Many regard the 1986 Chernobyl disaster as the worst nuclear accident in history. Fearing the threat of radiation and its health risks, humans left the area. Three decades later, however, nature has reclaimed the area as its own. The Exclusion Zone now serves as a home to wildlife uninterrupted by human activity. Learn more about its secrets with these Chernobyl animals facts.
- The Chernobyl disaster happened on April 26, 1986.
- Chernobyl was 400 times more radioactive than the 1945 Hiroshima bomb.
- The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone covers an area of around 1,000 square miles in Ukraine.
- A number of rodents showed tolerance for radiation in the area since the 1990s.
- Wildfires struck the areas surrounding Chernobyl in April 2020, which led to a spike in radiation levels.
- Many animals initially died or stopped reproducing because of radiation.
- Humans evacuated the areas surrounding Chernobyl due to radioactivity.
- Poorly-designed equipment and ignored safety protocols largely contributed to the accident.
- Radiation can cause significant damage in the DNA of living organisms.
- Radiation affected various kinds of animals in different ways.
- BBC Horizon featured the Chernobyl wildlife in a documentary called “Inside Chernobyl’s Sarcophagus”.
- Animals continue to thrive because humans no longer hunt them or destroy their habitats.
- Mutations due to radiation happen naturally, even in uncontaminated areas.
- Scientists use motion-triggered cameras to document the wildlife in Chernobyl.
- It is unsafe for humans to consume animals from Chernobyl.
- Scientists are still debating the extent of damages brought by the Chernobyl disaster.
- The soil in the Exclusion Zone is still radioactive.
- There are more wolves and bears than humans in Chernobyl.
- The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is now one of Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuaries.
- Many animals left in Chernobyl suffered from thyroid damage.
Humans abandoned and killed many of their domestic animals while evacuating Chernobyl.
Shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the threat of radiation forced people to evacuate the area. The citizens only had 50 minutes to pack their belongings and hop aboard on buses that waited to pick them up.
Unfortunately, they weren’t allowed to bring any of their beloved pets with them. Consequently, the residents abandoned all their cats, dogs, cattle, and other domestic animals. Fearing that the animals would spread the harmful radiation through their fur, Soviet squads had to shoot any stray dogs they see wandering around.
Stray dogs still roam around the area.
Perhaps some of the most well-documented Chernobyl animals are the dogs in the area. While the abandoned dogs mostly fended for their own, hundreds of their descendants still thrive in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The dogs still survive despite the lack of protection from humans, harsh winters, and even the outright shooting from Soviet squads. After all, it was impossible for the soldiers to eradicate all of them. Very few of these Chernobyl dogs live past six years old, however.
The stray puppies now roam near the tourist hotspots, but you’re not allowed to pet them. They still carry radiation in their fur, which could potentially endanger you. Scientists also studied the dogs around Chernobyl and found that they also carry radioactive isotopes in their bones.
It’s not all grim when it comes to the Chernobyl dogs. The guards made huts specifically for the dogs, and the non-profit organization Clean Futures Fund ensures that they meet their needs. Clean Futures Fund also visits the dogs regularly to vaccinate, spay, and neuter them. People can also now adopt Chernobyl dogs that have been cleared of radiation.
Many Chernobyl animals were born with deformities shortly after the disaster.
The Chernobyl disaster released massive amounts of radiation in the atmosphere and contaminated most areas surrounding the site of the accident. This radiation can damage the cells of living organisms and even damage their DNA. As a result, many Chernobyl animals developed physical abnormalities.
One of the most popular facts about Chernobyl animals is that some of them developed genetic mutations because of radiation. Over time, there have been accounts of pigs, sheep, and other animals born with missing or extra body parts. These mutant animals may also be born with deformed bones and don’t typically survive long after birth.
Studies of barn swallows also revealed various physical abnormalities in the birds. The researchers noted tumors, deformed toes and beaks, and albinistic feathers, among others. Scientists now think these abnormalities only occurred shortly after the disaster. Although scientists found genetic changes in the mutant animals and plants, findings about significant physical changes are sparse.
The Chernobyl wildlife adapted to the radiation.
High doses of radioactivity posed danger to the wildlife around Chernobyl for quite some time. Some animals, plants, and fungi that survived, however, learned to live with the radiation. Researchers noted that various organisms developed adaptations that let them thrive in these hazardous conditions. For example, through gathering feather and blood samples of birds, the scientists discovered unique adaptations. The birds in Chernobyl produce more antioxidants that help them tolerate the cell damages that radiation can bring about.
Birds now nest inside the infrastructures.
Although the disaster initially affected bird populations, they now thrive once more in Chernobyl. Surprisingly, birds now nest inside different infrastructures in the Exclusion Zone, even inside the nuclear plant itself.
Endangered horses thrive in the Exclusion Zone.
Przewalski’s horse is an endangered species of wild horse native to central Asia. Nearly facing extinction, conservationists introduced them to various wildlife reserves in an effort to save their species. In 1998, they released 30 Przewalski’s horses in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Surprisingly, the horses seemed to thrive around the area, with their population expanding to this day.
Many rare species also returned to Chernobyl.
Despite the radiation still being active, various Chernobyl animals made it their home. Animals native to the area have been observed returning and flourishing. Even rare species that have remained elusive for centuries now make their appearances in the Exclusion Zone.
Bears, for example, haven’t visited the area for hundreds of years but have since returned to Chernobyl. Researchers also caught sightings of European bisons, Eurasian lynxes, Japanese raccoon dogs, and Eurasian eagle owls.
Invertebrate populations in Chernobyl dropped dramatically after the disaster.
Not all animals fared well with the radiation brought by the Chernobyl disaster. The catastrophic event significantly reduced the populations of invertebrates around the area. This includes spiders, butterflies, bees, and dragonflies.
Scientists found that the population of wild invertebrates significantly dwindled in areas with high levels of radiation. Most of the radiation in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone resides in the topmost soil, where these invertebrates live and breed – which may explain why they died out.
Illegal poaching remains a problem in Chernobyl.
Although the dangers of radioactivity aren’t completely gone from Chernobyl, some humans still tread on the perilous areas. With the dramatic increase in the population of Chernobyl animals, cases of illegal poaching also rose.
Chernobyl is now an involuntary park.
The radiation in Chernobyl is very much alive and will still exist for centuries and even millennia. However, the Chernobyl animals still prosper in the Exclusion Zone. The animals in the area thrive not because of the lack of radiation, but because humans largely leave their lands alone.
Chernobyl now stands as an involuntary park, abandoned by humans and now teeming with wildlife. Despite the hazards, it now hosts a healthy and diverse ecosystem. Eventually, the government of Ukraine even officially designated the area a wildlife sanctuary.