Location and General Description
The ecoregion is located at the junction of the biogeographic zones of the Lesser Caucasus and the Iranian and Mediterranean zones and exhibits both a great range of altitudinal variation (from 375 to 4,095 m a.s.l.) and a diversity of climatic zones. Together this has resulted in a diversity of landscapes and ecological communities with a distinct flora and fauna, including many regionally endemic, relict and rare species. With the adjacent Eastern Anatolian Deciduous Forest this ecoregion is of particular importance as a center of endemism for wild relatives of economically important crop and livestock species. High mountains and extreme continental climate determines the characteristics of the ecoregion. Although the main formation of the ecoregion is montane steppes other community types are deserts and semi-deserts, forests and woodlands, alpine and subalpine meadows.
The landscape is dominated by the large undulating plateaus between 1500-2500 m althougth several peaks rise close to 5000 m. A?r? Mountain (5165 m), Alagöa Mountain (4095 m) are the highest of these peaks. The high plateaus are subject to cold and strong winds, limiting arboreal vegetation (Zohary 1973). Only lowlands and some other microtopographies support patches of woodlands, dominated by oak species. These lie mainly between 800-2000 m. The area is ruled a the continental climate with extremely cold winters. Precipitation is more or less even through out the year. There is no summer drought as seen in the adjacent ecoregions with Mediterranean climates. Annual rainfall varies between 400-600 mm. However, the rain shadow of large mountains such as A?r? or Alagöa have 200-300 mm rainfall and surrounding regions of large lakes may have 800-1000 mm.
Van, Urumiye and Gökçe Lakes are other centers of interest in the landscape. Van Lake with an area of 3173 km2 is one of the largest lakes in the ecoregion.
Vegetation cover is generally 25-30% in desert habitats and is mostly composed of xerophytic and turf-forming plant species. In contrast with deserts, the vegetation of semi-deserts consists mostly of ephemeral plants, such as Artemisia fragrans, Capparis spinosa, Kochia prostrata, and Poa bulbosa. Semi-deserts are the original habitat of several important wild ancestors of domestic crops, such as Triticum araraticum, T. urartu, Secale vavilovii, Aegilops spp. and many others.
Mountain steppes between 1500-2200 m (Zohary, 1973) are typically with high vegetation cover and a rich flora. Artemisia austriaca-Artemisia fragrans, Astragalus-Acanthalimon-Onobrychis cushion like formations, graminoid formations (Stipa sp., Festuca sp., Poa bulbosa, Kochia sp.) are the main steppe types of the ecoregion. Other group of plants that dominates in the high mountains (2200-2700 m) are umbellifers belonging to Ferula, Prangos and other genera (Boulos et al. 1994).
Good representatives of alpine vegetation can be seen in the high peaks of the ecoregion such as A?r?, Alagöa etc. Draba sp, Dracocephalum sp., Oxyria sp., Polygonum sp, Veronica sp. and some other geophytes such as Trollius sp., Scilla sp., Gentiana verna, Primula sp. are the most characteristic species of the alpine belt.
Juniper-Amygdalus steppe woodlands (Zohary 1973, Bobek 1951) constitute the woody formations of the ecoregion. Although the structure of these woodlands is more or less similar throughout the ecoregion, species compositions can vary. In addition to juniper and almond, there are many species of rose family in these sparse woodlands. The sparse canopy allows the growth of a strong shrub layer (with Pistacia sp., Berberis sp., Rosa sp.) and herb layer dominated by the Astragalus or Artemisia species (Zohary 1973). Oak woodlands and scrub are more widespread in the mountains of the Anatolia (Davis 1956).
Wetlands are among the most threatened habitats in the ecoregion. Typical emergent wetland vegetation include common reed Phragmites australis, Typha spp., sedges Carex aguta and C. diluta, rush Scirpus tabernaemontani, and Bolbolshoenus maritimus.
This ecoregion with its high plateaus and peaks is a center of endemism within the Irano-Turanian phytogeographic region (Boulous et al. 1994). It is considered a speciation center for such genera as Astragalus, Acantholimon, Couisinia, Centaurea, Onobrychis. Other important group of plant species known to be differentiated mainly in the ecoregion is pears (Pyrus sp.), almonds (Amygdalus sp.), and hawthorns (Crategaus sp.). Amygdalus kotschyi, A. cardauchorum, Crateagus davisii, Pyrus hakiarica, Pyrus salicifolia var. serrulata are endemic taxa known from the ecoregion.
