Chernobyl Wildlife

From a BBC Article:

A recent (2007) paper published in the American Scientist magazine suggested that plants and animals were better off in the exclusion zone than specimens outside the 30km radius surrounding the site of the destroyed nuclear reactor.

Przewalski's horse (Image: Sergey Gaschak)

One of the paper's co-authors, Robert Baker from the Texas Tech University, said that the benefits for wildlife from the lack of human activity outweighed the risks of low-level radiation.

Writing on his university web page, Professor Baker said: "The elimination of human activities such as farming, ranching, hunting and logging are the greatest benefits.

"It can be said that the world's worst nuclear power plant disaster is not as destructive to wildlife populations as are normal human activities."

Despite Mutations, Chernobyl Wildlife Is Thriving

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
April 26, 2006

Twenty years ago today, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. The blast covered vast areas of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia (see map) with dangerous radioactive material.

The effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe are still being felt today—whole towns lie abandoned, and cancer rates in people living close to the affected areas are abnormally high.

But it turns out that the radioactive cloud may have a silver lining. Recent studies suggest that the 19-mile (30-kilometer) "exclusion zone" set up around the reactor has turned into a wildlife haven.

Roe deer bounce though the deserted houses while bats roost in the rafters (related photos: inside today's Chernobyl).

Plants and trees have sprung back to life, and rare species, such as lynx, Przewalski's horses, and eagle owls, are thriving where most humans fear to tread.

From Red to Green

The situation is a far cry from the way things looked just after the accident. Initially many animals died from the huge doses of radiation they received.

The red color of withered pine needles earned one large area near the reactor the name Red Forest.

"Now it is not the Red Forest but a real green forest, due to [growing] birch trees," said Sergey Gaschak from the International Radioecology Laboratory in Kiev, Ukraine.

And in the towns where humans have moved out, plants and animals seem to have moved in.

"Wild boar like to live in former villages, and I have found many birds' nests in the buildings," Gaschak said.

Even the site of the explosion seems to be bursting with life.

"I met a hare in the sarcophagus area, and birds nest there," said Gaschak, referring to the concrete and steel shell that encases the still smoldering reactor.

But while wildlife seems to be proliferating in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, not everyone is convinced that these plants and animals are healthy.

Moller and Mousseau have shown that certain species in the area have a higher rate of genetic abnormalities than normal.

Anders Moller from the University of Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, France, and Tim Mousseau from the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia have been studying Chernobyl's bird populations. Mousseau is a National Geographic Society grantee. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

"We find an elevated frequency of partial albinism in barn swallows, meaning they have tufts of white feathers," Mousseau said.

Late last year Moller and Mousseau published a paper in the Journal of Animal Ecologyshowing that reproductive rates and annual survival rates are much lower in the Chernobyl birds than in control populations.

"In Italy around 40 percent of the barn swallows return each year, whereas the annual survival rate is 15 percent or less for Chernobyl," Mousseau said.

Moller and Mousseau think that migratory species, such as the barn swallow, are particularly vulnerable to radioactive contaminants, because they arrive in the area exhausted and with depleted reserves of protective antioxidants due to their arduous journey.

The scientists are also concerned that the mutated birds will pass on their abnormal genes to the global population.

"In the worst case scenario these genetic mutations will spread out, and the species as a whole may experience enhanced levels of mutation," Mousseau said.

"Great Irony"

Mutation isn't the only adverse effect of the radiation. Working in the Red Forest area, James Morris, a USC biologist, has observed some trees with very strange twisted shapes.

The radiation, he says, is confusing the hormone signal that the trees use to determine which direction to grow.

"These trees are having a terrible time knowing which way is up," Morris said.

Gaschak, the Kiev ecologist, believes such radiation effects will diminish over time. He is celebrating the way that Chernobyl has burst into life and hopes that the area will become a national park one day.

But Mousseau is less optimistic. "One of the great ironies of this particular tragedy is that many animals are doing considerably better than when the humans were there," he said.

"But it would be a mistake to conclude they are doing better than in a control area. We just don't know what is normal [for Chernobyl]. There just haven't been enough scientific studies done."

Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).

Video: Chernobyl, Life in the Dead Zone

Wildlife finds a way to thrive in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Related Stories

WIKIPEDIA:  Chernobyl after the disaster 

NATURENEWS:  CDoubts over Chernobyl wildlife recovery 27 November 2007