Are there any mutant animals in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone?

You probably already saw or at least hear a lot about HBO series “Chernobyl”. Despite the need to evacuate large area around former nuclear plant and huge human casualties, as an ecologist I often heard questions from my friends about fauna and flora of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Every time I need to disappoint them with a fact that there are no scary mutants running around. Moreover, even with higher radiation levels in the environment biodiversity thrives in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and some biologists even brought some protected species to inhabit exclusion area.

Mutations caused by radiation

Radiation can alter a deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA) in living organisms. However, most of mutations are not noticeable in physical appearance. What is more, most of the mutations which are happening during evolution process of because of such an environmental factor as radiation are called point mutations. This kind of mutation replaces only single or few nucleotides in extremely long DNA chains and do not cause any significant changes in functions of the organism.

Radiation can accelerate the appearance of different mutations in DNA. However, if mutation is not passed to other generation of organisms, it simply disappears. What is more, quite common mutation caused by radiation is a cancer (mutation cause uncontrollable division of cells) which affects both animals and humans. Cancer usually is fatal in the wild so there is a huge probability mutation won’t be passed to other generations.

Refuge for large predators and threaten species

In a former Soviet Union large predator as wolfs, lynxes and bears were considered pests. They were threat for a livestock and hunters were awarded of each kill of them. As a result, after humans abandoned the area around Chernobyl large predators quickly find out a safe refuge. As a result, nowadays in Chernobyl exclusion zone curfew is set not because of threat radioactive mutants but because of packs of wolfs and savage dogs.

Large fauna at Chernobyl
Large fauna inhabited area around Chernobyl power plant.
Przewalski's horses - wild horses
Przewalski’s horses were brought in order to establish a new population of this endangered species.

Not only predators avoid encounter with humans. In 1998 biologist released group of Przewalski’s horses in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. They selected this territory after unsuccessful reintroduction of this horses in the Crimea due to negative impact of tourists. Since visiting of this zone is strictly restricted, Chernobyl works as a reserve for free ranged wild horses which once were common in whole Eurasia.

Moreover, ecologists are finding more and more rare and threaten species which requires pristine habitats with minimal human caused disturbance. European pond turtle is considered threatened species in most countries of Eastern Europe, thrives in water bodies of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Largest mammal in the Europe – European bison can be seen here as well. What is more, since vegetation is no longer disturbed by humans, there is a chance for a natural ecosystem to recover. As a result, this zone now attracts not only groups of curious tourists but biologists as well.

Radiation and other threats

Even though it seems that wildlife does not experience any significant changes of radiation, organisms which live around Chernobyl has a better tolerance for a low-level radiation than their same-species relatives from other regions. The reason is simple, individuals who were less tolerant for radiation died out and those who were more tolerant survived and reproduced. That’s how evolution works. Just as humans, different individuals of animals have different tolerance for radiation. As a result, some of the people who worked in Chernobyl passed away, some got terrible forms of cancer and some are completely healthy today.

Unfortunately, large predators and rare species attracts not only curious biologist but also poachers. Poachers basically destroyed population of European bisons which was introduced in Chernobyl. What is more, poaching is huge risk for wild horses’ population. Population was more than 200 individuals till 2011 when poachers reduced it to 60. Since is strictly forbidden and dangerous to bring anything from Chernobyl, shot animals usually is left to rot. So, they are poached not for meat, souvenirs or trophy but just for fun.

Pack of wolves in Chernobyl.
Packs of wolves, feral dogs and they hybrids are the most serious danger in the Chernobyl.

Sad but true that human present is far more dangerous for biodiversity than radiation leak from Chernobyl power plant. At least this zone can be refuge for rare animal species. However, tourists flow in Chernobyl is increasing during recent years. As a result, we do not know what impact it will have for a newly thriving wildlife.

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