Central Asian northern desert

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Southern Kazakhstan. (Photograph by Olga Pereladova via Flickr)

This mosaic of clay, stone, salt and sandy deserts, together with the central Asian southern desert, supports the highest level of biological richness of all Eurasian deserts. The region is populated by middle Asian and north Caucasus species and is closer in nature to the Turanian subtropical realm. The area is dominated by rarefied semi-shrub communities formed by the perennial saltworts (Chenopodiacea) and sagebrushes (Artemisia spp.). Northern Turanian or Kazakhstanian species of plants are the dominant flora. Two prominent small mammals in this ecoregion are jerboa and gerbil. The latter digs deep burrows which become critical for vegetation growth. Rare but still found are the goitered gazelle, marbled polecat, saxaul jay, Asian desert sparrow, and Houbara bustard. Three major reserves continue to function within this ecoregion; however, current social and economic difficulties have caused a sharp decline in funding for conservation efforts.

Location and General Description

The Northern Desert includes the territory of Mangyshlak, the central part of the Ustyurt plateau, and the northern and southern areas near Balkhash Lake. The northern deserts are distinguished the following climatic parameters: total solar radiation 130-140 kilocalories (kkal) per square centimeter (cm2) and the radiating balance - 45-50 kkal./cm2. , sum of temperatures above 10OC is 3000-3400 oC. The mean temperature in January is –10 to -15oC and in July 24 to 26oC.

caption WWF

The precipitation is distributed evenly across seasons with some increase observed in the spring. The quantity of precipitation compounds 100-150 millimeters (mm) per one year (for separate years up to 200mm). The influence of the Asian anticyclone begins to develop in this territory.

The relief of the Northern Desert is varied in form and origin. Low littoral plains near the Caspian Sea, arid denudational plateaus (northern part of Ustyurt and western part of Betpakdala ), stony plains, and melkosopochnik (a highly eroded plateau) (Mangyshlak, eastern part of Betpakdala and northern part near Balkhash Lake) are represented here. There are also sandy deserts (Muyunkum), and sandy regions near the northern part of Aral Sea and near Balkhash Lake. These vast areas are composed of the clay alluvial and alluvial-delta plains found in the lower reaches of the Chu, Ili and Emba rivers.

Perennial saltworts predominate in the Northern deserts. Species that prevail on clay soils of the region include Anabasis salsa, Salsola orientalis, and sagebrushes such as Artemisia terrae albae, A. turanica, and A. gurganica to the west. The plant communities from Salsola arbusculae formis and Nanophyton erinaceum are typical in stony soils. Typical for sandy soils are psammophitic semi-shrubs such as Ceratoides papposa, Artemisia terrae albae, var. massagetovii, A. santolina, and A. songarica, and shrubs such as Calligonum aphyllum, Ephedra lomatolepis and psammophitic grasses (Agropyron fragile).

The spring flora of ephemers and ephemeroids aren’t as richly represented in the northern desert as in the southern deserts, however the colorful tulips (Tulipa greigii, T. albertii) decorate these areas in some years. The halophytic succulent semi-shrubs such as Halimione verrucifera, Kalidium folitum, K. Schrenkianum, anc Halocnemum strobilaceum, and annual saltworts (species of Petrosimonia, Climacoptera, Suaeda) dominate on solonchaks. Spireanthus schrenkianus (relic of Tertiary time) is a rare plant growing in the central area of Betpakdala. It is associated with a specific community of species peculiar to chink ecosystems found in Mangyshlak, Ustyurt Plateau, and Ili depressions.

Biodiversity Features

The most common northern desert mammals are the long-eared hedgehog (Erinaceus auritus), long-quilled hedgehog (Piracohinus hypomelas), and tolai hare (Lepus tolai). Yellow gopher (suslik) is characteristic of the clay desert and feeds on the ephemeral plants. A variety of rodents such as gerbils (Rhombomys, Meriones), and more than ten species of jerboas (Allactaga, Dipus, Paradipus, Eremodipus, Stylodipus) are found here. Both gerbils and jerboas play an important role in the biological functioning of the clay desert. Numerous, deep burrows by the gerbils are critical for vegetation growth. Both form a significant part of the diet of nocturnal predators such as owl, steppe ferret (Mustela eversmanni) and corsac fox (Vulpes corsac). Endemic jerboas include the selevinia (Selevinia betpakdalensis), comb-toed jerboa (Paradipus ctenodactylus), and the three-toed and five-toed dwarf jerboas (Salpingotus heptneri, salpingotus pallidus, Cardiocranius). Also endemic are representatives of several mammalian genera (e.g., Diplomesodon, Spermophilopsis, Pyderethmus, Allactodipus, Eremodipus).

