Amin Eimanifar1 and Feridon Mohebbi2
1Iranian Artemia Research Center, P.O. Box: 57135-1367, Urmia, Iran
2Iranian Artemia Research Center, P.O. Box: 57135-368, Urmia, Iran
Saline Systems 2007, 3:5doi:10.1186/1746-1448-3-5Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License.
Lake Urmia (or Ormiyeh) is one of the largest hypersaline lakes in the world and the habitat of a unique bisexual Artemia species (A. urmiana). Despite this, and several other values of the lake, little literature on it has been published. The present paper is an attempt to provide a brief review on various aspects of the lake. Urmia Lake, located in northwestern Iran, is an oligotrophic lake of thalassohaline origin with a total surface area between 4750 and 6100 km2 and a maximum depth of 16 m at an altitude of 1250 m. The lake is divided into north and south parts separated by a causeway in which a 1500-m gap provides little exchange of water between the two parts. Due to drought and increased demands for agricultural water in the lake's basin, the salinity of the lake has risen to more than 300 g/L during recent years, and large areas of the lake bed have been desiccated. Therefore, management and conservation of this incomparable ecosystem should be considered to improve the current condition by fisheries research institutes.
Lake Urmia (or Orumiyeh), is one of the largest permanent hypersaline lakes in the world and resembles the Great Salt Lake in the western USA in many respects of morphology, chemistry and sediments . Despite this, and its several values, including conservation, little literature has been published on the lake and its biota
[2-7]. The aim of the present paper is to provide a brief review based on previous and recent literature on various aspects of Urmia Lake with particular emphasis on conservation and management. Although we cannot provide an all inclusive coverage here, we hope that it will be sufficient to introduce this remarkable lake to the general reader.
Urmia lake can be characterized as oligotrophic in terms of phytoplankton production in the range of 0.5–0.8 μg/l , with lower values compared to Great Salt Lake (0.5–3.5 μg/l) . The predominance of the Na+ and Cl- ions illustrates the thalassohaline character of Urmia lake . Therefore, Urmia Lake is an oligotrophic lake of thalassohaline origin  located in northwestern Iran at an altitude of 1250 m above sea level . The total surface area ranges between 4750 km2 and 6100 km2  depending on evaporation and water influx. The catchment area of the lake contains 21 permanent and ephemeral streams together with 39 episodic rivers, flowing through agricultural, urban and/or industrial areas that drain into this terminal lake, mostly without waste water treatment . The maximum length and width of the lake are 128–140 km and 50 km, respectively [11,13]. The average and maximum depths are 6 m and 16 m, respectively . The lake is divided into north and south parts separated by a causeway , which has a gap that allows for a limited exchange of water between the two arms .
Considering the role of Artemia in Urmia Lake, the Iranian Fisheries Research Organization (IFRO) established the Artemia Research Center in Urmia in 2000. On the basis of the vital role of Artemia as a live food in aquaculture, this center operates through various departments including Hydrochemistry, Stock Assessment, Culturing of Artemia and Algae species, Aquatic Diseases Hygiene. Researches about various aspects of Artemia in Urmia Lake are important research activities carried out at this center that has been nominated by FAO (Food Agriculture Organization) as a reference center for Artemia in central and west Asia. In addition, the Artemia & Aquatic Animals Research Center at Urmia University conducts various research projects on Artemia in collaboration with IFRO (Iranian Fisheries Research Organization). The IFRO Artemia Research Center seeks to achieve useful results in both basic and applied research on Artemia as a live-food organism for aquaculture.
The total catchment area of the lake is about 51,876 Km2 which is 3.15 % of that of the entire country, and includes 7 % of the total surface water in Iran . There are thirteen main rivers in the lake basin, among them Zarrineh rood, the largest with a total annual discharge value of about 2×109 m3 [12,17]. Climate in the Urmia Lake basin is harsh and continental, affected mainly by the mountains surrounding the lake [12,1]. Considerable seasonal fluctuations in air temperature occur in this semi arid climate with an annual average precipitation of between 200 and 300 mm [18,25].
