When you need to reconstruct an extinct Irish Elk that died out thousands of years ago, what do you have to go on?
First there’s the skeleton, dug out of a bog in Ireland, with the incredible antlers, up to 13 feet across.
But what about the muscles, skin, and fur, which don’t fossilize? Fortunately the Irish Elk (which is really more like a huge fallow deer) lived during the Ice Age, and shared what is now Europe with early humans. And it must have really impressed those early artists, because they sketched portraits of the creatures on cave walls. Those cave artists really could draw, maybe because they knew their subjects so well.
Here are some female Irish Elks in a cave in Chauvet, France. Some years ago, Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould pointed out the unmistakeable hump on the shoulder and the line running down the side.
The next thing I had to figure out was a pose, so I looked through a stack of old zoo sketches and found this one of a Bongo, which I painted from life at the LA zoo. Different critter, but I liked the basic pose.
Here's the final painting, which appears in the new Dinotopia book. Based on those cave drawings I put in the shoulder hump, which I assume is a big clump of brown shaggy fur with a lot of muscle underneath, like on a bison. And perhaps the line along the flank divides the darker color of the back from the lighter belly fur.