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.

100 Dachshunds Competed in Cincinnati’s Annual ‘Running of the Wieners’

NORRIE3699/iStock via Getty Images
NORRIE3699/iStock via Getty Images

Every year, to kick off Cincinnati’s Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, 100 dachshunds compete in heats to decide who the fastest dachshund in the Midwest is. This year marks the 43rd annual Oktoberfest—one of the biggest Oktoberfest celebrations outside of Germany (more than 500,000 people attend the three-day event).

On the afternoon of Thursday, September 19, 100 wiener dogs (and their owners and handlers) gathered in downtown Cincinnati for the 2019 "Running of the Wieners." The dogs, dressed in hot dog costumes, ran 10 heats, which lasted 75 feet or five seconds each. The winner of each heat advanced to the final round, where the top three finishers were decided.

Maple, a long-haired, one-year-old dachshund, ran his way into first place—and into our hearts.

Maple’s owner, Jake Sander, told WCPO that Maple is one of five dachshunds in the family, and that he learned to run fast by chasing his brother around. Leo and Bucky, two other doxies, placed second and third, respectively.

Besides the Running of the Wieners, Zinzinnati also hosts the World’s Largest Chicken Dance. However, the wiener dogs are more fun to watch.

Photographer Captures Polka-Dotted Zebra Foal in Kenya

Frank Liu
Frank Liu

Zebras are known for their eye-catching patterns, but this polka-dotted foal recently photographed in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve really stands out from the herd. As National Geographic reports, the zebra baby likely has pseudomelanism, a rare pigment condition that's been observed in the wild just a handful of times.

Nature photographer Frank Liu saw the zebra foal while looking for rhinos in the savannah wilderness preserve. After initially confusing the specimen for a different type of animal, he realized upon closer inspection that it was actually a plains zebra born with spots instead of stripes. The newborn foal was named Tira after the Maasai guide Antony Tira who first pointed him out.

Zebra foal with spots walking with mother.
Frank Liu

Zebra foal with spots.
Frank Liu

A typical zebra pattern is the result of pigment cells called melanocytes, which are responsible for the black base coat, and melanin, which gives the animal its white stripes. (So if you've ever wondered if zebras are white with black stripes or black with white stripes, the answer is the latter). In Tira and other zebras with pseudomelanism, the melanocytes are fully expressed, but a genetic mutation causes the melanin to appear as dots rather than unbroken stripes.


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Though rare, this isn't the only time a zebra with pseudomelanism has been documented in nature. Pseudomelanistic zebras have also been spotted in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but Liu believes this could be the first time one was found in the Masai Mara preserve.

Zebra stripes aren't just for decoration. The distinct pattern may act as camouflage, bug repellant, and a built-in temperature regulation system. Without these evolutionary benefits, Tira has a lower chance of making it to adulthood: Pseudomelanistic zebra adults are rarely observed for this reason. But as Liu's photographs show, the foal has the protection and acceptance of his herd on his side.

[h/t National Geographic]

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