Over a hundred thousand people evacuated the areas surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant after April 26th, 1986, but the animals remained. If you had to guess what would happen to the flora and fauna under the fallout from the infamous reactor meltdown, it would probably involve some kind of mutated wasteland. But according to the largest study on the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone‘s wildlife since the accident, the fauna are flourishing.
Reporting this week in the journal Current Biology, Tatiana Deryabina of the Russian Institute of Organic Synthesis and colleagues have found that, at least for large mammals in the exclusion zone like elk, deer, wild boar, and wolves, the radioactivity hasn’t affected population sizes. In fact, the data showed that large mammals in Chernobyl are just as abundant as their counterparts in unaffected nature reserves.
If anything, a human population in Chernobyl is a greater threat to wildlife. Agriculture and industry and hunting and deforestation, those are the real disasters, at least in ecological terms. “Whatever negative effects there are from radiation, they are not as large as the negative effects of having people there,” study author Jim Smith told New Scientist.
To find out whether a nuclear meltdown was affecting Chernobyl’s mammals, the researchers first looked for the most obvious correlation: does an area with more radiation have less mammals? They looked for how the number of animal tracks — the winter routes of elk, wolves, wild boars, roe deer, and foxes — changed in portions of land with varying levels of radioactive cesium. “For all species,” the researchers write, “our statistical models rejected radioactive contamination as an important predictor of mammal density.”
For larger mammals such as elk and wild boar, the data told a similar story. Again by counting winter tracks, the study found that, compared to other large mammals in unaffected nature reserves, radiation was not a suppressing factor for animals in the exclusion zone. The track counts were basically the same between irradiated and clean regions. Wolf tracks in particular were seven times more abundant amid the fallout.
And while the study points out that the significantly higher radiation doses immediately following the disaster did affect animal health, aerial counts of large mammals showed that populations did not decline overall in the 10 years after the meltdown. Whatever the radiation has been doing to the mammals of Chernobyl, the authors conclude, having humans there was probably worse.
The mammals don’t tell the whole story of life after Chernobyl. More studies are needed to determine if smaller animals like insects and fish are more affected by the doses that the mammals receive. However, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that they are handling the fallout better than human occupation as well.
“The wildlife at Chernobyl is very likely better than it was before the accident,” Smith told Newsweek, “not because radiation is good for animals, but human occupation is much worse.”