Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 25, Issue 12, pp 2197–2231 | Cite as

The Palaearctic steppe biome: a new synthesis

  • Karsten WescheEmail author
  • Didem Ambarlı
  • Johannes Kamp
  • Peter Török
  • Jan Treiber
  • Jürgen Dengler
Original Paper


The Palaearctic steppes range from the Mediterranean basin towards China, forming one of the largest continuous terrestrial biomes. The literature on steppe ecology and conservation is vast but scattered and often not available in English. We provide a review of some key topics based on a new definition of steppes, which includes also Mediterranean steppes and alpine rangelands of the Asian Highlands. Revisiting the terrestrial ecoregions of the world, we estimate that the Palaearctic steppe biome extends over ca. 10.5 million km2. Major chorological regions differ in their macroclimatic niche with a clear distinction between Middle Asia with its winter precipitation and the Central Asian summer-rain regions of the Mongolian plateau and of Tibet. Steppe soils store large amounts of carbon, yet the sequestration potential is debated and depends on land use. Major physiognomic-ecological steppe types include forest-, typical-, desert-, and alpine-steppe, which vary in the importance of grasses, mainly C3 species. The steppes host a specialised fauna, and Middle Asia, Tibet, and especially Mongolia, have large herds of migrating ungulates. The share of pristine and protected sites is low in the steppe regions, with conversion into croplands being the most important land use impact in Europe, Middle Asia, and the Mediterranean, while grazing has a severe impact in some parts of Mongolia and Tibet. There are major gaps in our knowledge on: (1) the effects of climate change on the crucial seasonal patterns; (2) the role of steppe soils in the global carbon budget; and (3) the ecology and distribution of most animal groups except vertebrates.


Biogeography Climate change Grazing Palaearctic Protected area Steppe biome 



Years before present

cal BP

Calibrated years before present


Range between quartiles

Sensu lato (in the wide sense)


Sensu stricto (in the narrow sense)


Terrestrial ecoregions of the world (Olson et al. 2001)



Our sincere thanks go to David Hawksworth for giving us the opportunity to put together an exciting special issue and for his patience during the process. He also provided very helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. We thank Aiko Huckauf for polishing our English and Milan Chytrý, Olga Demina, Wanja Mathar, Alireza Naqinezhad, Jens Oldeland, Mustafa Sözen and Yun Wang for providing photos. K.W. extends special thanks to Tatiana Bragina and Ilya Smelyanski from the IUCN Specialist Group on Holarctic steppes; his work feeding into this paper was partly financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG), by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF: CAME-PaDeMoS and GLUES-Kulunda initiatives) and by the International Fund for Agricultural Development. J.K. was funded by the BMBF within their Sustainable Land Management funding framework (Project SASCHA, funding reference 01LL0906A) and by the Volkswagen Foundation (funding reference A112025).

Authors contribution

This synthesis was coordinated by K.W. and J.D., with K.W. drafting the majority of sections and preparing the maps together with J.T, while J.D. contributed the sections on steppe definition and subdivision. Regional aspects were mainly contributed by P.T. and J.D. for the European region, J.K. for the Middle Asian region, K.W. and J.T. for the Mongolian and Tibetan regions and D.A. and J.D. for the Mediterranean region. All authors critically revised the whole manuscript.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Senckenberg Museum of Natural History GörlitzGörlitzGermany
  2. 2.Plant Ecology, Bayreuth Center of Ecology and Environmental Research (BayCEER)University of BayreuthBayreuthGermany
  3. 3.Faculty of Agriculture and Natural SciencesDüzce UniversityDüzceTurkey
  4. 4.Institute of Landscape EcologyUniversity of MünsterMünsterGermany
  5. 5.MTA-DE Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Research GroupDebrecenHungary
  6. 6.German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-LeipzigLeipzigGermany

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