Central Asia: Southern Turkmenistan and northern Iran

This ecoregion is comprised of mountainous shrub-like Mediterranean xeric woodlands. It is located on the slopes of the KopetDag mountain ranges and includes riparian forests found in the river valleys. Kopet Dag Woodlands are well-studied and high endemism is exhibited among many groups of organisms, up to 18% in flowering plants. Key endangered fauna include leopard, wild sheep, bezoar (bearded) goat, hyena, Indian porcupine, and a number of other rare species of mammals, birds, snakes, and lizards. It represents the center of origin and genetic diversity for wild relatives of cultivated plants such as grapes, pomegranates, figs, almonds, walnuts, wheat, barley and many others. These areas of woodland habitat continue to experience heavy logging and overgrazing. While these areas are currently under protection, enforcement is not always adequate to promote forest regeneration.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    22,500 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
The Kopetdag mountains are the northernmost range of the Turkmeno-Khorassan system; they are of medium size, the highest peak reaches 2,872 above the sea level; spread latitudinally in a narrow strip of about 100 km wide and surrounded by deserts. Ranges with high seismic activity are comprised of sandstone, limestone, clay and marl. The region has features of the arid subtropical climate with shortage of moisture and high summer temperatures. Absolute minimum, - 24oC; absolute maximum, 35-45o C and in some areas 48oC; annual precipitation is 300 mm. Geological history of Kopet Dag has provided a diverse arena for the formation of local biodiversity when this mountain chain served as an island corridor between the Balkans and Armeno-Iranian Plateau at the time of reduction of the ancient Tethys Sea 10 million years ago. With further aridization, landscapes gradually changed. In the Pleistocene (less than one million years ago), this mountain corridor was a site of constant dispersal and probably, of local speciation. Many endemic species, especially plant species are refered to this age. Located between northern and southern deserts of Asia, Kopet Dag mountains could house relic mesophile flora and fauna which could not survive aridization of adjacent lowlands. Transgressions of the Proto-Caspian Sea periodically returned these desert mountains to the island condition. During the recent glaciation (16,000 to 10,000 years ago) this corridor could have been invaded by almost modern European and Asian "refugee" species. Then, a new aridization disrupted many ranges and effectively isolated European forest and meadow species that found their refuge in the riparian forests along the mountain valleys, such as highly endemic orchids in mesophytic walnut and elm forests.

Biodiversity Features
Fauna and flora of Kopet Dag expresses the mixed character of their biogeographic connections with Mediterranean and Turanian elements, as well as authochthonous endemics. The Kopet Dag flora is especially rich in plant diversity is the flora, of which 332 species are endemic. The families of plants which have the greatest number of rare and endangered species are Liliaceae, Orchidaceae, Rosaceae, Fabaceae and Asteraceae. 15 out of 68 rare and endangered plant species of the Kopet Dag range seem to have vanished due to habitat decline. Many wildlife animal species occurring in reserves have been extirpated in areas outside of reserves.

Kopet Dag Woodlands could be found from the lowland plane 300 m to the high elevations in up to 2,500 m above the sea level. They are characterized by several community types: xeric shrublike woodlands, juniper woodlands, and mesophytic riparian forest. Xerophytic woodlands are known as shiblyak, distinctive by its species composition and richness, variety of community types, the presence of diverse subtropical species and endemics. They are sometimes characterized as savannoid vegetation type of open woodlands. Shiblyak is usually dominated by the Turkmen maple (Acer tucomanicum), hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) or by the Christ's thorn (Paliurus spinachristi) in disturbed lands. The Turkmen maple is a small tree, two to three meters tall, its shrub-like characteristics are due to its ability to regenerate from the trunk after harvesting, fires or grasing. Kopetdag wodlands’ plant communities are widespread from 800 to 2,500 m; their density depends on humidity of the slopes. Codominant trees and shrubs are species of Crataegus spp., Celtis caucasica, Juniperus turkomanica, Cerasus microcarpa, Ephedra intermedia, E. equisetina, Cotoneaster nummularia, Colutea gracilis, Lonicera bracteolaris, Rubia florida, Rhamnus sintenisii, Jasminum fruticans, Amygdalus communis, and A. scoparia. Among herbaceous dominants of the forest cover are Anisantha sterilis, Trisetum flavescens, Fritillaria raddeanum, Orthurus heterocarpus, Lamium turkestanicum, Dactylis glomerata, Alliaria alliacea, Nepeta sintenisii, Crucianella sintenisi, Galium verum, G. aparine, Hordeum murinum, and Eruca sativa. Kopetdag wodlands’ house high number of fruit trees, shrubs, and vines valuable for selection, including pomegranate (Punica granatum), wild grapes (Vitis sylvestris, V. vinifera), fig (Ficus carica), wild apple (Malus turkmenorum), wild pear (Pyrus boisiieri), wild cherries (Cerasus microcarpa, C. erythrocarpa, C. blinovskii), wild prune (Prunus divaricata), almonds (Amygdalus communis and A. scoparia), and hawthorns (Crataegus spp.). Stands of Juniperus turkomanica also form open woodlands in the middle and upper mountain belts at the altitudes around 1,000-2,000 m in complexes with shiblyak, steppes dominated by fescue (Festuca valesiaca) and feathergrass (Stipa turcomanica, S. hohenackeriana) and mountain xerophytes represented by cushion-plants such as Acanthophyllum, Acantholimon, and Tragacantha. In the higher parts of the mountains, maple stands are more sparse, herbaceous cover incorporates derived communities dominated by unique for this region subtropical grasssland formed by Elytigia trichophora. Deciduous forest communities formed by tall trees such as elm (Ulmus carpinifolia), walnut (Juglans regia), Syrian ash (Fraxinus syriaca), and dogwood (Thelycrania meyeri) are found primarily along the narrow mountain river valleys. Walnut forest in this ecoregion is confined to a narrow (50 to 100 m wide) strip along the rivers at the altitudes from 1,000 to 1,500 m. Juglans regia is accompanied by Fraxinus syriaca, Thelycrania meyeri, Prunus divaricata, Lonicera floribunda, Rubus sanguinoides, and Rosa lacerans. The mesophilic herbaceous undestory layer includes Anisantha sterilis, Elytrigia repens, Mentha longifolia, Cousinia umbrosa, Anthriscus longirostris, Physocaulis nodosus, and sometimes endemic wild onion Allium paradoxum. Forms of the wild walnuts could be invaluable source for selection of new cultural varieties.

