Chernobyl’s Radioactive ‘wildlife Preserve’ Spawns Growing Wolf Population

February 11, 2019

Grey wolves from the radioactive exclusion zone around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are now roaming to other parts of the world, raising the possibility that they could spread their mutated genes far and wide, a new study has found.

The researchers add that these wolves are thriving not because of any mutated superpowers, but because the radioactive area now resembles a wildlife sanctuary.

In 1986, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, an explosion destroyed a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, releasing about 400 times more radioactive dust than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

In the aftermath, the authorities arbitrarily declared an 18.6-mile (30-kilometer) diameter zone around the reactor off-limits because the extent of the contamination in Chernobyl’s surroundings was unclear. People are still banned from living in this “exclusion zone,” although it is now open to tourism.

Extensive investigations into the effects of the radioactive dust from Chernobyl on the surrounding environment have yielded conflicting results. Some studies have found harm to local wildlife, while others have found evidence of thriving wildlife, most likely because the exclusion zone – with no people – has “become a de facto nature reserve,” study lead author Michael Byrne, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, told Live Science.

Gray wolves are particularly thriving in the exclusion zone, “where their population density is estimated to be seven times higher than in surrounding protected areas,” Byrne said. Given this high population density, the researchers expected that some wolves born within the zone would disperse into the surrounding landscape, “because an area can only hold so many large predators,” Byrne said.

Now, for the first time, we’ve tracked a young wolf that has definitely left the exclusion zone,” Byrne said.

The scientists tracked 14 gray wolves – 13 adult wolves over 2 years old and one male pup between 1 and 2 years old – in the Belarusian part of the exclusion zone and fitted them with GPS collars.” None of the wolves there were glowing – they all had four legs, two eyes and a tail,” said Byrne.

The researchers found that while the adult wolves stayed in the area, the pups wandered far beyond its borders. About three months after the scientists began tracking its movements, the young wolf began to move consistently away from its home range. Over the course of 21 days, the animal eventually left the exclusion zone by about 186 miles (300 kilometers).

Due to a malfunction in the coyote’s GPS collar, researchers were unable to determine whether the animal eventually returned to the exclusion zone or remained permanently outside of it. However, “it was cool to see a wolf go that far,” Byrne said.

The findings are “the first evidence of wolves dispersing outside of the exclusion zone,” Byrne said.” Rather than being an ecological black hole, the Chernobyl exclusion zone may actually be a source of wildlife to help other populations in the area. And the findings may not just apply to wolves – it’s reasonable to assume that something similar is happening to other animals.”

The findings raise the question, “which is whether animals born in the exclusion zone bring mutations when they enter the landscape, because with Chernobyl, mutations are the first thing that comes to mind,” says Byrne. However, “we have no evidence to support that this is happening. It’s an interesting area for future research, but it’s not something I would worry about.”