General Science

The Animals of Chernobyl

posted: 06/10/16
by: Eileen Marable
Animals After Chernobyl
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Animals After Chernobyl

by Dillon Fernando

Last year, a viral video showed a fox from Chernobyl make a sandwich from cold cuts and bread that a local radio crew fed it. The fox was adorable, and amusing - and seemingly normal. Given the stigma Chernobyl as a nuclear wasteland, it seems odd to see non-deformed life from the area hanging around. How have these ancestors of the accident survived - and in many cases - thrived?

Thirty years after the Chernobyl incident, a study finds that several wildlife populations in the area showed no decrease in abundance. Even more surprising, several animals like elk, roe deer, and wild boar increased in population size with the abundance of wolves notably more than 7 times higher than before Chernobyl. In fact, some are calling Chernobyl an unexpected Eden of flourishing life.

After the 1986 Chernobyl incident in the Ukraine, over 100,000 people were evacuated from the area polluted by the radioactive fallout from the nuclear power plant's destruction. Nevertheless, several children were born with birth defects to women living in areas affected by the wide-reach of the radioactivity. Several animals and plants were noted to have malformed gametes and offspring.

If radiation is typically shown to be harmful to plants, animals, and humans, why did these animals thrive?

A recent study examining the birds of Chernobyl may have the answer: antioxidant levels. Antioxidants are natural substances found in body that prevent or delay certain types of cell damage. Previous experiments suggested that increased radiation exposure would decrease antioxidant levels, thus increasing cell damage. It turns out that even in increased conditions of radiation, some animals were able to adapt and increase their levels of antioxidants, thus preventing large-scale cell damage. Less cell-damage, means fewer mutations in the DNA and gametes, which means fewer abnormal offspring.

The bottom line? This study may be the starting point for research that shows that animals and humans may be able to adapt or grow tolerant to increased amounts of radiation.

While this is research is promising, other experts note that while radiation increases the risk of having abnormalities, it does not mean that all life will be affected by the radiation--it could be a matter of chance. When humans are around, animals simply are shot or lose their habitat and are able to grow as a population due to the evacuation of humans.

After 30 years since Chernobyl, some residents are moving back to the area after half of the major radioactive particle cesium-137 has decomposed. While the causes of animal survival in Chernobyl may be debated, one thing's for sure, there will be plenty of critters to welcome them home.

Want to learn more about wildlife near the Chernobyl accident site? Watch Life After Chernobyl on Science Channel tonight at 10P.

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