The air temperature usually ranges between 0 and -20°C in winter, and up to 40°C in summer . From this point of view, Urmia Lake is a critical asset for the region, because it acts to moderate these extremes . Annual inflow into the lake is 6900×106 m3, of which 4900×106 m3 is from rivers, 500×106 m3 from flood water (through rainfall) and 1500×106 m3 from precipitation [7,26]. Underground springs are also a source of water, but the volume is not known .
Morphometric characteristics of Urmia Lake are among those features that have been reported variously by different authors [12,1,17]. In general, Urmia Lake has been shrinking for a long time, so its depth has decreased significantly during recent years. Due to 10 years of progressive dry climate in the area, the water level is 3 meters less than it was 20 years ago , a dramatic change. Little is known about historical lake-level variations because direct measurements have been sparse. Urmia lake had an increased level (2 m) in the winter 1968/1969 but the variations reached to an amount of 1284 m in 1977, with annual fluctuations of about 1 m (Fig. 1). There is a few data to show present lake-level variations, but the lake is recovering from a different water resources resulting from favorable climatic condition in 2007. Therefore, Urmia lake level reached to an amount of 1273 m and 25 cm, which was reported by West Azarbaijan (Urmia) Environment Organization.
However, highs and lows estimated from the odd casting-line measurement, or historical account [29-31] suggest an uncanny parallel with historical levels in the Great Salt Lake (Fig. 1) . The water level of Great Salt Lake went down from 1999 to about 2003 due to less precipitation and increased from 2005 to the present because of a couple of higher precipitation years.
However, at present, the Great Salt Lake is not continuing its upward climb. The graph showed that Great Salt Lake elevation declined from 1992 to 1997 and then began an upward climb to 1999 (Fig. 2). The measurement of the level changes in Urmia lake by satellite showed an increase from 1992 to 1995 and decline from 1995 through 2003 (U.S. Geological Survey). A concomitant increase salinity (220–300 g/l) was observed during the years of declining elevation . For the 2003–2004 period, favorable climatic changes lead to an increase in the elevation , but it has been declining since that time (U.S. Geological Survey). Aleshikh et al.  mapped the coastline changes for Urmia Lake using an innovative TM (Satellite imagery made up of 7 bands, with bands 1–5 and 7 being visible and near IR, and band 6 being thermal IR. The visible and near IR bands all have 30 m pixel size, with the thermal IR band having a pixel size of 120 m) and ETM+imagery (Satellite imagery is made up of 8 bands, with bands 1–5 and 7 being visible and near IR, band 6 being thermal IR, and band 8 being panchromatic. The visible and near IR bands all have 30 m pixel size, the thermal IR band has a pixel size of 60 m, and the panchromatic band has a pixel size of 15 m) method in 1989, 1998 and 2001. They concluded that the lake's small variations (0.2 m) from Jun-1989 to Aug-1998 are permanent, but that the great decrease in water depth from 1998 to 2001 (3 m), was not related to these permanent fluctuations, but to the lake's hydrologic budgets.
The first description of Artemia was carried out in Lymington (England) by Schlosser in 1755 . Since then, Artemia has been reported from very many sites around the world. The latest study on Artemia biogeography has been published by , who reported 598 sites, spread over the five continents. Although, the presence of Artemia in Urmia Lake was first reported over a century ago , a long period elapsed before this population was characterized . Günther  described brine shrimp from Urmia Lake as a unique bisexual species, a characteristic confirmed by . These researchers demonstrated the reproductive isolation of the species from other bisexual strains and assigned the binomen Artemia urmiana. However,  and , based on cytogenetics and repetitive DNA and heterochromatin analysis, reported that the Urmia Lake population was exclusively parthenogenetic. As a result, Barigozzi and Baratelli  proposed to cancel the binomen Artemia urmiana. At the same time, Takami  reported the co-occurrence of both bisexual and parthenogenetic Artemia in Urmia Lake. Subsequent studies by Browne and Bowen  suggested that both sexual and asexual populations exist in Urmia Lake. According to the most recent studies  parthenogenetic populations are found at restricted coastal areas of Urmia Lake, which supports the earlier findings of Agh  and suggestions made by Sorgeloos .
