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Three decades following the Nuclear Power Plant accident, the native fauna is back to the region. One of the assumptions for this rebirth is the absence of human activity in the area

An explosion during a technical test in the number four reactor at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl (former Soviet Union, currently Ukraine, bordering with Belarus) was the genesis of the biggest radioactive tragedy of all time – the radiation released in such event was 400 times more than that released by the Hiroshima (Japan) atomic bomb, in 1945.

After 26th of April, 1986, the day of the accident, decontamination work sealed off a perimeter of 30 kilometers and forced more than 350 thousand residents out of the region. These individuals never returned and, until today, the local is largely restricted to permanent human presence.

However, wildlife seems apt to occupy what today is an environmental reserve. Following a strong initial impact of radioactivity, the pine forest surrounding the nuclear power plant was decimated and its tree dead leaves gained red tones, the color that today names the native vegetation. In the last years, life was reborn there.

Retake of wildlife in Chernobyl

When disaster struck the power plant, few animals survived the high levels of radiation. Now, more than three decades later, various species returned to their habitat. Studies from 30 European researchers revealed that the exclusion zone of Chernobyl today harbors brown bears, bison, wolves, lynxes, wild horses and over 200 species of birds, and other animals.

“These studies showed that the area harbors great biodiversity today. Moreover, they confirmed the absence of huge negative effects of current radiation levels in the animal and plant populations living in Chernobyl,” Germán Orizaola, at the University of Oviedo (Spain), said in an article. The project TREE (TRansfer-Exposure-Effects) keeps a series of pictures of the vast fauna concentrated in the exclusion zone.

Animais selvagens registrados pelas câmeras do Tree Project. Crédito: Tree Project

Wild animals recorded by the Tree Project cameras: red deer; European grey wolf; Przewalski’s horse; black stork; racoon dog; brown bear (clockwise sequence). Credits: Tree ProjectTo Orizaola, this brings two assumptions: either wildlife may be extremely more resistant to radiation than initially thought or that the fauna samples showed adaptive responses faster than expected. An example of adaptive response, the researcher points out, is the case of frogs: those living within the exclusion zone are darker than those outside, and this may represent a possible action against radiation.

Although populations of different species are growing, biologists recognize that there is still a strong presence of gene mutations among animals. Such mutations sometimes are tenfold the global average for birds and mammals.

“Most animals die in the first months of life and those reaching adult life don’t live much,” James Beasley, biologist at the University of Georgia (USA) said to Portuguese newspaper Diário de Notícias.

Human absence may help rebirth

Chernobyl abandonada. Crédito: Yves Alarie/Unsplash

Despite Chernobyl being considered an excellence laboratory for the study of evolution processes and hosting more than 70 thousand visitors a year via tourism, the region is virtually free of human presence. And this may be the decisive factor for the rebirth of wildlife.

“[This third assumption] suggests that pressures generated by human activities would impact wildlife more negatively, especially big mammals, in the medium run than a nuclear accident,” Orizaola reported.

Content published in June 10, 2019

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