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January 24, 2005 – The remains of a rare Eastern elk were unearthed on Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in October 2004 during the construction of a dike in Mohawk Pool to improve wetland habitat for wildlife. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the remains were between 9180 and 9550 years old. The elk was a mature 12-point bull approximately five years of age when it died, according to Refuge Biologist Paul Hess.

The elk's remains, including the antlers, top of the skull, and lower jaw bones, were well preserved in the muck soil layer of the impoundment. The specimens are undergoing conservation treatment with the assistance of the Buffalo Museum of Science in preparation for display at the refuge's visitor contact station.

"Most people are unaware that elk once inhabited this part of the country," according to Hess. "This discovery will offer visitors to Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge unique evidence of a time when these magnificent animals once roamed western New York."

Elk belong to the same family as deer and moose. Scientists believe that elk first appeared on the North American continent approximately 120,000 years ago during the Ice Age when the glaciers exposed a land bridge between what is now Siberia and Alaska. It is believed that red deer (Cervus elaphus) from Tibet or western China migrated across this land bridge. There is much debate regarding the evolutionary relationships between Asian and European red deer and North American elk. The most recent consensus is that red deer and North American Elk are one in the same. It was just that these animals, for whatever reason, came to be called "elk" by the early colonists. The other thing scientist agree on is that Eastern elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis) was one of six subspecies that evolved in North America. Four subspecies still exists today, albeit in small numbers. The Refuge has saved an untreated sample of the skull for future DNA analysis to contribute to solving the puzzle.

By the late 1400s, elk were the most widespread hoofed animal in the New World and could be found throughout most of North America. Eastern elk inhabited the vast forests of eastern Canada and the eastern United States as far west as the Mississippi River. As people continued to settle in the region over the next few centuries, elk populations decreased due to over-hunting and the loss of their dense woodland habitat. Naturalist John James Audubon reportedly mentioned that by 1851 a few elk could still be found in the Alleghany Mountains but that they were virtually gone from the remainder of their range. By the end of the nineteenth century the Eastern elk was completely extinct. What little is known about this race of elk has been gleaned from skeletal remains and historical references. Perhaps current and future research will answer many of the remaining questions.

Dorothy C. Gerhart – Outdoor Recreation Planner
Iroquois NWR, NY

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