Location and General Description
Seventy percent of the ecoregion is in Azerbaijan, with the rest in southeast Georgia and northwest Iran. Aridity, long hot summers, and mild short winters characterize the climate. It is the driest region in the Caucasus. It’s average annual precipitation is 300-400 mm, and the average annual temperature is12-140 C. The elevation varies from 27 m (Caspian shoreline area) to 900 m a.s.l. The diversity of natural complexes has led to the development of three main primary zonal landscape types/ecosystems: desert and semi-desert, arid open woodland and steppe. In addition, there are two intra-zonal/azonal types: flood plain (riparian) forest along the rivers and wetlands.
The main types of desert communities are: wormwood deserts (Artemisia lerchiana) with ephemeroids (Poa bulbosa, Catabrosella humilis, etc.); Salsola nodulosa- and S. ericoides-deserts; halophytic Salsola denroides-deserts (both with ephemeroids and Artemisia lerchiana) and halophytic wormwood deserts (Artemisia szowitziana) with therophytes, such as Petrosimonia, Climacopters, Salicornia, Gamanthus species (Map of Natural Vegetation of Europe, 2000).
An interesting steppe type is the relatively tall (1 m) forb grassland, similar to the true prairie of North America. Botriochloa (=Andropogon) ischaemum is the dominant vegetation type in this stand. There are also several Stipa ("feather grass") species characteristic of Ukraine and Central Asian steppes as well. Paliurus spina-christi shrubs creates a characteristic community in the steppe areas.
The other important landscape type is located in open woodlands on foothills and slopes of low mountains in the driest parts of the region. Three Juniperus species plus deciduous Pistacia muticae are the principle structural elements. Spiny (Paliurus spina-christi) is a major understory shrub, as are Jasminum fruticans, Berberis iberica, Rhamnus pallasii, Cerasus spp., etc.
Dominants of flood plain forests are the relic Quercus pedunculiflora, as well as Populus nigra and P. hybrida. Characteristic species are Ulmus carpinifolia, Salix excelsa, Tilia caucasica with Tamarix ramosissima and others in the understory. Wild boar, gray wolf, roe deer, Caucasian red deer (10-12 individuals in Gardabani Sanctuary in Georgia) and some other species of large mammals, as well as different species of birds occur in the remnants of this forest type.
The ecoregion contains one of the highest numbers of endemic and endangered species in the Caucasus. The diversity of fauna is especially remarkable. There are about 4,000 plant and 15,000 animal species in the area, among which an estimated 300 species of flora are endemic to the Caucasus (Azerbaijan 1998, Georgia 2000).
The region offers species typical to arid ecosystems such as striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), Persian gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), Caucasian hamster (Mesocricetus brandti), and also atypical species for these ecosystems such as lynx ( Lynx lynx). Other resident mammals here are wild boar, brown bear, gray wolf, badger, stone marten, jackal, and European wild cat.
The region is also notable for its reptile diversity. Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo graeca), Lebetine viper (Vipera lebetina), Western boa (Eryx jaculus), and Dahl's Whip Snake (Coluber najadum) inhabit the region. Testudo graeca and Vipera lebetina are listed in the Red Books of the Caucasus countries.
Examples of characteristic avifauna are partridge (Alectoris kakelik), griffon (Gyps fulvus), black vulture (Aegypius monachus) white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), and black stork ( Ciconia nigra). Thousands of little bustards winter in lowlands. The region harbors important populations of southern European waterfowl. Some, such as white-headed duck, ferruginous duck and marbled teal, have quit restricted distributions. During migration and wintering periods, the importance of the region’s shoreline and wetlands is heightened. In addition to the year-round species, a large numbers of wildfowl species, including the three mentioned above, and lesser white-fronted goose, a globally declining species, can be found.
In Azerbaijan, an estimated 1.2 million hectares are currently affected by steep salinity (due to excessive and long-term use of agro-chemicals), and almost 3 million hectares are damaged by overgrazing and uncontrolled logging (Azerbaijan 1998). Flood plain forests and pistachio-juniper woodlands remain on only 5-7% of their original range. Stripped hyena has become a critically endangered species in the region. The only viable population of gazelle (up to 3,500 individuals) is in Shirvan Nature Reserve (Kuliev, 1990).
Types and Severity of Threats
Unsustainable agricultural practices constitute the primary threats for this ecoregion. Numerous species have been severely affected by overhunting for sport. Around 60 species of animals are listed by IUCN (1994), and 140 species vascular plants and 11 species of animals are listed by Azerbaijanian Red Data Book (1985).
Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion is located in the west bank of the Caspian Sea, between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges. Ecoregion boundaries correspond to the northern desert in the Caucasus-Asia Minor vegetation province in Kurnaev’s (1990) forest map of the USSR. A small part of the ecoregion falls south of the Azerbaidjan-Iran border and is classified as a mosaics of Anatolian Aremisisietea fragrantis armeniaca and Sub-Euxenian oak forest remnants in Zohary (1973).
Azerbaijan 1998. National Environmental Action Plan. State Committee on Ecology of
Azerbaijan Republic, Baku.
Georgia 2000. Biodiversity strategy and action plan. The Ministry of Environment of Georgia, Tbilisi.
Kuliev, S.M. 2000. Artiodactyla. Animal world of Azerbaijan, vol. 3, pp. 593-616. Publishing House "Elm", Baku.
Kurnaev, S. 1990. Forest regionalization of the USSR (1:16,000,000) Moscow: Dept. of Geodesy and Cartography
Map of Natural Vegetation of Europe, vol. 2 – Legend, compiled and revised by Bohn, U., Gollub, G., Hettwer C. 2000. Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, Bonn-Bad Godesberg, printed by LV Druck im Landwirtschaftsverlag GmbH, Münster-Hiltrup.
Zohary, M. 1973. Geobotanical foundations of the Middle East, volume1,2. Gustav Fischer Verlag, Stuttgart.
Prepared by: Ramaz Gokhelashvili
Reviewed by: Nugzar Zazanashvili