• Abundant-centre model;
  • dogwhelk;
  • intertidal;
  • macroecology;
  • mussel;
  • Mytilus edulis;
  • Mytilus trossulus;
  • north-west Atlantic;
  • Nucella lapillus;
  • predator–prey interactions


Aim  We performed the first test of predictions from the abundant-centre model using north-west Atlantic coastal organisms. We tested the hypotheses that the density of intertidal mussels (Mytilus edulis and M. trossulus) and dogwhelks (Nucella lapillus) and mussel age and size would peak at an intermediate location along their distribution range. We also assessed the latitudinal variation in critical aerial exposure time.

Location  North-west Atlantic coast between Newfoundland (Canada) and New York (USA), covering 1800 km of shoreline.

Methods  Using a nested design, we measured mussel density, age and size and dogwhelk density in 60 wave-exposed rocky intertidal sites spread evenly in six regions. Critical aerial exposure times were determined using online data.

Results Mytilus edulis peaked in abundance in Maine and was much less abundant in the other regions. Mytilus trossulus peaked in abundance in southern Nova Scotia and Maine, was less abundant in the other regions to the north, and was absent in the southernmost region (New York). Both mussel species were least abundant in a northern region (Cape Breton), although not in the northernmost region (Newfoundland). Critical aerial exposure times were negatively correlated with overall mussel density. Mussel age and size were similar among regions. Dogwhelks peaked in abundance in Maine and were much less abundant in the other regions, being positively correlated with overall mussel density across regions.

Main conclusions  Density data for M. edulis and N. lapillus provide limited support for an abundant-centre pattern, while M. trossulus shows a clear ramped-south distribution. Critical aerial exposure times suggest that physiological stress during summer and winter low tides may be lowest in Maine and southern Nova Scotia, which might partially explain mussel predominance in those regions. Winter ice scour in Cape Breton may explain the abundance trough observed there. Mussel size and age may be more limited by wave exposure at our sites (as they all face open waters) than by regional differences in environmental stress. Dogwhelks, which prey on mussels, seem to respond positively to prey density at the regional scale. Our study supports the notion that, while the abundant-centre model is a useful starting point for research, it often represents an oversimplification of reality.