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28 Years After Chernobyl, Birds Are Showing How to Adapt to a Nuclear Crisis

28 Years After Chernobyl, Birds Are Showing How to Adapt to a Nuclear Crisis

You would think that a massive nuclear accident would wreck devastation on the the wildlife surrounding the area, a devastation that could never be recovered from. But once again, we are learning that nature is far more adaptable than we could ever expect, and that a will to survive may continue to trump any disaster mankind can bring about.

The latest example of adaptability comes on the heels of the 28th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Ukraine had a reactor meltdown, becoming the most dangerous nuclear accident in history. Over 50,000 people were evacuated from the area, and months were spent trying to stop radioactive leakage and decontaminate the area. Workers died as a result of exposure, and cancer rates and other effects skyrocketed in the following decades.

People can be evacuated, of course, to try to mitigate danger, but not so much when it comes to wildlife. Now scientists are seeing the evacuation area as an excellent chance to see what sort of effects radiation has on nature uncontrolled. “[B]ecause the area remains heavily contaminated by radiation and is closed to the public, the region represents an accidental ecological experiment to study the effects of radiation on wild animals,” explains Lydia Smith at IBT Times.

What scientists are finding is shocking. For some animals, rather than being adversely affected by the radiation in the environment, they are adapting and thriving. A recent study into how local birds are processing the radiation shows that they have managed to modify their oxidation patterns, and are now having less oxidative damage. Their ability to process the radiation appears to be based on the pigment of their feathers, with darker birds faring better than their lighter counterparts.

According to a release from the British Ecological Society:

The results revealed that with increasing background radiation, the birds’ body condition and glutathione levels increased and oxidative stress and DNA damage decreased. They also showed that birds which produce larger amounts of pheomelanin and lower amounts of eumelanin pay a cost in terms of poorer body condition, decreased glutathione and increased oxidative stress and DNA damage.

“The findings are important because they tell us more about the different species’ ability to adapt to environmental challenges such as Chernobyl and Fukushima,” said Dr. Ismael Galván of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the lead author of the study.

Although the study looked at birds, the implications for other wildlife, and even humans, couldn’t be clearer. The results show that long term exposure to low levels of radiation might actually make it more likely for animals of all stripes to survive massive, high level radiation exposure, too.

Of course, the last thing we want to do is begin exposing ourselves to low level radiation just to prep for the day we may have another massive nuclear event. On the bright side, however, this does give some hope that if at some point we do manage to do something so cataclysmic that we wipe out our own species, there’s a pretty strong possibility we won’t take the rest of the living species on the planet out with us.

Nature, after all, seems determined to show exactly how resiliant it is, regardless of what we throw at it.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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137 comments

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4:26PM PDT on Jul 28, 2014

Have you seen the wolves?

7:31PM PDT on May 2, 2014

I've seen a host of studies about the various forms of wildlife surrounding Chernobyl, and most of those have found that the oxidative damage to animals bodies is cumulative and unmitigated. Many male robins, for example, have become infertile, leading to a disastrous drop in numbers. That species is almost functionally extinct in the area, despite an influx of outside robins moving in as the territory loses its nesting pairs. The same goes for fish, which have been found to be far smaller and much sicker, dying younger than those from heavily-fished areas outside of the poisoned zone.

Insects, too, have taken a massive hit, which many species have a run-on effect in terms of the health of insectivores. So I really can't take this one study at face value. We need to stop building nuclear and move to sustainable energy production world-wide. It's not difficult, just that the initial infrastructure is expensive. But what a nightmarish cost in the future if we don't!

4:26AM PDT on May 2, 2014

Noted

8:50AM PDT on May 1, 2014

I'm not quite sure why you call the results shocking, it's been made abundantly clear (theory of evolution ringing a bell?) that animals and plants evolve and adapt to conditions within their environment. It's inevitable that the same would be found in radiation zones, butterfly's still live in the Fukushima area.
Also this comment is stupid "the last thing we want to do is begin exposing ourselves to low level radiation". News flash, we've BEEN exposing ourselves to low levels of radiation since microwaves became common in every house, since X-rays have become such a common safety and medical tool, and other medical equipment like a PET or CT scan. Not to mention that we emit radiation ourselves, granted it's not much but when you stop and think how many people you interact with and how many people are in the world in general you start to see how it can add up.

5:05AM PDT on May 1, 2014

Noted

4:58AM PDT on May 1, 2014

Interesting. Thanks!

4:27AM PDT on May 1, 2014

Interesting.

2:13AM PDT on May 1, 2014

Who knows what the after-effects will be in about 50 or 100 years. Look at the Bikini Atolls, people are still born sick there in these regions

2:13AM PDT on May 1, 2014

ty

1:28AM PDT on May 1, 2014

Interesting. Thanks!

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