DIVERSITY & ENDEMISM
The flora of the Mountains of Central Asia is a mix of Boreal, Siberian, Mongolian, Indo-Himalayan and Iranian elements. There are more than 5,500 known species of vascular plants in the hotspot, about 1,500 of which are endemic. There are also 64 endemic genera, including 21 from the family Umbelliferae and 12 from the family Compositae. The endemic flora includes several tree species, grasses (such as Atraphaxis muschketovii and Stipa karatavica), and numerous herbs. There are many species of wild onion, including Allium pskemense, a very rare large onion found only in a small part of the Pskem Range of the Western Tien Shan.
A type of walnut-fruit forest unique to Central Asia can be found above the steppe zone in warm sheltered coves in the western Pamir-Alai and Tien Shan. The fruit and nut trees in these diverse forests include walnut (Juglans regia), almonds (Amygdalus communis and A. bucharensis), pears (Pyrus korshinskyi and P. regelii), plums (Prunus sogdiana and P. ferganica), and cherry (Cerasus mahaleb), along with maples (Acer turkestanicum and A. semenovii) and a few Chinese walnuts (Juglans cathayana) that survive in one location in the eastern Tien Shan. This ancient forest type contains ancestors of domestic fruit varieties and is an important storehouse of wild genetic diversity. About 90 percent of this habitat has been lost in the last 50 years.
More than 16 endemic species of tulip grow in the steppe and meadow zones of the Mountains of Central Asia. The largest of these is the rare, brilliant orange-red Greig's tulip (Tulipa greigii), often known as the king of the tulips, which is only found in western Tien Shan. Collecting for horticulture and decoration has led to the decline of many of the hotspot's tulip species.
Although nearly 500 bird species occur regularly in this hotspot, none are endemic to the region. Many species belong to genera typical of the high ranges of Asia, such as redstarts (Phoenicurus), accentors (Prunella) and rosefinches (Carpodacus). Coniferous forests on the northern side of the Tien Shan form the southern limits of several boreal species, including the black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) and northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula), while desert birds, including the great bustard (Otis tarda, VU) and houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulate, VU) occur in the low-altitude zones.
The Mountains of Central Asia are an important stronghold for birds of prey, with important breeding populations of several species, including the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), the imperial eagle (A. heliaca, VU), steppe eagle (A. rapax), booted eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus), lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), black vulture (Aegypius monachus), Eurasian griffon (Gyps fulvus), Himalayan griffon (G. himalayensis), peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) and saker falcon (F. cherrug, EN).
Six of the 140-odd mammals found in the hotspot are endemic: Menzibier's marmot (Marmota menzbieri, VU), found only in the western Tien Shan above 2,000 meters, and Ili pika (Ochotona iliensis, VU), a small species of lagomorph found only in the Chinese portion of the Tien Shan; two susliks or ground squirrels (Spermophilus ralli and S. relictus); the Pamir shrew (Sorex bucharensis); and the Alai mole vole (Ellobius alaicus, EN), which is known only from the Alai Mountains in southern Kyrgyzstan.
The hotspot also holds a variety of mountain ungulates, including three endemic subspecies of the argali wild sheep (Ovis ammon, VU), among them the Marco Polo sheep (O. a. polii), whose magnificent curling horns have made it a favored target of trophy hunters. The Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) is the most numerous and most widespread species, occurring in all parts of the area above the treeline, while the blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), a typical Tibetan and Trans-Himalayan species, reaches the southeast corner of the hotspot.
The Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica, CR), a species associated with the flat plains of central Asia, inhabits the lower elevations of this hotspot. The antelope has experienced a dramatic decline since the 1970s due to habitat destruction and hunting.
Because of their location in the central part of the Asian continent, the Mountains of Central Asia play an important connecting role in the distribution of many important montane Asian species. Perhaps the best-known symbol of this fauna is the snow leopard (Uncia uncia, EN), a species found in the alpine and subalpine zones of the hotspot. The species has declined here, as elsewhere, as a result of poaching for its valued fur and a depletion of its prey base through illegal hunting.
Nearly 60 reptiles are found in the hotspot, though only one is endemic, a skink, Asymblepharus alaicus. Diversity is highest in the lower altitudes, in desert and semi-desert areas. There are ten species of Eremias lizards and eight toad-headed agamas (Phrynocephalus spp.).
Although only seven species of amphibians have been recorded, four of them are endemic, including a salamander (Ranodon sibiricus, EN) found only in the Dzhungarian Alatau Range at the northern end of the Tien Shan. One recently described species, the frog (Rana terentievi) is known only from southern Tajikistan, though they may also occur in adjacent parts of Afghanistan.
This arid hotspot has less than 30 freshwater fish species, five of which are endemic. Endemism is centered in the Lake Issyk-Kul Basin of Kyrgyzstan, which lacks outlets to connect it with any other bodies of water. In addition, the Kugitang blind cave fish (Troglocobitis starostini) is found only in a small area of the Kugitang Mountains at the southwestern end of the hotspot.
Although a full inventory of invertebrates for the hotspot is lacking, there is a rich insect diversity in the alpine meadows. Eleven of 26 species of apollo butterflies known to occur in this hotspot are endemic. There are also 87 endemic mollusks, including the Kokand freshwater clam (Colletopterum kokandicum), which is restricted to one lake in the Fergana Valley.