Saiga (Saiga tatarica) were once quite common throughout these deserts, coming here for winter periods. Their population size has been significantly reduced however. The goitered gazelle or djeiran (Gazella subgutturosa subgutturosa) and marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna) are also rare and endangered. First attempts to reintroduce Asiatic wild ass (kulan) (Equus hemionus) were undertaken here in the 1980s. Until only recently, there was a chance that cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) continued to survive in some parts of this ecoregion.

Larger birds of the ecoregion include the houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata), black-bellied and pin-tailed sandgrouse (Pterocles alcata, P. orientalis), cream-colored courser (Cursorius cursor), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetus), short-toed eagle (Circaetus gallicus), steppe eagle, (Aquila rapax), Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), and saker falcon (Falco cherrug). Among the more common bird species are wheatears (Oenanthe isabellina, O. deserti), desert warbler (Sylvia nana), the desert lark (Ammomanes deserti), desert raven (Corvus ruficollis), and desert shrike (Lanius excubitor). Pander’s ground jay or saxaul jay (Podoces panderi) is a rare and unusual member of the crow family. Asian desert sparrow (Passer zarudnyi) is also rare. Houboara bustard is one of the most endangered bird species in this region. It migrates from Saudi Arabia through Iran and Pakistan to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. It is threatened by elite hunters who spend large amounts of money for the opportunity to hunt it.

The list of desert reptiles includes a number of species of toad agamas, namely: Khentau toad agama (Phrynocephalus rossikowi), Molchanov's toad agama (P. moltschanovi), Strauch's toad agama (P. strauchi), spotted toad agama (P. maculatus), Sogdian toad agama (P. sogdianus), Said-Aliev's toad agama (P. helioscopus saidalievi). Other reptiles include gekkos (Alsophylax pipiens, A. laevis), Rustamov's skink gekko (Teratoscincus scincus rustamovi), Chernov's snake-lizard (Ophimorus chernovi), Ferghana sand lizard (Eremias scripta pherganensis), black-eyed lizard (Eremias nigrocellata), gray monitor (Varanus griseus), Afghan lytorhynch (Lytorhynchus ridgewayi), four-lined snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata), and the cobra (Naja naja oxiana). The invertebrate fauna of the sandy deserts is especially rich, represented by species such as grasshoppers, darkling beetles, scarabaeid beetles, butterflies, termites and ants.

Current Status

There are some protected areas in the ecoregion, but there is a serious need to create a transboundary zapovednik between Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan andUzbekistan. Moreover, a very low human population density of Usturt offers an important opportunity for nature conservation.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the current social and economic difficulties, has been a sharp decrease in funding for nature conservation activities. However three major reserves are still functioning. Barsa-Kelmes (Kyzylorda region) reserve was founded in 1939 and is situated on an island of the same name in the Aral sea. Covering 30,000 hectacres (ha) the reserve harbors some 250 species of plants. Protected here are Asiatic wild ass, Persian gazelle (Gazella sulgutturosa), corsac fox and wolf (Canis lupus) and 203 various bird species. The larger territory of the Kaplankyr nature reserve lies at the boundary between the northern and southern deserts. It is situated on the Kaplankyr clay plateau-like upland, the southern spur of the Ustyurt Plateau. Protected here are rare species of animals, including central Asian gazelle (Procapra przewaslkii), Ustuyrt mountain sheep (Ovis ammon cycloceros), and ratel (Mellivora capensis). A large population of saiga antelopes from Northern Kazakhstan migrate to the reserve in the winter. Resident higher plants are the Khiva thistle, Turkmen tulip, Antonia’s gypsophila, Karelin sand acacia, and other 55 other endemic species. Set up in 1984 with a territory of 223,000 ha, Ustyurt reserve (Mangystau region) protects a portion of the chink of the Ustyurt plateau. The reserve protects a wide diversity of floral and faunal species, including 261 plants, 27 mammals, 111 birds, and 27 reptiles. A positive example of ecosystem conservation can be found in Altyn-Emel national park (459,627 ha). This park in the Ily river valley, Kazakhstan was created in 1996 and is based on a 48,000 ha governmental game area. In spite of developed ecotourism and trophy hunting the ungulate populations are growing. For example, the initial reintroduced population of 32 kulans has increased to 80 in 1988 and 500 - 600 in 2000. Also found are approximately 7000 goitered gazelles (about 3000 in 1988), about 4000 Siberian ibexes, and 200 Marko-Polo argali.

