It was an ordinary day for Northern Irish fishermen Raymond McElroy and Charlie Coyle as they fished in freshwater lake Lough Neagh in hopes of catching a species of whitefish called pollan. However, their ordinary day turned remarkable when they ended up with a six-foot-long skull and giant antlers belonging to a Great Irish elk, an extinct species that was last seen in Ireland more than 10,000 years ago.
According to a report from Belfast Live, the lake had also yielded similar finds in the past, as a lower jawbone retrieved from Lough Neagh in June, 2014, was estimated to be at least 14,000-years-old. However, this was just a small fossil compared to the skull and antlers found by McElroy, which were “amazingly well preserved” apart from being quite substantial in terms of size.
“It came up in the net on the side of the boat. I thought it was a bit of black oak,” McElroy told Belfast Live.
“I was shocked, to begin with when I got it over the side and saw the skull and antlers.”
In addition to McElroy’s discovery and the one from 2014, another fisherman found a similar set of antlers connected to a skull in 1987, then donated the fossil to a local school, local historian Pat Grimes told Live Science.
As the Great Irish elk skull and antlers McElroy found were retrieved from the same place as the lower jawbone fossil from four years ago, he added that it’s possible they both came from the same animal.
According to Live Science, the term “Great Irish elk” can be considered inaccurate in multiple ways, as this was actually a deer species that was found in other parts of the world aside from Ireland, including other parts of Europe, northern Asia, and northern Africa. Still, the creatures lived up to the “great” part of their name, as they were among the largest deer species on Earth until they disappeared more than 10,000 years ago.
The Great Irish elk was also very common in Ireland’s grassy plains at one point, though as Ulster Museum paleontologist Mike Simms explained to Belfast Live, their huge antlers weren’t suited to the forests that eventually grew in the area.
“Environmental change is what caused their extinction,” said Simms.
With Northern Irish authorities still debating on what to do with the Great Irish Elk antlers McElroy and Coyle spotted earlier this month, McElroy was quoted by Live Science as saying he’s storing the antlers in his garage for “safekeeping” purposes.