8 Facts About the Animals of Chernobyl

iStock/Tijuana2014
iStock/Tijuana2014

Three decades after the Chernobyl disaster—the world’s worst nuclear accident—signs of life are returning to the exclusion zone. Wild animals in Chernobyl are flourishing within the contaminated region; puppies roaming the area are capturing the hearts of thousands. Tourists who have watched the critically acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl are taking selfies with the ruins. Once thought to be forever uninhabitable, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has become a haven for flora and fauna that prove that life, as they say in Jurassic Park, finds a way.

1. The animals of Chernobyl survived against all odds.

The effects of the radioactive explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986 devastated the environment. Around the plant and in the nearby city of Pripyat in Ukraine, the Chernobyl disaster’s radiation caused the leaves of thousands of trees to turn a rust color, giving a new name to the surrounding woods—the Red Forest. Workers eventually bulldozed and buried the radioactive trees. Squads of Soviet conscripts also were ordered to shoot any stray animals within the 1000-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Though experts today believe parts of the zone will remain unsafe for humans for another 20,000 years, numerous animal and plant species not only survived, but thrived.

2. Bears and wolves outnumber humans around the Chernobyl disaster site.

While humans are strictly prohibited from living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, many other species have settled there. Brown bears, wolves, lynx, bison, deer, moose, beavers, foxes, badgers, wild boar, raccoon dogs, and more than 200 species of birds have formed their own ecosystem within the Chernobyl disaster area. Along with the larger animals, a variety of amphibians, fish, worms, and bacteria makes the unpopulated environment their home.

3. Most Chernobyl animals don’t look any different from their non-Chernobyl counterparts.

Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

Tour guides tell visitors not to pet Chernobyl animals due to potential radioactive particles in their fur, but some biologists have been surprised that the incidence of physical mutations appears lower than the blast of radiation would have suggested. There have been some oddities recorded within the area—such as partial albinism among barn swallows—but researchers think that the serious mutations mostly happened directly after the explosion. Today’s wild animals are sporting their normal number of limbs and aren’t glowing.

4. Radiation may have killed off Chernobyl’s insects.

In contrast to the large carnivores and other big fauna, bugs and spiders have seen a big drop in their numbers. A 2009 study in Biology Letters indicated that the more radiation there was in certain locations around the Chernobyl disaster area, the lower the population of invertebrates. A similar phenomenon occurred after the 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Bird, cicada, and butterfly populations decreased, while other animal populations were not affected.

5. Despite looking normal, Chernobyl's animals and plants are mutants.

There may be no three-headed cows roaming around, but scientists have noted significant genetic changes in organisms affected by the disaster. According to a 2001 study in Biological Conservation, Chernobyl-caused genetic mutations in plants and animals increased by a factor of 20. Among breeding birds in the region, rare species suffered disproportional effects from the explosion’s radiation compared to common species. Further research is needed to understand how the increased mutations affect species’ reproductive rates, population size, genetic diversity, and other survival factors.

6. The absence of humans is returning Chernobyl to wilderness.

As WIRED points out, the Chernobyl disaster presents an unintended experiment in what Earth would be like without humans. Hunting is strictly illegal and living within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is not recommended. The fewer humans there are, the more nature can re-establish itself unencumbered by human activity. According to The Guardian, an official nature reserve recently created on the Belorussian side of the zone claims to be “Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding,” where animals are losing their fear of humans. In fact, a few species are actually living better within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone than outside of it. Wolves were found to be seven times as abundant on the premises than in other, non-radioactive areas. Moose, roe deer, red deer, and wild boar were found to have similar numbers within the CEZ as compared to those in three uncontaminated nature reserves in Belarus.

7. An endangered wild horse is making a comeback thanks to Chernobyl.

A Przewalski's horse lays in a meadow
PATRICK PLEUL, AFP/Getty Images

British ecologists Mike Wood and Nick Beresford, who specialize in studying the effects of radiation on Chernobyl’s wildlife, observed that the Przewalski’s horse—an endangered wild species that originated in Mongolia—is thriving within the CEZ. In the late 1990s, about 30 Przewalski’s horses were released in the Ukrainian side of the CEZ. Based on camera trap images, Wood estimated that some of the original horses (identified by their brand markings) are still alive. Photos of juvenile horses and foals also indicated that the population is expanding.

8. You can adopt a Chernobyl puppy.

Hundreds of pooches—the descendants of dogs abandoned by their owners during the site’s evacuation on April 27, 1986—have made the desolate area their home. Until 2018, it was illegal to bring any animal out of the zone due to the risk of radiation contamination. But now, puppies cleared of radiation are getting a chance to find their forever homes. Spearheaded by the Clean Futures Fund and SPCA International, the management and adoption program ensures that the stray dogs are spayed, neutered, and vaccinated so they will be healthy and ready for adoption.

A Stranger Things Fan Is Selling Epic Demogorgon Dog Costumes on Etsy

Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things.
Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things.
Netflix

Stranger Things is great at placing the truly terrifying alongside the absolutely adorable. One minute we are gushing over Eleven and Mike’s teen romance, and the next we’re jumping off the couch at the sight of those possessed by the Mind Flayer.

No matter how seamless the Duffer Brothers' Netflix series is in weaving together these moments, it seems like it would be impossible to make the Demogorgon cute. But somehow, one crafty fan has done just that.

Etsy shop ThatCraftyFriendShop has created Demogorgon headpieces that fit perfectly on your dog’s head.

People reports that the headpieces range in size from extra small (for 5- to 10-pound dogs) all the way to extra large (for dogs over 75 pounds). Prices range from $25 to $75, depending on the size of your four-legged friend.

These wool and felt doggy costumes are perfect for Halloween, or even a Stranger Things watch party while you continue to binge and re-binge the third seasonwith a decked-out doggy by your side.

[h/t People]

Georgia Beachgoers Saved a Pod of Pilot Whales That Washed Ashore

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

A day at the shore quickly turned into a rescue situation for beachgoers on St. Simons Island, Georgia this week when a pod of pilot whales washed ashore. Beaching can be disastrous for whales, but thanks to a group of first responders and volunteers, most of the stranded marine mammals were returned to safety, USA Today reports.

Spotting whales off the coast of Georgia isn't unusual, but what occurred at St. Simons Island the afternoon of Tuesday, July 16 was out of the ordinary. The pilot whales had swum so close to the shore that they had become stuck on the sand—and there were dozens of them. The animals could have died from dehydration at low tide or possibly drowned if the tide covered their blowholes.

Fortunately, the beachgoers watching the situation unfold acted fast. They waded into the sea and manually pushed the small whales back into deeper waters where they could swim freely. First responders from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also aided in the rescue effort.

The heroic volunteers weren't able to save every whale. Two of the mammals became incapacitated and had to be euthanized. But according to the Glynn County Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, the majority of the whales swam away unharmed. "This has been an unusual occurrence, but events like these can really show the level of care and support from our community," the agency wrote on its Facebook page. "Thank you to everyone that helped those that couldn’t help themselves today."

Beaching is a rare event that still isn't fully understood by scientists. In the case of these pilot whales, which travel in pods, one sick whale may have swum too close to land and led the rest of the whales to danger. The DNR plans to conduct autopsies on the two whales who perished.

[h/t USA Today]

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