Even if we ignore the dragons and the zombies and the Kraken…is anyone surprised that the ecology of Westeros is completely broken?
I’ll come right out of the gate and defend the incredible scope and detail of A Song of Ice and Fire. Author George R. R. Martin has built a world with stories and characters that millions of fans simply can’t get enough of. Even a naturalist can easily get swept away in the adventure — July 16th can’t come soon enough.
One undeniable contributor to this success is how real the world of Westeros feels to the audience. And yes, again, I’m ignoring the supernatural: the zombies and blood magic and monsters get a free pass, because even in Westeros itself, characters acknowledge that this magic breaks some fundamental rules. Still there is some realism here too: as put in an article from LiveScience, the magic in Westeros is a fairly accurate parallel to the mythology and widespread beliefs of actual medieval times.
The most outlandish plot points in “Game of Thrones” might have felt the most realistic to medieval Europeans. Magic was part of everyday folk belief back then.
And if it’s good enough for Snoop Dogg, it’s good enough for me.
But this isn’t a magic blog — here we look at how the rules of the natural world are interpreted in works of fiction — and for that I can’t give GRRM a pass. To be honest, he commits one of the most widespread fallacies of speculative population ecology: distribution.
Put bluntly: Westeros packs too many similar species into too small of a landmass.
I know. Remain calm, we’ll get through this.
To simplify this article and avoid compiling an entire encyclopedia of Westerosi wildlife (which of course already exists) I’ll be focusing exclusively on apex predators. These different species all fit approximately into the same ecological niche, and assuming wildlife in Westeros follow the same basic principles as they do in our world, these animals would compete over similar resources — mainly large herbivorous prey. Yum.
This also conveniently reduces our list to just six species of note: bears, wolves, direwolves, shadowcats, lions, and lizard-lions (which are basically alligators but I guess the Maesters were feeling extra creative that day).
So behold, our distribution:
The above graphic is not meant to be 100% canon-legitimate, I don’t have the time to retread through 340 chapters of text in one afternoon, but I’m relying on a few resources scattered across the web to put this crude data together. Even with some approximation, I want one conclusion to come across crystal clear: there’s a lot of predator species crowding onto a relatively small continent.
The size of Westeros, actually, doesn’t require the same degree of estimation — luckily that’s been calculated to great detail already. The landmass is tall and narrow, but from the Wall to the lower tip of Dorne the estimates all converge around 3000 miles, and for context that’s approximately the distance from coast-to-coast in the USA. This is a nice “goldilocks” zone for land size: big enough that we should expect species diversity, but small enough that this diversity (in theory) would lead to competitive exclusion.
We’ll explore that more later, but when first dissecting whether this type of distribution map is realistic, we need to think about two different sides to this natural history: how the species got there in the first place, and how they’re able to coexist in the present.
Species come to exist in any given territory by three main mechanisms: evolution, migration, and invasion. The first is probably the most well-known, but there is one critical element of evolution that needs to be understood: speciation requires disturbance. In order for one type of animal to “evolve” variation, a single population must be split in two; imagine an earthquake or flood that cuts off a group of animals from their family. This could cause the new subset to change over time in a different strategy than their relatives. Without this disturbance, we wouldn’t expect any differentiation — in this case called speciation — to occur.
There’s actually a picture-perfect example of this happening in Westeros. Wolves are pretty common throughout the entire continent, but when a giant wall of ice gets constructed in the North and isolates off a subset of that species, one would reasonably expect speciation to occur. All wolves may have ancestrally been the same, but speciation south of the Wall resulted in a new, smaller variation. Larger direwolves may still sneak past the wall on occasion, but a major disturbance bottlenecked most of the overlap within the wolf species to result in significant differentiation. It’s actually pretty spot-on.
So evolution explains all the predator overlap we see today? Lord no.
Another crude graphic shows us the different types of “disturbances” throughout the Westeros continent: rivers, mountains, etc. There are some significant bottlenecks, like the Wall or the Neck (a swampy river region that’s a challenge to traverse), but few other geographic formations actually cut off large swathes of land.