Rare mesophytic species of orchids (Ophrys transhyrcana, Epipactis veratrifolia) and ferns (Ophioglossum vulgatum) found here their refuge from the arid environment. A magnificent, relict Eastern sycamore (Platanus orientalis) grows as a narrow strip along mountain rivers; its preservation depends entirely on anti-erosion efforts which should prevent mudslide formation on the slopes and plateaus caused by overgrazing in the upper regions of the watershed.

Common mammal species in Kopet Dag woodlands include shrews (Sorex, Crocidura), forest mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), jackal (Canis aureus), fox (Vulpes vulpes), marten (Martes foina), least weasel (Mustela nivalis), badger (Meles meles), wild boar (Sus scrofa).

Among birds, common are lark (Galerida cristata), stone patridge (Alectoris chucar), doves (Columba livia, Streptopelia turtur, S. orientalis), hawks (Accipiter nisus, A. badius), buzzard (Buteo rufinus), kite (Milvus korshun), falcons (Falco tinnunculus), pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), titmice (Parus), flycatchers (Muscicapa), nightingale (Luscinia megarhyncha), finches (Carduelis), buntings (Emberiza), warblers (Sylvia), and shrikes (Lanius).

Common reptile species are agamas (Trapelus, Stellio), runners (Eremias), skinks (Ablepharus, Eumeces), geckos (Cyrtopodion), glass lizard (Pseudopus apodus), rat snakes (Coluber), vipers (Agkistrodon halys, Vipera l?betina), blind wormsnake (Typhlops vermicularis); among amphibians, toad (Bufo viridis).

A number of rare and endangered large mammals still inhabit Kopet Dag. Dense forests with mountain springs provide breeding grounds for the leopards (Panthera pardus tullianus). They were widespread in the mountains and foothills of Kopetdag until the early 20th century. Throughout Turkmenistan, 360 leopards were killed from 1924 to 1966. The population of Kopet Dag leopards is steadily declining. Its records are constant but sporadic in Kopet Dag. With the establishment of the two Kopet Dag Reserves, regular observations of leopards were conducted showing that their population is not more than 40 animals. By 1990 the condition of this leopard population seemed relatively stable and hopeful; In 1996-1998 there were about 23-25 animals in Western and 25- 30 – in Central Kopet Dag. Wild sheep or urial (Ovis (vignei) orientalis) lives in the arid mountains and foothills within two protected areas (less then 2,000 animals). Human activity has significantly decreased this population. Bezoar (bearded ) goat (Capra aegagrus turkmenicus) is found in Maly and Bolshoi Balkhan ranges and in Kopet Dag. Its numbers have decreased dramatically in the last decades. Most of the population (estimated as several thousand animals) is concentrated in Central Kopet Dag Reserve.

Among other rare and endangered mammal species protected in this ecoregion are: marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna koshevnikovi), otter (Lutra lutra seistanica), manul cat (F. manul ferrugineus), and a number of species of bats and rodents. Since the 1950s, the Turanian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata), Syrian brown bear (Ursus arctos syriacus) are both extinct. Lynx (Lynx lynx) has been extirpated.

