-metre-long moose-like antlers that weighed up to 45 kg. It has been named the largest deer that ever lived, standing 2.1 metres tall at the shoulder and weighing up to 700 kg. For almost 150 years, it was thought that the great deer's antlers drove it to extinction, becoming so large and unwieldy that they interfered with the animal's everyday functioning. It wasn't until 1974 that American palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist, Steven Jay Gould, proved that they were actually pretty much in proportion with the rest of the great deer's enormous body, and there was no reason to think they were "maladaptive" or that they led to the species' extinction.

Of the 47 extant species of deer, only the reindeer has its antlers borne by both the males and the females. In all other species they act as a weapon for males to use against other males in the fight for female attention. Antler is said to be one of the fastest-growing animal tissues, which is handy, because each pair is lost and grown back every year. As they are growing, they are covered in velvet, which supplies the growing bone with blood vessels. Once the antlers are fully grown, the velvet dries up and sheds off.

Antler growth appears to be regulated by sexual hormones, and the purpose of the annual replacement of antlers could be that if they are damaged in a fight, that male will only be disadvantaged for one season. Once an old pair of antlers are shed, the male will usually gnaw at and then eat them. Which is grosssss.

Click here to find out which Pokémon starter you should pick, but for the record - fire starters rule!

Sources:

The Origin and Function of 'Bizarre' Structures: Antler Size and Skull Size in the 'Irish Elk,' Megaloceros giganteus by Stephen Jay Gould, Evolution Vol. 28, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 191-220

Horns, Tusks & Flippers: The evolution of hoofed mammals by Donald R. Prothero & Robert M. Schoch. 2002

The Evolution of Animal Weapons by Douglas J. Emlen Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 2008. 39:387–413

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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