It may seem strange that Chernobyl, an area known for the deadliest nuclear accident in history, could become a refuge for all kinds of animals—from moose, deer, beaver, and owls to more exotic species like brown bear, lynx, and wolves—but that is exactly what Marina Shkvyria and some other scientists think has happened. Without people hunting them or ruining their habitat, the thinking goes, wildlife is thriving despite high radiation levels.
But what the radiations levels mean for animals to be rebounding in Chernobyl has become the scientific equivalent of a boxing match, with the latest blow delivered when Jim Beasley of the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory put forward a study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
His study catalogued 14 species of mammals, and “found no evidence to suggest that their distributions were suppressed in highly contaminated areas within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” The abstract ends pointedly. “These data support the results of other recent studies, and contrast with research suggesting that wildlife populations are depleted within the CEZ.”
He was shocked by the number of animals he saw there in a five-week survey. Camera traps captured images of a bison, 21 boars, nine badgers, 26 gray wolves, 60 raccoon dogs (an Asian species also called a tanuki), and 10 red foxes. “It’s just incredible. You can’t go anywhere without seeing wolves,” he says.
Anders Pape Møller, a Danish scientist at the University of Paris-Sud who has studied swallows in nuclear environments, says his research shows otherwise. “These animals in Chernobyl and Fukushima live 24 hours a day in these contaminated sites. Even if the actual dose for one hour is not extremely high, after a week or after a month, it adds up to a lot. These effects are certainly at a level where you could see dramatic consequences.”
His research with biologist Timothy Mousseau has shown that voles have higher rates of cataracts, useful populations of bacteria on the wings of birds in the zone are lower, partial albinism among barn swallows, and that cuckoos have become less common, among other findings. Serious mutations, though, happened only right after the accident.
photo: James Beasley and Sarah Webster