Table 1. Specially Protected Areas - Nature Reserves

Currently, just about 5% of the ecoregion’s intact habitat is protected within two protected areas

  Nature Reserves Description Year Established Area in hectares
Kopetdag Kopetdag mountains: woodlands 1976 49,793
Syunt-Khasar Dag Kopetdag mountains: woodlands, grasslands 1978 26,461

Table 2. Plants of Kopetdag Woodlands in the Red Book of Turkmenistan (2000)

  Common Name Latin Name
Walnut Juglans regia
Pomegranat Punica granatum
Juniper Juniperus turcomanica
Turkmen Pear Pyrus turcomanica
Boissier Pear Pyrus boissieriana
Apple Malus sieversii (=M. turkmenorum)
Turkestan mountain ash Sorbus turkestanica
Mandrake Mandragora turcomanica
  Fritillaria raddeana
  Hyacinthus transcaspicus
  Atropa komarovii
  Allium paradoxum
  Allium vavilovii
  Epipactis veratrifolia
  Dactylorhiza flavescens
  Listera ovata
  Onobrychis nikitinii
  Orchis simia
  Aethionema kopet Dagi
  Centaurea kopet Dagensi
  Senecio khorossanicus
  Ophrys transchyrcana
  Ophioglossum vulgatum
  Asplenium adiantum-nigrum

Current Status
During the past two centuries, a lot of the natural forests in this ecoregion have been cleared for firewood and overgrazed by the increasing amount of domestic cattle. This is especially damaging when these activities occur in the upper watersheds causing soil erosion and mud floods in the river valleys, destroying riparian forests habitats. Traditionally, grazing pressure was spread more evenly. However, in recent decades, due to the collective land and farm ownership, it is more concentrated around the rural settlements. Overgrazing in the upper parts of the mountains lands lead to serious destruction of the grasslands and thus to mudflows, disturbing woodlands on the lower slopes. Dry summers of the last years dries out vegetation. Consequently, unusually hot fires destroy unique wild-fruit communities with a very long and difficult regeneration cycles. Turkmenistan is a newly independent state developing its laws of environmental protection. Insufficient protection measures in many cases fail to support natural regeneration and sustainability of forests and control on wild animal populations. Although the existing nature reserves are contributing significantly to the overall protected system of Kopet Dag’s most beautiful and diverse woodlands, they often lack effective management. As a result, the natural environment could be altered irreversibly.

Types and Severity of Threats

•uncontrolled grazing, encroachment on protected land
•insufficient land management practices
•poaching of ungulates and leopards
•habitat destruction, wood is still the primary traditional energy source in rural areas
Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
In Turkmenistan, this ecoregion includes the savannas and open woodlands of the Kopet Dag-Khorosan region (Pereladova et al. 1998). In Iran, the ecoregion corresponds to Juniperus polycarpos steppe-forest remnants adjoining the border with Turkmenistan (Zohary 1973).

Bukreev, S.A, editor. 1999. Territorial aspects of bird protection in Central Asia and Kazakhstan. Moscow.

Germa, V.B., and V.N. Tyrlyshkin. 1990. Kopetdagskii zapovednik. Pages 163-174 in V. E. Sokolov, editor. Zapovedniki of the USSR, Volume 6., Moscow.

Kucheruk, V.V., editor. 1995. Mammals of Turkmenistan. Volume 1. Predators, pinnipeds, ungulates. Ashgabad, Ylym.

Lukarevskii, V.S. 2001. Leopard, striped hyena and wolf in Turkmenistan. Moscow, "Signal".

Nechaeva, N.T., editor. 1985. Vegetation and animal world of Western Kopetdag. Ashgabad, Ylym.

Neshataeva, G.Y. 1985. Classification of the vegetation of South-Western Kopetdag. Pages 24-37 in N.T. Nechaeva, editor. Vegetation and animal world of Western Kopetdag. Ashgabad,

Pereladova, O., V. Krever, and M. Williams. 1998. Biodiversity conservation in Central Asia – Analysis of Modern Situation and Project Portfolio. WWF, Moscow.

Polozov, S.A., O.B. Pereladova. 1990. Sunt-Khasardag zapovednik. Pages 150-162 in In V.E. Sokolov, editor. Zapovedniki of the USSR, Volume 6., Moscow.

Syroechkovskii, E.E. 1990. Zapovedniks of central Asia and Kazakhstan. In V.E. Sokolov editor. Zapovedniki of the USSR, Volume 6., Moscow.

Zabelina, N.I. 1985. New data on the South-Western Kopetdag flora. Pages 38-50 in N. T. Nechaeva, editor. Vegetation and animal world of Western Kopetdag. Ashgabad, Ylym.

Zohary, M. 1973. Geobotanical foundations of the Middle East. Volume1, 2. Gustav Fischer Verlag, Stuttgart, Germany.

Prepared by: Galina N. Fet
Reviewed by: In process