Types and Severity of Threats

The main anthropogenic threats are agriculture, especially irrigated cotton and silk production, hunting and poaching, and overuse of woody plants for firewood. Overgrazing of livestock is the main threat in non-irrigated areas. Biodiversity in the deserts of this region is adversely affected by desertification and localalized degradation of soils. Irrigated agriculture in marginal lands has significantly accelerated wind erosion and salinization of soils. The unregulated construction of roads also threatens especially fragile desert ecosystems. Ecological damage due to oil and mineral extraction is likely to increase sharply. Foreign companies are currently seeking opportunities to extract hydrocarbons in the Ustyurt Plateau, an important refuge for endangered large mammals.

The area around the Aral Sea is a notorious ecological disaster. Source water from Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers are diverted for agriculture so that they no longer replenish the Aral. As a result, the sea has shrunk and the water surface is about 1/3 of the previous area. High levels of chemical fertilizer and pesticide use (accumulated due to a long period of cotton monoculture) has rendered the Aral Sea region a health risk for both humans and wildlife. The land areas surrounding of Aral sea, which are now free of water, compose so-called "new deserts" where ecosystems need to be developed. This can be the only way to stop dust and salt dissemination, and wind erosion of the soils. Development of a layer of salt-resistant vegetation and further succession of plant communities can be the only way to create a healthy environment for the local people.

Additional information on this ecoregion

Further Reading

  • Borodin, A. M., editor. 1985. Krasnaya Kniga USSR: Redkie i nokhodyashchiesya pod ygrozoi uschesnoveniya vidy zhivonykh i rastenii. Moscow: Lesnaya Promyshennost.
  • German, V. B., A. L. Zatoka, E. Y. Shubenkina, and V. P.Shubenkin. 1990. Kaplankyr zapovednik. Pages 141-149 in V. E. Sokolov, editor. Zapovedniki of the USSR, Volume 6., Moscow.
  • Ismagilov, M. I., L. A. Kuznetsov, and V. L. Rashek. 1990. Zapovednik barsa-Kelmes. Pages 42-56 in V. E. Sokolov, editor. Zapovedniki of the USSR, Volume 6., Moscow..
  • Kovshar, A. F. 1990. Usturtskii zapovednik. Pages 30-41 in V. E. Sokolov, editor. Zapovedniki of the USSR, Volume 6., Moscow.
  • Krever, V., O. Pereladova, M. Williams, and H. Jungius. 1998. Biodiversity conservation in central Asia: An analysis of biodiversity and current threats and initial investment portfolios. World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), Washington DC.
  • Lavrenko, E. M. 1962. Osnovnye cherty botanicheskoi geographii pustyn Evrasii Severnoi Africi, Moskow-Leningrad Izdatelstvo. Academii Nauk, SSSR.
  • Pereladova, O., V. Krever and M. Williams. 1997. Biodiversity Conservation in Central Asia. Moscow. ISBN: 1559636084
  • Rachkovskaya, E. I. 1995. Kazakhstan semi-deserts and melkosopochnik. Vegetation Map of Kasakhstan and Middle Asia. Scale 1:2 500 000. Komarov Botanic Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Sankt Peterburg.
  • Suslov, S. P. 1961. Physical geography of Asiatic Russia. W. H. Freeman, San Francisco. ISBN: 0199248028
  • Syroechkovskii. E. E. 1990. Zapovedniks of central Asia and Kazakhstan. In V. E. Sokolov, editor. Zapovedniki of the USSR, Volume 6., Moscow. ISBN: 5244004964



Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the World Wildlife Fund. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the World Wildlife Fund should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.





Fund, W. (2014). Central Asian northern desert. Retrieved from


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