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Ecoregion Description

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Species Richness

# of Endemic Species


631: Upper Amu Darya

Major Habitat Type:

xeric freshwaters and endorheic (closed) basins


Nina Bogutskaya


Afghanistan; Iran; Kyrgyzstan; Tajikistan; Turkmenistan; Uzbekistan


The ecoregion encompasses the basins of the upper Amu Darya tributaries: Pyandzh (Piandj), Surkhandarya, Kafirnigan, Vakhsh, and Kunduz. It also includes the upper Zeravshan (upstream from Pendzhikent), upper Tedzhen (Herirud=Hari Rud=Tejent Deryasy), Murghab rivers (upstream from the Karakumskiy Canal system), and river drainages in northern Afghanistan west from Kunduz (the former tributaries of the Amu Darya that do not presently reach it).

The ecoregion’s northern border (with the Middle Amu Darya ecoregion [630]) runs along the northern spurs of the Badkhyz Hills and the Karabil’ Hills. It next approaches the main course of Amu Darya, where it travels up to the lower reaches of the Panj and Vakhsh rivers. Then, the border runs northwest along the lower reaches of the Vakhsh, Kafirnigan [Kofarnihon], and Surkhandarya [Surkhondaryo] rivers, and then north along the Chakchar Range. The border (with the Central Asian Highlands ecoregion [628]) runs further east along the Turkestanskiy and Alayskiy ranges that divide the Zeravshan and Kyzylsu [Qizilsu] (Vakhsh) headwaters from the Syr Darya [Sirdario] tributaries flowing to the Fergana Valley (in ecoregion 628).

Drainages flowing into:

Aral Sea (closed lake; West Asian endorheic basins)

Main rivers or other water bodies:

The main water bodies include the upper reaches of the Tedzhen [Tedjen=Hari Rud] and Murghab rivers, Amu Darya River, Balkh River; Shirabad [Sherobod] River, Surkhandarya [Surkhondaryo] River, Kunduz River, Kafirnigan River, Vakhsh River, Surkhob River, Kyzylsu [Qizilsu], Karakul Lake; Panj River, Bartang River, Gunt River, Bacchchor River, Obikhingou River, Vanch River, Varzob River, Kokcha River; Pamir River, Vakhdzir [Vakhjir] River, Sarezskoye Lake, and Zeravshan River upstream from Pendzhikent [Panjikent].

The Upper Amu Darya is known as the Vakhan River [Vakhsh], then as the Panj River [Pyandzh] when it receives the Pamir River. In Afghanistan the Panj is called the Amu Darya when it is joined by the Kowkcheh [Kokcha] River. In Tajikistan, however, the name of the Amu Darya begins at the confluence with the Vakhsh. The Qonduz River enters the Amu Darya near its junction with the Vakhsh River. The Murghab River (or Morghab) originates in the western Hindu Kush, flowing west and then north to the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border. The Hari Rud River, which starts in the center of Afghanistan, flows directly west and eventually enters Turkmenistan, where it is called Tedzhen. The Zarafshan River originates at 2750 m asl from a glacier. At its source the river is called Mostchokh-Darya. Further downstream, after taking several tributaries, the name is changed to Zarafshan. For the first 300 km the river flows through Tajikistan and then enters the Zarafshan Valley, which is the border with the the Middle Amu Darya ecoregion [630].


The ecoregion encompasses mostly mountainous areas ranging from 240 m to over 7100 m asl in the Pamir Mountains.

Freshwater habitats:

The majority of tributaries of the Pyandzh River are mountain streams with extremely high flow velocities. The bottoms are usually comprised of boulders or pebbles, although a thin layer of silt occurs in in a few backwaters. In the Pamir and Nurestan areas, melting glaciers feed the rivers in July and August. As freezing temperatures advance, the flow rate greatly diminishes; however, rivers are usually not covered by ice.

Terrestrial Habitats:

The terrestrial habitats of the ecoregion range from desert and semi-desert in the north and west, alpine desert and tundra in the east, open woodlands in the northeast, and mainly xeric woodlands and alpine meadow in the central and southern part of the ecoregion.

