Nearly thirty years after the Chernobyl disaster, the city of Pripyat, Ukraine and the surrounding area remains abandoned, at least by humans that is. A new study has shown that animal populations are actually thriving in the absence of humans despite the presence of radioactive chemicals.
The study used long-term data to assess the numbers of elk, deer boar and wolves. Previous studies had shown that the radioactivity does in fact have a negative impact on wildlife in the area but these studies didn’t use long-term data.
Researchers estimated animal abundance by doing both aerial surveys, in which the number of each animal seen was counted, and by counting animal tracks in the snow in an area in Belarus, on the border of Ukraine.
The study found that initially in 1987, the explosion caused a drastic decrease in numbers with just a few boar and no deer or elk remaining. But as the years passed the number of animals increased.
Boar populations increased quickly and reached a maximum in 1993 at which point they fell again. This was probably caused by an increase in the number of predatory animals such as wolves as well as an outbreak of swine fever. Elk and deer populations have been steadily increasing since 1987.
The study also found that there was no relationship between the level of radiation and the abundance of animals. In general, animals were just as successful in high radiation areas than they were in areas with lower radiation.
This raises the question of whether some of these animals are acquiring adaptations to better survive at high radiation levels. This wasn’t covered in the study but another study on birds in Chernobyl has shown that birds exposed to high levels of radiation have adaptations that allow them preserve important antioxidants and reduce oxidative stress.
Clearly, if animals can survive better in an ecosystem that’s laden with radioactive chemicals better than they can in some ecosystems that are affected by humans, then we have a big influence on wildlife.
“The numbers of animals we see in Chernobyl is similar to the populations in uncontaminated nature reserves,” said Dr. Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth and head of the study.
The study did only take into account large mammals however. The diversity of other life forms may not be as successful as the elk or other animals included in this study. In fact a previous study suggested that spider and insect abundance is low.
The results of this study suggest that it may be safe for humans to repopulate parts of Pripyat and the surrounding area but then again it would be nice to leave the thriving wildlife be.