Where Do the Most Narwhals Live?


Where do you find the most Narwhals on the Earth. Why Narwhals?

Well it could be any species. Anglerfish, carnivorous sponge, giraffe, or even a montane unicorn.



So Narwhals. You probably already know that Narwhals inhabit the Arctic Ocean. But it’s not like if you went to the Arctic there would be back to back Narwhals. There is no big Narwhal carpet you could just walk across carefully avoiding all those tusks. Even in the magical Arctic, there are places where Narwhals are dense and places where Narwhals are rare. But can we make a prediction?

The geographic range of an organism, that area of earth in which an organism dwells, is defined by the maximum and minimum extent of latitude, longitude, and depth or altitude a species lives. Think of a giant ellipse defined by these geographic limits. Those boundaries can be set by any number things—temperature, precipitation, food availability, length of daylight, land or water boundaries like rivers, oceans, mountains, or even a continent if it’s a marine organism. These aspects of the environment interact with the needs and tolerances of the organism. Boundaries can even be set by other organisms who outcompete for space or resources.

The geographic range of the Narwhal in dark blue. The lighter hatched area is Arctic sea ice.

Let’s assume that once a species gets closer and closer to this geographic limit it is getting closer and closer to some aspect of the environment that is intolerable for them. For our Narwhal, too far South the temperature is uncomfortably warm. This happens with each of its boundaries on the north, south, east, and west sides. But the center of that geographic range is prime position. Everything is just right. The perfect balance. A Goldilocks scenario. At this place the Narwhal flourishes and the number of that Narwhals is spectacular. This is the Abundant Center Hypothesis. A species is most abundant at the middle of its range. And in the case of our Narwhal, we should find the most of that horned, blubbery beauty right smacked dab in the center of its geographic range.

Graphically, you can think of the Abundant Center Hypothesis as normally distributed bell curve (see above). Pick one of those geographic or environmental axes like temperature or latitude and at the center is peak density or abundance for that organism.

But how well does this actually work in the wild among all animals and plants?

New work by Tad Dallas, Robin Decker, and Alan Hastings at the University of California, Davis sheds some new light on this almost 40-year old question. They recast the Abundant Center Hypothesis into a new testable relationship, if a species is most abundant at their range center, then a negative correlation should exist between abundance and distance from the center—a distance-abundance relationship (above illustration). Overall, the group of scientists examined this relationship for 1,109 birds, 63 fish, 81 mammals, and 166 trees in the Americans.

Overall, distance-abundance relationships like in the figure above were rarely observed. For birds, only 123 out of 1,109 species displayed a negative distance-abundance relationship as predicted. Moreover, 151 birds displayed the exact opposite pattern, their abundances actually increased away from their center. For fish, mammals, and trees combined only 13 negative relationships were found.

So what of the Abundant-Center Hypothesis? Alas, it may be time for the trash bin.
Recovering the predicted relationship for only 9.5% of the organisms tested isn’t exactly impressive. One glimmer of hope remains. The study by Dallas, Decker, and Hasting was for land dwellers. For my beloved Narwhal and other denizens of the sea, they may still be most bountiful at the centermost.

Dr. M (1801 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Additionally, Craig is obsessed with the size of things. Sometimes this translated into actually scientific research. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.

One Reply to “Where Do the Most Narwhals Live?”

  1. Wouldn’t the distribution be the same density in the areas in which none of the unfriendly characteristics are present enough to matter? E.g. if a creature can thrive equally well anywhere in a temperature range, and survive for several degrees hotter or colder, wouldn’t you expect the entire “thriving” range to be about equally dense, with the area from that range to the boundary populated by a logarithmically thinning population ending at zero as the survival boundary is reached? So a graph of numbers would be roughly the same throughout the “thrive” range, and declining population “edges” stretching to the survival boundary.

    Graphing this could get quite complex if there are a number of habitat limitations, but in principle the “thriving” area, where none of the negative influences is important, should be fairly large and uniformly populated within the limits of random fluctuation.

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