Fish Fauna:

The fish fauna includes nearly 30 species from nine families. The fauna is naturally close to that from lower sections of rivers in the Middle Amu Darya ecoregion [631], but it mainly contains inhabitants of mountainous streams. The distribution of near-endemic species such as eastern crested loach (Nemacheilus longicaudus), Turkmenian crested loach (Schistura cristata), and Transcaspian marinka (Schizothorax pelzami) is not well-known; these species may represent inhabitants of only the upper sections of streams.

The fish fauna of the Upper Amu Darya ecoregion is impoverished in comparison with that of the lower parts of the drainage basin. Certain species found in the Upper Amu Darya River are also found in the upper reaches of adjacent drainages. For example, Turkestan catfish (Glyptosternum reticulatum) is also found in the Kabul system and the Tarim basin. Tibetan stone loach (Triplophysa stoliczkai) and Sattar snowtrout (Schizopyge curvifrons) are found in all major drainages of the Pamir Mountain Knot.

Description of endemic fishes:

Leuciscus latus, the only strict endemic species in the ecoregion, is a rheophylic dace that is most closely related to Zeravshan dace (L. lehmanni) in the Zarafshan River. It represents the outernmost member of the Leuciscus genus. It has a limited native distribution, avoiding both stagnant waters and shallow fast-running streams.

Other noteworthy fishes:


Garra rossica (also known as Discognathus rossicus) is found in Tedzhen and the Upper Murghab. It is now known as an aquarium fish, but its native range needs clarification. It is a typical mountainous species with a modified mouth for feeding on periphyton.

 Gobio lepidolaemus nikolskyi is a poorly known gudgeon commonly considered conspecific with G. gobio lepidolaemus. At present, the complex "Gobio gobio" is under revision (papers published and in preparation by Kottelat, Freyhof, Persat, Naseka), and at least 20 species will be described or re-established within the complex.

Schistura sargadensis turcmenicus is known only from its original description from the Murghab River and rivers of the northern slope of Eastern and Central Kopet-dag. It is questionable if it is conspecific with the near-endemic Turkmenian loach (Schistura sargadensis) from Eastern Iran.

Triplophysa stoliczkai uranoscopus is a stone loach known by only its original description from the Upper Amu Darya (Khodzauk). The whole complex "T. stoliczkai" needs taxonomic revision.

Amu-Darya trout (Salmo trutta oxianus) is an endemic subspecies that occurs in the upper reaches of the Amu Darya and in its tributaries, the Kafirnigan and Surkhandarya rivers. In some areas it is quite abundant. Its body length reaches 60 cm and its weight reaches up to 7.5 kg. In lakes and reservoirs it forms semi-anadromous and resident forms, and in rivers there are completely riverine forms. Its spawning migration begins in September; it spawns in rivers in September – October, and in reservoirs in November – December at water temperatures of 9-10 °C.

Kessler’s loach (Schistura kessleri) is a poorly studied species from Iran. It is probably represented in the ecoregion by a distinct subspecies (or species), Schistura kessleri turcomanus. This subspecies is known from only four specimens from the Kushka River.

Balitorids of the ecoregion need further taxonomic studies.

Evolutionary phenomena:

Amu-Darya trout (Salmo trutta oxianus) is the southernmost and easternmost relict subspecies of sea trout (Salmo trutta).

Justification for delineation:

The ecoregion is the high-latitude part of the Amu Darya drainage basin, and displays clear affinities with the Middle Amu Darya [630]. On the generic level, the fauna of this ecoregion is close to the Upper Syr Darya River fauna (in ecoregion 628), but different on the species level. Besides, this ecoregion lacks Petroleuciscus and Cottus.

Level of taxonomic exploration:



Coad, B. W. (1981). "Fishes of Afghanistan, an annotated check-list" 14 Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.

FishBase (2001) "Search FishBase" <>(2001)

Nikol'skiy, G. V. (1938). "Fishes of Tadjikistan" Moscow-Leningrad: AN SSSR.

Salnikov, V. B. (1998). "Translocations of fishes in Turkmenistan" Vopr. Ikhtiol. 38(5) 615-626.

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