The Plants And Animals of The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Despite being unsafe for humans, the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster is home to a fascinating variety of plants and animals.
Jessica Miley

On April 25, 1986, a routine safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Northern Ukraine went horribly wrong. Due to inherent design flaws and poorly executed systems, the test resulted in a steam explosion that then pushed masses of fission products into the atmosphere. 

This radioactive material later fell to the ground over parts of Western USSR and Europe. The area immediately around the explosion was decimated and cordoned off in an area known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone or CEZ. 

The area approximately 104 km (65 mi) north of Kiev stretches 30 kilometers in all directions from the blast zone. It is uninhabited save for a small group of residents who refused to leave when the forced evacuations occurred. 

Even today radiation levels are so high that workers responsible for maintaining the concrete and steel bunker built over the destroyed reactor are only allowed to work for five hours a day for one month before taking 15 days of rest to avoid radiation poisoning. Ukrainian officials estimate the area will not be safe for human life again for another 20,000 years.  Although by 2016, 187 local Ukrainians had returned and were living permanently in the zone.

Despite the high levels of radiation the area is almost completely covered by forest that is home to a wide range of plants and animals. Due to a lack of competition and without human interference the exclusion zone has become a place of sanctuary. Gray wolves have thrived in the exclusion zone away from humans and other predators, scientist estimate their population numbers are nine times higher inside the CEZ than in other parts of Ukraine. 

Lone Wolf

Recently scientists tracked a lone gray wolf 369 kilometers (229 miles) from its CEZ-based home. The spotting of the wolf raises questions about the risks of gene mutations present in animals affected by the disaster may travel. While many wolves live inside the exclusion zone, none had ever been recorded venturing out this far before. 

Gray wolves have thrived in the exclusion zones with scientists estimating their population to be nine times higher in the CEZ than in other parts of Ukraine. These rising numbers may be the reason for the tagged animals to wander so far. 

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It isn’t clear if the adventurous wolf had any genetic mutations caused by its life in the radioactive environment and if mutations are present, how this would affect the wider populations of wolves. 

The Dogs of Chernobyl

When the exclusion zone was evacuated many pet dogs were left behind. Naturally, these numbers have increased and there are now around 900 stray dogs that live in the area. Vets and radiation experts use the dogs to help map radiation levels. the stray dogs are captured, vaccinated and fitted with detection collars, the data from which is used to map the area. 

The Plants And Animals of The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Source: Clean Futures

The art of insects

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger has been creating watercolour illustrations of insects and bugs since the late 60's. In the months following Chernobyl, Hesse-Honegger turned her attention to bugs with deformities, perhaps caused by exposure to radiation.

A treebug foudn in Switzerland
Source: Atomic

The artist looked for 'true bugs' - insects that have a unique sucking mouth organ - in areas of Sweden and Switzerland that had been under the Chernobyl cloud.  She then illustrates them in bright colors.

Harlequin Bug
Source: Atomic

Only looking carefully are the insect's slight deformities revealed.  Hesse-Honegger is reluctant to say whether the deformities are truly caused by the nuclear fallout or if they are just freaks of nature. Either way, the illustrations are beautiful and capture a class of animals so often overlooked. 

Plants prove hardy

Scientists have analyzed the vegetation in the exclusion zone and say that vegetation might have innate abilities to adapt to the stress of radioactivity developed millions of years ago. The research involved planting crops like soy and flax seeds in a contaminated land not far from the accident site.

A control crop was planted in decontaminated soil close by.  The research team waited until the plants grew up and produced seeds.  The proteins inside these seeds were then compared. 

"Proteins are fingerprints of metabolic activities. And as we're comparing the proteins from seeds harvested from these two fields, we're seeing the same ones in both kinds of seeds," Martin Hajduch from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, told BBC News.

Reactors 5 and 6 of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
Source: Paweł 'pbm' Szubert/Wikimedia Commons

The researchers say the ability for the plants to adapt to the contaminated environment was astounding and perhaps due to a long genetic memory. 

"[There must be] some kind of mechanism that plants already have inside them. Radioactivity has always been present here on Earth, from the very early stages of our planet's formation," Hajduch says. 

"There was a lot more radioactivity on the surface back then than there is now, so probably when life was evolving, these plants came across radioactivity and they probably developed some mechanism that is now in them." 

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