Brown Bears Go Nuclear at Chernobyl

More than a century after they were last seen, the animals appear in the radiation zone surrounding the power plant.

(Photo: Courtesy

Dec 1, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

No, the bear wasn’t glowing.

But the photo is the first confirmation of the presence of the species in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in more than a century.

A camera trap set up in the radiation-riddled area snapped the photo for the TREE (Transfer, Exposure, Effects) project, created to monitor the effects of radiation exposure on the area’s wildlife.

“Dr. Sergey Gaschak, one of our Ukrainian collaborators, has obtained photographs of a brown bear (Ursus arctos) in the Ukrainian CEZ,” according to a post from TREE’s website. “To our knowledge this is the first confirmation of this species in the area.”

The 1,000-square-mile region was marked off-limits to humans in 1986 following the explosion and meltdown of the nuclear power plant. Since 2007, the region has been dubbed a wildlife sanctuary and has flourished without human involvement.

Researchers have about 42 camera traps in the field photographing Eurasian lynx, European gray wolves, red foxes, and other wildlife.

(Photo courtesy

Project leader Mike Wood from the University of Salford told BBC News that given the absence of humans in the area, wildlife is filling the void.

“We are basically working on the assumption that as you move people out of the equation and human pressure and disturbance is removed, then any animals that have a corridor into the exclusion zone find they are suddenly away from the pressures and dangers presented by people,” Wood told BBC News.

With humans out of the picture for the most part, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has become a valuable research area for studying the effects of radioactive contamination on plants and animals.

According to TREE researchers, the current methods for estimating the effects of radiation exposure on animals are too simplistic because “they do not consider how animals utilize their environment.”

Animal migration patterns, proximity to bodies of water, and eating habits can all influence exposure to radiation in a radiation-saturated environment.

One example of Chernobyl’s long-distance effects? The meat of one in three wild boars hunted and tested in Saxony, Germany, between September 2012 and August 2013 exceeded the legal limit for the nuclear isotope cesium 137. But how did cesium 137 get in the pigs? The isotope traveled in rain droplets more than 700 miles from the exploded nuclear reactor to Germany’s easternmost state, where it settled in the soil. Thanks to wild boars’ penchant for rooting in the dirt for food, they accumulate higher levels of the radioactive isotope than do other wildlife.

The team is planning to focus on larger mammals, such as the gray wolf, putting GPS collars and radiation-dose-measurement equipment on animals over a yearlong period.

Once they have a data set, they will be able to determine if the external dose rate of radiation matches up with dose rates predicted using “traditional monitoring approaches.”

“This opens up the opportunity for us to not only test...models of how well we can predict radiation exposure but opens up the opportunity to do some very direct studies on the results between the field radiation exposure and radiation effects,” Wood told BBC News.