It’s Not All Mutant Beetles: Wildlife Around Chernobyl Is Adapting to Radiation

Biologist Timothy Mousseau takes us inside the nuclear reactor’s fallout zone to see how creatures are changing.
May 13, 2014·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It’s been 28 years since an apocalyptic reactor explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant made a 1,000-square-mile section of Ukraine completely uninhabitable. But what’s the long-term impact of such a massive amount of radioactive fallout on plant and animal life in the Exclusion Zone?

In the incredible New York Times–produced video above, University of South Carolina biology professor Timothy Mousseau, who has studied the long-term effects of radiation on plant and animal life since 1999, takes us on a short tour through the forest a few miles to the west of the plant.

In 2007 the Ukrainian government made the region a wildlife sanctuary, and because there have been no humans around to kill creatures or chop down trees, the region’s biodiversity has blossomed. That said, as you’ll see, there are plenty of radiation-induced mutations in the animals, insects, and plants in the area, similar to those mutant butterflies seen after the Fukushima disaster.

What’s surprising to Mousseau and his colleagues, however, is that some wildlife appears to be adapting to the radiation in the zone. Last month, reports the Times, Mousseau’s team released a study in the journal Functional Ecology that details how some creatures, particularly birds, are producing extra protective antioxidants to survive the area’s toxic contamination.

That doesn’t mean the plants and animals are radiation-free, though, so don’t expect Chernobyl mushrooms to become the next thing in haute cuisine. Indeed, it’s pretty chilling to see Mousseau’s radiation detector buzzing when he holds it next to the organisms he comes across.