On April 26, 1986, a systems test at the RBMK number four reactor at the Chernnobyl plant in Ukraine caused the reactor to overheat and initiated a series of disastrous explosions that led to the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
The Soviet military quickly established a ‘Chernobyl Exclusion Zone’ around the plant: a 30-mile cordon where public access was prohibited due to pollution, and which today remains largely deserted, a refuge for wildlife, from wild dogs to wild horses.
But what effect has radiation from ‘The Zone’, an area the size of Yosemite National Park, had on the wildlife that now thrives there?
Several animals have begun to show differences from other animals, scientists say, and some are exhibiting what could be described as “superpowers.”
Nature thrives in the shadow of the Chernobyl plant
The ruined Chernobyl plant
The background radiation is up to 100 times greater than that of the nearby unpolluted city of kyiv, but scientists still debate what effect the radiation has had (compared to other factors such as the absence of humans).
However, for humans, the Zone is safe to walk around and is even visited by tourists (and people still work at the Chernobyl plant, largely in cleanup efforts).
Tourists are being warned that off-the-beaten-path “hot spots” still harbor dangerous amounts of radiation, and are told not to eat fish or mushrooms that flourish in the wild landscape near Kiev in Ukraine.
After the accident, the plant itself remained open and other reactors generated electricity until 2000.
The black frogs of Chernobyl
Frogs around the ruined nuclear plant have become darker, a response, researchers believe, to radiation hot spots in ‘The Zone’.
Frogs around ‘The Zone’ have become darker due to radiation
Researchers believe the amphibians quickly developed black skin because green frogs were less likely to survive, driving what the researchers described as “rapid evolution.”
Eastern tree frogs with the most protective melanin pigment were more likely to survive in highly radioactive areas, meaning populations became dominated by darker frogs.
Researchers believe that the period of “rapid evolution” may have occurred just after the accident, when radiation levels were at their highest, the team led by Pablo Burracco writes in their research.
Researchers believe the frogs are darker due to radiation.
The researchers wrote in 2016 in The Conversation: ‘Our work reveals that tree frogs from Chernobyl are much darker in coloration than frogs captured in control areas outside the zone.
‘As we discovered in 2016, some are completely dark. This coloration has no relation to the radiation levels that frogs experience today and that we can measure in all individuals.
“The dark coloration is typical of frogs that were in or near the most contaminated areas at the time of the accident.”
Super powerful bacteria
Bacteria found on the wings of swallows in Chernobyl have been found to be more resistant to the effects of gamma radiation.
When exposed to doses of radiation, bacteria from Chernobyl were able to reproduce and thrive, compared to bacteria from other places.
Bacteria found on the wings of birds near the site are resistant to radiation
In a 2016 study published in Scientific Reports, researchers wrote: “The long-term effects of radiation on natural populations could be an important selective pressure on the characteristics of bacteria that facilitate survival in certain environments.”
Cancer resistant wolves
The mutant wolves roaming the Chernobyl wasteland have developed what could be described as a “superpower” and could save human lives.
Researchers discovered that animals in the Chernobyl Evacuation Zone (CEZ) have genetically altered immune systems that show resistance to cancer.
Wolf tracks near Chernobyl
Researchers are now working to find out whether the genes could help human cancer patients.
In 2014, Cara Love, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, traveled to The Zone with a team of researchers to understand how animals have been able to survive cancer-causing radiation.
Researcher Cara Love with a wolf near Chernobyl
Love and his team took blood samples from the wolves and fitted them with GPS collars with radiation dosimeters to get real-time measurements of where they were and their radiation exposure levels.
“We get real-time measurements of where they are and how much (radiation) they are exposed to,” Love said.
The researchers examined genetic differences between the DNA of mutated wolves within the 1,000-square-mile radius of the ECZ and those found outside of it.
Analysis showed that several of their cancer-related genes had new mutations, suggesting they had evolved to protect against radiation.
It is hoped that the discovery could pave the way for experts to identify mutations in humans that reduce the risk of cancer.
A new type of dog?
Thousands of wild dogs now live in ‘The Zone’, many of which are descended from family pets abandoned when people fled the area after the 1986 disaster.
A study by scientists at the University of South Carolina analyzed the DNA of 302 wild dogs near the power plant and found significant differences in the DNA of other dog populations.
A tawny owl flies from a chimney near Chernobyl
The researchers write that “individuals from the power plant and the city of Chernobyl are genetically distinct.”
More research will reveal how much radiation contributed to the genetic differences (compared to other factors such as inbreeding).
Co-author Elaine Ostrander, a canine genomics expert at the National Human Genome Research Institute, told the New York Times: “Do they have acquired mutations that allow them to live and reproduce successfully in this region?”
‘What challenges do they face and how have they dealt with them genetically?’