The origin of most Irish animals is uncertain and one of the most iconic species, the red deer is most controversial: was this species native or introduced?
In a new study that will be published online today, 30th March 2012 in the scientific journal Quaternary Science Reviews, a multinational team of researchers from Ireland, Austria, UK and USA have answered this question.
By comparing DNA from ancient bone specimens to DNA obtained from modern animals, the researchers discovered that the Kerry red deer are the direct descendants of deer present in Ireland 5000 years ago. Further analysis using DNA from European deer proves that ancient Neolithic people from Britain brought the red deer to Ireland. Although proving the red deer is not native to Ireland, researchers believe that the unique Kerry red deer population in Ireland are worthy of special conservation status.
Fossil bone samples from the National Museum of Ireland, some up to 30,000 years old, were used in the study. Results also revealed several 19th and 20th century introductions of red deer to Ireland, which are in agreement with written records from the same time. At present there is no evidence of red deer in Ireland during the Mesolithic period, 9000 years ago, when humans first settled in Ireland.
The investigation’s findings are in agreement with archaeological evidence, which also suggests a special relationship between humans and red deer during prehistoric times. Antler fragments and tools are frequently found in Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age excavations.
Dr Ruth Carden, working as a researcher in the National Museum of Ireland, who led the study, said “The Kerry red deer represent a unique population within an Irish context and therefore should be given special conservation and management status within Ireland.”
Dr Allan McDevitt, from the School of Biology and Environmental Science, University College Dublin, one of the lead geneticists said “We have very few native mammals in Ireland but certainly those that arrived with early humans, such as the red deer, are every bit as Irish as we are.”
CEO, Michael Starrett, The Heritage Council, Ireland said “The Heritage Council was delighted to be able to support this ground-breaking research. It brings to light new aspects on the history of our natural heritage as well as its cultural relevance. Our heritage is as intertwined in our everyday lives today as it was in the lives of our ancestors and we can only hope that important research such as this continues to get support ensuring a greater understanding of our natural heritage.”
This study was co-funded by the following organisations: The Heritage Council, Kerry County Council, Screebe Estate Galway and IRCSET.