A variety of hypersaline environments exist in Iran with the potential existence of Artemia in those regions. However, little research has been carried out on the characteristics of these Artemia populations. Various authors [59-61] have reported the occurrence of Artemia in other regions of Iran. Most recently, Abazopoulos et al.  investigated Artemia sites and populations around Iran and showed that Artemia is present at 17 different locations, all of these populations being parthenognetic, except for Artemia urmiana in Lake Urmia. Biometrical and biochemical analyses have been performed on cysts and stage-I nauplii hatched from cysts collected from seven sites in Urmia Lake by Abazopoulos et al. . They carried out buoyancy tests and performed transmission electron microscopy on both Artemia urmiana (Iran) and Artemia franciscana (USA) cysts.
Some contradictions have appeared in the literature concerning the phytoplankton populations of Urmia Lake. For example, Enteromorpha intestinalis, a macroscopic green alga, was reported by  to occur at one sampling site. In years when salt concentrations remain low, Enteromorpha becomes so abundant that the whole lake takes on the appearance of a thin vegetable soup.
On the other hand, various authors have reported relatively different phytoplankton populations from different sampling sites of the lake. For example, Ryahi et al.  observed 6 cyanophyta (Anabaena sp.; Anacystis sp.; Chrococcus sp.; Lyngbya sp.; Oscillatoria sp. and Synechocuus sp.), 4 Chlorophyta (Ankistrodesmus sp.; Dunaliella sp.; Monostroma sp. and Pandorina sp.), 2 bascillariophyta (Amphora sp. and Navicula sp.). Mohebbi et al.  reported 3 cyanophyta (Anabaena sp.; Oscillatoria sp. and Synechoccus sp.), 2 Chlorophyta (Dunaliella sp. and Ankistrodesmus sp.), 11 bascillariophyta (Navicula sp.; Nitzschia sp.; Cyclotella sp.; Symbella sp.; Synedra sp.; Pinnullaria sp.; Diatoma sp.; Amphiprora sp.; Surirrela sp.; Cymatopleura sp. and Gyrosigma sp.), during monthly samplings over an entire year. These variations may be related to limited and irregular sampling, or increased salinity of the lake during recent years that has eliminated some non- tolerant species. Further work is clearly needed to resolve these matters.
Quantitative analysis of chlorophylls, and algal density, indicated that primary production in Urmia Lake is lower than that of its sister Great Salt Lake  and that Dunaliella is the dominant phytoplankton (more than 95 % of the total phytoplankton in number) of Urmia Lake [69,6]. Microalgae species composition of Urmia lake is roughly similar to the phytoplankton in Great Salt lake, that consists predominantly of Dunaliella, with an important fraction of diatoms like Navicula and Nitzschia .
Only relatively recently have the true value of wetlands been recognized . There are a few wetlands which are located around the south part of Urmia lake namely, Kani Berazan, Hasanloo, Soldoz, Dorgeh Sangi, Goppi Baba Ali. In general, wetlands functions such as flood and storms control are the result of the interaction between their physical, chemical and biological compartments. The wetlands have considerable roles in production of natural resources which in turn will develop agricultural and industrial activities. The wetlands considered as suitable place for living aquatic organisms, and avian faunae therefore, accounted as incomparable ecosystems. Social and cultural importance in absorbing tourists will be other impact of wetlands . The marshes have typical saltmarsh plant communities with Juncus, some Phragmites reed-beds at river mouths, and some Tamarix stands. During past decades, the salinity of many large and permanent salt lakes has risen due to human activities [71,72], and several have dried completely. These examples include Owens Lake in California , and Winnemucca Lake in Nevada . In almost all cases, the reason for this desiccation is the diversion of inflowing rivers to meet agricultural and other human needs.
