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.

12-Year-Old Is Making Bow Ties for Shelter Dogs In Order To Help Them Find Their Forever Homes

GlobalP/iStock via Getty Images
GlobalP/iStock via Getty Images

At 2 years old, New Jersey native Darius Brown was diagnosed with delays in comprehension, speech, and fine motor skills. At 12, he’s already founded a company, spoken to a national news corporation, and sewn hundreds of bow ties.

Brown's company, Beaux and Paws, donates the bow ties he creates to shelters to help animals get adopted, Today reports. The hope is that since dogs and cats sporting bow ties are so unbelievably adorable, people won’t be able to resist taking them home. It combines two of Darius’s passions, fashion and animals, and the idea was years in the making.


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When Brown's sister, Dazhai Brown-Shearz, was creating girls’ hair ribbons in cosmetology school, she and their mother Joy Brown decided to involve then-8-year-old Darius in the process, thinking it might help him exercise his fine motor skills and also have a positive impact on other tasks he struggled with, like tying his shoes.

It worked, and it also ignited an enthusiasm for style and design that extended beyond hair ribbons: Brown began sewing festive, vibrant bow ties for himself, which he told Today he wears “literally everywhere.” People started stopping Brown on the street, asking where they could purchase them. Then, when the pre-teen learned about how shelters couldn’t accommodate all the animals displaced by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, he had an idea for how to increase adoptions. Brown sent batches of bow ties to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and has since expanded his shipments to shelters all over the country.


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With more than 47,000 Instagram followers and a personal letter of commendation from former President Barack Obama, Beaux and Paws has grown exponentially since its inception, and Darius no longer needs to pay for supplies out of pocket; his GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $11,000. Brown is planning to put some of that money toward a summer trip that will take him to five different states, so that he can deliver his bow ties to shelters and assist with adoption events personally.

“We’re definitely very proud of Darius,” his mom told Today. “He’s overcome a lot and he’s still on his journey of overcoming a lot of things. He just keeps going for what he believes in.”

[h/t Today]

10 Quick Facts About Roadrunners

MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images
MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images

Anyone who was raised on Looney Tunes cartoons might be surprised to find out that roadrunners aren’t long-necked or purple-crested—but roadrunners and coyotes do occasionally engage in chases. Here are a few fast facts about these unusual desert birds.

1. Roadrunners are members of the cuckoo family.

Found in deserts, grasslands, and forests, the greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) cruises through the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. Its slightly smaller relative, the lesser roadrunner (Geococcyx velox), is generally found further south. Both birds belong to the cuckoo family, Cuculidae, which also includes anis and malkohas. All the members of the family have zygodactyl feet, with two forward-facing and two backward-facing toes. The arrangement gives roadrunners X-shaped footprints.

2. Roadrunners are fast—but coyotes are faster.

Greater roadrunner in a desert habitat
RONSAN4D/iStock via Getty Images

According to The Real Roadrunner by Martha Anne Maxon, scientists have clocked the speedy birds running at 15 to 20 miles per hour. Coyotes can run twice as fast as even the fastest roadrunners, but luckily for the birds, coyotes would just as well dine on small rodents, plants, and lizards instead of birds.

3. Flying isn’t the roadrunner’s forte.

Most of the time, roadrunners get around on foot, but taking flight is an option too. Roadrunners will sometimes glide down to Earth from tree branches or canyon rims, but they’re limited to short-distance powered flights because their wings are weak and their muscular legs weigh them down. To get airborne, they usually need a running start.

4. Lizards, seeds, and hummingbirds are on the roadrunner’s menu.

Opportunistic and omnivorous, roadrunners will eat seeds, cactus fruit, snails, snakes, lizards, insects, arachnids, and rodents. Smaller birds are fair game, too. Roadrunners will sometimes lurk around birdfeeders and, with a great leap, snatch songbirds in midair. Wildlife photographer Roy Dunn recently filmed a roadrunner capturing a hummingbird at his backyard feeder.

5. Roadrunners can out-maneuver striking rattlesnakes.

Roadrunners have no fear of venomous rattlesnakes—in fact, they find them delicious. But hunting one takes patience. When the two beasts face off, the roadrunner will fan its wings, which makes the bird look bigger and more threatening. As the snake strikes, the roadrunner nimbly leaps out of the way. This happens over and over until the bird, having learned the snake’s routine, grabs it by the back of the head in mid-strike. Then the roadrunner bashes the snake against the ground until it’s subdued or dead. Since they don’t have talons and their beaks aren’t equipped to rip through flesh, roadrunners swallow snakes whole.

6. Puebloan peoples believe roadrunners ward off dangerous spirits.

Roadrunners are viewed as protective entities among Puebloan peoples in the southwest U.S. Members of these tribes scratched X-shaped symbols designed to look like the birds’ tracks into the earth around dead bodies. The Xs were believed to secure them from evil spirits: malevolent beings would get confused because they couldn’t tell which way the roadrunner who left the “footprints” had been headed. Likewise, roadrunner feathers were placed over cradles to protect the babies inside.

7. Roadrunners do not say “beep! beep!”

Male roadrunners emit cooing noises while courting females and defending territories. Both sexes also use barks and growls to communicate—and for unknown reasons, roadrunners like to produce a long series of clicks by snapping their beaks. The clicks might be a message about one’s territory or a signal to broadcast one’s location to others.

8. Greater roadrunners team up to defend their territories.

Greater roadrunner running across a road
ca2hill/iStock via Getty Images

Considered monogamous, greater roadrunners sometimes pair for life. To help maintain the relationship, males periodically dance for their partners. They’ll also offer food and materials that can be used during nest construction. Both parents take turns incubating their eggs, which are laid in clutches of two to six, and they share chick-raising duties later on. Defending the home turf is another task they perform together. A single pair of roadrunners may occupy a huge territory encompassing up to 250 acres.

9. Roadrunners can conserve energy by lowering their body temperatures.

Roadrunners don’t migrate. On cold nights, the birds reduce their own body temperatures by as much as 15°F, which allows them to burn less energy. To help warm themselves back up, the birds like to sunbathe in the early morning [PDF]. They even raise their feathers to expose their skin directly to the sun’s warming rays.

10. The roadrunner is the state bird of New Mexico.

The greater roadrunner was formally chosen to be the Land of Enchantment’s state bird on March 16, 1949. Since then, the anti-littering organization Keep New Mexico Beautiful, Inc. has adopted an anthropomorphic roadrunner named Dusty as its mascot.

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