The Chernobyl Wolves

Chernobyl was an event that shook humanity and has continued to impact the world we know. If you’re unfamiliar, on April 25th, 1986 the No. 4 light water graphite moderated reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic nuclear accident. The power plant sat right next to the town of Pripyat, in Ukraine.

To this day it remains the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history due to cost, casulities, and after-effects. The after effects continue to this day with health disorders, cancer, and radiation affect those who were present. But, the cost wasn’t just centered on humans. Residual radioactivity remains in the environment, the now abandoned town of Pripyat, and the surrounding forested area. Everything from groundwater to flora to fauna has been affected. Now, over thirty years later, we’re wondering what the effects of the post-incident generations of wolves.

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The radioactive ‘forbidden/exclusion zone’ of Chernobyl used to be more heavily controlled. However, in recent years it seems that the gray wolves from this zone are venturing out past the zone and into ‘normal’ environments. The exclusion zone was 18.6-mile diameter around the reactor that was placed off limits. The exclusion zone is open to tourism today, though.

Why is this astonishing, you may ask? Well, it gives scientists a chance to study the possibility of how the mutant genes that they carry will spread and interact with the ‘norma’ populations of wolves the Chernobyl wolves are now interacting with.

For a long time, the gray wolves of Chernobyl have been near the top of the food chain thanks to the fact that very few humans have ventured into the exclusion zone over the years. Without the threat of humans, the wolves and other wildlife populations have, in many ways, flourished despite the disaster. They are thriving compared to other wildlife refuges in the world and their numbers are roughly seven times higher.

In an interview with LiveScience (linked above) study lead Michael Byrne, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia said: “with their population density within the zone estimated at up to seven times greater than in surrounding reserves.”

The study consisted of tracking fourteen gray wolves in the Belarusian region of the exclusion zone with the help of GPS collars. At first glance, these wolves are normal. They have four legs, two eyes, one tail, and, as Byrne playfully adds, “No wolves there were glowing.” During the summer of 2018, the team tracked a young wolf that departed the exclusion zone. This wolf was a male juvenile that spent weeks away from home, traveling 186 miles over 21 days...which is well outside the exclusion zone. Byrne notes that this is “the first proof of a wolf dispersing beyond the exclusion zone...Instead of being an ecological black hole, the Chernobyl exclusion zone might actually act as a source of wildlife to help other populations in the region. And these findings might not just apply to wolves — it's reasonable to assume similar things are happening with other animals as well.”

Wolves have not been seriously studied mutation-wise, but many other smaller animals in the exclusion zone show, even to today, the effects of the disaster. In an article regarding the story in National Geographic (linked above) it is notable that “In other smaller animals in the area, exposure to radiation has been associated with tumors, cataracts, smaller brains, and certain developmental abnormalities.”

However, there are those that believe that the radiation-effects may be all but gone out of the wolf population in the surrounding area. For example, scientists Anders Moller notes, how would a wolf with harmful mutations associated with nuclear disaster be capable of moving so far?

Although it is unlikely that the radiation in the exclusion zone affects the gray wolf population in harmful, intense ways it is possible some subtler mutations hidden to the naked eye may have occurred.

So, back to the mating issue. What would happen? Since the Chernobyl wolves don’t seem to glow, have two tails, or any other notable physical mutations it is likely that their children with those outside of the exclusion zone would also not have any notable physical mutations associated with the nuclear disaster. However, they may reap some benefits.

Bridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, says to Mashable “Not all mutations are bad...Mutations are the bread and butter of diversity and can enhance proteins, or gene expression patterns, etc…[but] they can also be harmful."

For example, “Just being in this zone may also force the creatures here to adapt to the irradiated environment, in an attempt to avoid potentially harmful mutations. In 2014, researchers found that some birds in the zone are now producing more antioxidants, chemicals that fight the cellular damage inflicted by radiation.”

We aren’t sure what radioactive affected animals mating with ‘normal’ animals will be like, but I look forward to future studies on the topic!

The above image is of Chernobyl warning signs. Jorge Franganillo from Barcelona, Spain - Red Forest. Liscensed under CC by 2.0.