The ancestors of wheat, barley, rye and oats, and several fruit trees, such as grape and wild pear, are found in the region. The region is also an ancient centre for the breeding of livestock, and also supports wild relatives of domestic breeds.
These high mountains and patches of woodlands provide favorable habitat for many large mammal species. Brown bear (Ursus arctos), gray wolf (Canis lupus) are two important carnivores. Their presence is an indication of intact habitats. Another important species is striped hyena (Hyena hyena) which was once widespread, but is now on the Red List. Although there is not much information about its population status within the ecoregion it is known to occur in mountains of Turkey, Armenia and Iranian. Wild goat is (Capra aegagrus) is often found in areas of rocky scree.
There are 10 Important Bird Areas concentrated in the region of Lake Van, Yüksekova (Hakkari), and Do?u beyaz?t (Magnin and Yarar 1997). Uromiyeh Lake in the Iran, and Aras Valley between Armenia and Turkey is another location of high bird diversity.
A number of species are close to extinction or extirpation. To date, 35 plant species of economic importance are known to have become extinct in Armenia. A further, 386 species (12% of the flora) are listed in the Armenian Red Data Book (1988). The ecological crisis associated with Lake Sevan in Armenia and Javakheti mountain wetlands in Georgia has been well documented. Vegetated wetlands around the lake have disappeared. In the Ararat valley alone, 1500 km2 of swamps have been drained and transformed into agricultural land. In the mountainous areas, inhospitable climate, and remoteness make the region unattractive for large scale development.
Protected areas in the ecoregion is not sufficient for effective conservation. In Turkey there are no protected areas within the ecoregion. In Armenia, principal protected areas are Sevani National Park, and Khosrov, Dilijan and Shikahogh State Reserves. Uromiyeh Lake in the Iran with 4636 km2 is one of the important protected areas in the ecoregion.
Types and Severity of Threats
Habitat loss and modification mainly by agriculture, unsustainable use of biological resources, and the impact of introduced and non-native species have degraded natural ecosystems and caused a decline in the populations of wild animals and plants. In Armenia, the growth of the agricultural, industrial, construction and energy sectors have led to extensive habitat change across all landscape types. Urban and industrial areas have grown, while forests have been logged and over 20,000ha of marshes and wetlands have been drained.
In mountainous areas, the only threat comes from grazing; nomads herd their livestock to the high mountains during the summer period. In areas with higher human access, overgrazing, has altered steppe composition with Euphorbia sp., Astargalus sp., Acanthalimon sp., Gundelia tournefortii gaining dominance.
Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion encompasses the Irano-Turanian hills and steppe between the Zagros, Lesser Caucasus, and Elburz ranges. In Iran, the boundaries are derived using Zohary’s (1973) geobotanical map of the Middle East. It includes Zohary’s mosaics of Northwest Iranian Artemisiestea fragrantis high steppe and Quercetea brantii remnants. In Turkey, the area corresponds to a mosaic of Eastern Anatolian deciduous tree steppe and oak and mixed sub-humid forests according to Guidottei (1986).
Armenia 1999. Biodiversity of Armenia.Ministry of Nature Protection. Yerevan, 126 pp.
Armenia 2000. Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. Ministry of Nature Protection. Yerevan, 160 pp.
Bobek, H. 1951. Die natürlichen Walder und Gehölzfluren Irans. Bonner geogr. Abh. 8: 62 pp., 4 pls., 1 map.
Boulos L., A.G. Miller, R.R. Mill. 1994. South West Asia and the Middle East. Pages 293-349 in S.D. Davis, V.H. Heywood, and A.C. Hamilton editors, Centers of plant diversity. Information Press, Oxford.
Davis, P.H. 1956. Lake Van and Turkish Kurdistan: a botanical journey. Geographical Journal 122: 156-165.
Georgia 2000. Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. Ministry of Environment, the WB. Tbilisi, 157 pp.
Guidotti, G., P. Regato, S. Jimenez-Caballero. The Major Forest Types in the Mediterranean. World Wildlife Fund, Rome, Italy.
Magnin, G. M. Yarar. 1997. Important Bird Areas in Turkey. Do?al Hayat? Koruma Derne?i. ?stanbul.
Zohary, M. 1973. Geobotanical Foundations of the Middle East, 2 vols. Fischer, Sttutgart, and Sweets and Zeitlinger, Amsterdam. 739 pp.
Prepared by: Ramaz Gokhelashvili
Reviewed by: Ugur Zeydanli