This makes it clear that there isn’t quite enough geographic variation to, say, convince me that lions and wolves deviated from a common ancestor. We would expect variation between the North and South, but there’s hardly enough to account for so many diverse and overlapping species that occupy the same space.
It is, however, worth noting that speciation can happen through other more creative means. Consider that shadowcats are said to hunt at night, while wolves may hunt similar prey in the daytime — this is another type of “differentiation” that can lead to new species as well. Still, I’m not convinced that our variation is extreme enough to warrant all the overlap we see today.
Well what about the other mechanisms? Migration of species over land bridges is common-enough in our world, and we know there’s history of similar bridges in Westerosi history.
But it’s hard for this argument to hold water either. Unlike how evolution requires disturbance, migration requires distance, another element that’s missing in the geography at hand. Esos, the neighboring content, does indeed stretch thousands of miles to the east and was previously connected via a land bridge with Westeros (via Dorne to the south), but the wildlife to the East is even more f****d up that what we’re dealing with now! Tigermen and sphinxes and dragons… the rules in Esos get way more messy.
Plus, in our own world, the distribution caused by land bridges tends to expand linearly outwards. If this were the case we would expect to see lions inhabiting Dorne, the very southern arm of Westeros, especially since the collapse of that land bridge took place in relatively recent history and involved a magical horn.
So this leads us to the third mechanism, invasion, which is by far the most law-abiding of the bunch. In our own world, introducing foreign species (either intentionally or accidentally) is a major disruptive force in natural history. With the deep history of trade between Westeros and Esos, it would hardly be surprising to someday hear that lions were imported by early settlers from the East, or that bears were a commodity traded just for use in fighting pits.
But while a combination of the above three mechanisms might explain how the overlapping predators came to exist in Westeros, these scenarios still fail to explain how the animals are able to coexist in the present. If an invasion or migration event were to have occurred, it’s unlikely for the newly-introduced species to live peacefully side-by-side with native species. The rules of speciation and population ecology boil down to the sharing of existing resources, especially food when comparing apex predator with apex predator.
Think about it this way: each of these predators would be “good” at hunting and eating prey—that’s a given. But one would eventually be better, right? It’s the reason animals go extinct — some other creature (potentially human) comes along and uses up resources better than existing species. It happens all the time.
If lions were invasive, or if bears were an evolutionary offshoot that rejoined the mainland population, naturalists in Westeros would expect to see these overlapping species compete until one dies out. The only reason this doesn’t happen in the real world is that there are significant disturbances — rivers, mountains, deserts — that keep these species far-enough apart.
Variation happens all the time in the animal kingdom, but in the case of Westeros, species are squished too closely together for them to exist in a stable equilibrium. All magic and creative licensing aside, there’s frankly just too many cooks in the kitchen.
Not to mention, of course, the rest of the complex predatory system that I overlooked for the sake of simplicity. Westeros is also home to badgers, dogs, thylacine, eagles, multiple others types of bear, and a few random panthera species in the mix as well. And yes, thylacine aka the “Tasmanian tiger” are recorded to exist in Westeros.
What a wacky world.
But I want to end by noting a unique thing that happened during the course of writing this article… I actually convinced myself that I may be wrong.
After mapping out the overlap of these species and running through my rudimentary understanding of Westeros geography, this “paradox” of predatory speciation may not be as paradoxical as I had expected. There are some speciation events that could make complete sense, and some potential migratory or invasive events that — given the natural history of the content — could explain for some clear overlap. None of the above mechanisms alone can solve for what we see in Westeros, but combined… I’m not so certain.
If shadowcats are nocturnal and lionlizards stick to the swamps of the Neck, some of this puzzle actually makes sense. Is this population stable? Unlikely. There’s a bit too much competitive overlap between the lions and the wolves to convince me that after a long winter the two will be able to live peacefully side by side.
But oh, hey now.
Maybe the metaphors in A Song of Ice and Fire run a bit deeper than I had originally expected.