On April 26, 1986, an explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant, threatened to cover Europe in deadly radioactive dust. Two Chernobyl Power Plant workers died immediately when the plant’s Reactor Four suffered a steam explosion and 28 more died soon after from radiation poisoning. Approximately five percent of Chernobyl’s nuclear core was released into the atmosphere, travelling thousands of miles within hours.
However, scientists have been stunned to learn wildlife is in fact thriving in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
University of Georgia researchers conducted a one-month camera study which discovered 10 mammal and five bird species living to be an inhabitable nuclear wasteland.
Professor James Beasley, of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL), said: “These animals were photographed while scavenging fish carcasses placed on the shoreline of rivers and canals in the CEZ.
“We’ve seen evidence of a diversity of wildlife in the CEZ through our previous research, but this is the first time that we’ve seen white-tailed eagles, American mink and river otter on our cameras.”
The research is building upon a 2015 study that provided the first evidence that wildlife—including grey wolves—exists in abundance in Chernobyl’s shadow.
The Chernobyl exclusion zone is an area of approximately 1,000 square miles that was evacuated following the notorious nuclear accident.
The latest results offer evidence that nutrient-rich resources can become available to terrestrial and semi-aquatic wildlife, like otter and mink.
Lead investigator Peter Schlichting, an SREL postdoctoral researcher, said previous studies reported that scavenging activity can connect various food webs, but scientists are unclear how this occurs.
In the current study, fish carcasses were placed at the edge of open waters at the Pripyat River and in nearby irrigation canals, mimicking the natural activity that occurs when currents transport dead fish carcasses to the shore.
The results show 98 percent of the fish carcasses were consumed within one week by a several species of scavengers.
Professor Beasley said: “This is a high rate of scavenging, and given that all our carcasses were consumed by terrestrial or semi-aquatic species, it verifies that the movement of nutritional resources between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems occurs more frequently than often recognised.
“We tend to think of fish and other aquatic animals as staying in the aquatic ecosystem.
“This research shows us that if a reasonable proportion of dead fish make it to shore, there is an entire group of terrestrial and semi-aquatic species that transfer those aquatic nutrients to the terrestrial landscape.”
The researchers compared scavenger activity at the river with scavenger activity at the canals, evaluating parameters including the percent of carcasses consumed and how quickly they were consumed; the number of species that showed up; and how frequently each species was detected.
They discovered scavenger efficiency was higher in the river because the limited shoreline cover increased the visibility of the fish carcasses, making them easier to find.
But, as the team predicted, richness was higher in the canals.
Professor Beasley added: “Many former agricultural areas within the CEZ were irrigated through the use of these small canals,”
“Most of them still hold water, but they are overgrown with vegetation that provides cover for wildlife, so they are used by a wider array of species.”