Surviving in the Zone: The Genetic Changes in Chernobyl Wildlife

After the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, a large exclusion zone was created to keep people away from the radiation. Many people were exposed to radiation that caused mutations in their DNA. Studies since then have shown that people exposed to the radiation didn’t pass on their mutations to their children. While everyone was evacuated away from the area, many animals remained, and now, genetic analysis on these animals reveals new information.  

In the beginning, the immediate impact of the radiation on the animals was devastating. Many animals died from the high levels of radiation or suffered from radiation sickness. However, as time went on, we have seen wildlife return to the area and even begin to thrive in an environment without humans. By analyzing and studying the animals, scientists can get insight on how radiation can affect living organisms. 

One species that remained in the radiation zone and continued to breed and live there are Chernobyl’s semi-feral dogs. It is likely that many of the dogs are descendants of pets left behind, and they have adapted to their new environment. While not much is known about how the local dogs survived, many strays still live around the power plant and hundreds more roam around the exclusion zone. 

By collecting blood samples from them and comparing their DNA to domestic dogs from other parts of Europe, Timothy Mousseau, an evolutionary ecologist, and his team were able to determine that not only did the Chernobyl dogs look genetically different from other dogs, but also that the Chernobyl dogs display rapid evolution in their DNA. Since these dogs have interbred with nearby wolves, Chernobyl dogs tend to have a scruffier, wolf-like appearance and thicker fur, and researchers have found that these dogs have genetic changes to their metabolism and immune system that likely helps them survive in the zone. One thing to keep in mind is that not all these differences can be attributed to the radiation as there are other factors, such as the lack of human selective breeding and inbreeding. 

The exclusion zone has also seen an increase in other species, such as the gray wolf. Due to the lack of hunting, forestry, and agriculture, the exclusion zone has one of the largest populations of wolves in Europe.  Camera traps left behind by researchers have recorded hundreds of species in the zone, including 60 rare species. The absence of humans has allowed other species to move in and breed where they normally would not be able to. 

While it looks as though nature is thriving, other studies have shown negative effects of radiation on the area’s plants and animals. Some studies have found that birds have developed radiation cataracts and smaller brains. However, researchers have found that some birds have developed high levels of antioxidants, which helps them ionize the radiation in their bodies.  

Further research is needed to fully understand the impact of radiation on wildlife. The wildlife in Chernobyl offers a great opportunity to study how living organisms adapt and evolve in the face of disaster. While we can see the resiliency of nature through these animals, it is important to continue monitoring the effects of radiation on wildlife. 


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