Urmia Lake with its endemic Artemia species and its large area (one of the largest natural habitats of Artemia in the world) has been proposed by UNESCO to become a national park  owing to its unique features and the recognition that it is an important natural asset, with considerable cultural, economic, aesthetic, recreational, scientific, conservation and ecological value. The lake is extremely important for breeding Pelecanus onocrotalus, Egretta garzetta, Plegadis falcinellus, Platalea leucorodia, Phoenicopterus ruber, Tadorna ferruginea, Tadorna tadorna, Himantopus himantopus, Recurvirostra avosetta, Tringa totanus, Larus cachinnans armenicus and Larus genei. Other breeding birds include several pairs of Anser anser, Marmaronetta angustirostris and Aythya nyroca. Charadrius leschenaultii has been recorded during the summer months and may breed on the saline flats around the lake. Flamingos are known to breed in large numbers at lake Orumiyeh, and numbers still appear to be increasing slightly, with perhaps as many as 25,000 breeding pairs in recent years. Towards the end of the breeding season, the adults congregate in huge rafts to moult. The vast mudflats surrounding the lake are the most important autumn staging area for migratory shorebirds and garganey Anas querquedula in Iran. The lake appears to be an important moulting area for common shelduck Tadorna tadorna.
The lake is marked by more than one hundred small rocky islands, which are stopover points in the migration of various waterfowl (including flamingos, pelicans, spoonbills, ibises, storks, shelducks, avocets, stilts and gulls) . Stands of pistachio Pistacia atlantica woodland survive on the larger islands, notably on Ashk and Kabudan. Other conspicuous plants on those islands are buckthorn Rhamnus sp., species of wormwood Artemisia, Dianthus and grasses Hordeum and Bromus. The islands in Lake Urmia are the only known breeding site for lanner Falco biarmicus in Iran (at least five pairs), and also provide nesting sites for at least ten pairs of Neophron percnopterus. Falco cherrug, Gyps fulvus, Aegypius monachus and Falco peregrinus have been recorded during the summer months as visitors from the surrounding hills; and Haliaeetus albicilla and Falco columbarius occur in winter. A population of about 25 great bustards Otis tarda frequents the area, and breeds there (at least 4 pairs). Wild sheep Ovis ammon were introduced on Kabudan Island in the 19th century, while Mesopotamian fallow deer Dama dama mesopotamica were introduced on Ashk in the 1970s.
But the salinity of Urmia Lake has increased dramatically to more than 300 g/l during recent years, and that has greatly influenced almost all aspects of the lake.
Population genetic studies which carried out by Eimanifar  showed that the south area caused most differentiated populations and the south and median areas of lake have relatively high genotypes (composite haplotypes) distribution as compared to north area.
The possible causes of rising salinity are likely to be surface flow diversions, groundwater extractions and unsuitable climate condition. About 4.4 million people live in the Urmia Lake basin, whose irrigation economy is strongly dependent on existing surface and groundwater resources in the area . Accordingly, human population growth in the lake's basin has seriously increased the need for agricultural and potable water in recent years, all of which are supplied from surface and groundwater sources in the area.
These matters, together with poor weather conditions, have reduced significantly the volume of water entering the lake so that, at present, Urmia Lake has shrunk significantly and large areas of the former lake bed have been exposed. Diverting potential rivers such as Zab with high inflowing capability (mean water discharge = 44.52 m3/sec)  maybe useful for recovery of Urmia lake. Without such intervention, significant alterations in the biota of the lake will likely continue, and agricultural production may be dramatically and negatively impacted, including the unique Urmia Lake Artemia. It is important that conditions be maintained that enable this species to complete its reproductive cycle and thereby conserve this genetic resource. Attention must be given to the nature of threats and impact of human activities. An awareness and better understanding of the lake by the surrounding human population will provide a foundation for future sustainable management of this remarkable inland lake.
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Water-level fluctuation curve for the Great Salt Lake (lower) compared
with water-level information from Lake Urmia (upper data points) based
partly on relative, historical observations. Note the sudden rise of
190 cm in Lake Urmia in spring 1969 resulting from the rapid surface
runoff from exceptionally heavy winter snows.
(Click image to enlarge)
Annual variation of the surface elevation of south arm of Great Salt
Lake, Utah (1992–2007). (Hydrograph from U.S. Geological Survey).
(Click image to enlarge)