Chernobyl Birds Endure Radiation

The Chernobyl disaster

On April 26, 1986 a nuclear reactor exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet Union. Thirty people died immediately, in the explosion, or very soon afterwards as a result of massive radiation exposure. Large areas of present-day Ukraine, Belarus, and Bryansk, Russia were contaminated by radioactive particles. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, more than 300,000 people were evacuated, many of them already exposed to unsafe levels of radiation.

Twenty years later

Today, people are still dying of radiation-related illnesses due to the Chernobyl accident. The reactor still smolders, encased in a sarcophagus of lead, sand, clay, and metal. Hundreds of square miles of land near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster remain uninhabited due to unsafe radiation levels, creating what Richard Stone calls an accidental wilderness.

When people moved out, animals, unaware of the danger, moved in. Many species appear to be doing well in this undisturbed but deadly forest. Wild boar, elk, deer, bison, lynx, and wolves have all established populations in the Chernobyl accident exclusion zone, where there are virtually no people. Birds have migrated back into the zone and are breeding there. Many onlookers feel that Caring for your Mouth - Straight From Professionals nature is recovering, cleaning up the mess. At the same time, birth defects in humans are often attributed to stress in human populations rather than persisting radiation damage. Scientists doing research in the area hold different opinions, however.

Scientific research at Chernobyl

One of the researchers at Chernobyl, Dr. Tim Mousseau at the University of South Carolina, studies birds that have migrated back into the Chernobyl explosion area. Birds are useful study subjects because many migrate in and out of the region annually, because some species return to the same nest each year, and because they can be surveyed and monitored relatively easily. They are interesting as well, because as they disperse and migrate over large distances, they may carry the genetic effects of the Chernobyl disaster to other populations outside the contaminated area. Here are some of the research findings:

Birds in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster study area have an increased number of genetic mutations.Barn Swallows near Chernobyl suffer from low reproductive success and unusually high numbers of birth defects.Many species of birds that should be present are absent from the contaminated area.Some bird populations are only sustained because of continuous migration into the area. The impact of radiation may be such that self-sustaining populations are not possible.Nesting birds appear to be able to detect higher levels of radiation and preferentially choose nesting sites where levels are lower.Dr. Mousseau and other scientists at the University of South Carolina Chernobyl Research Initiative are interested in learning about the effects of low level radiation over large areas, and the ways that ecosystems change and adapt after an event such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Results of studies like this are also useful in understanding dynamics in human populations. Bird species in the area are just one of the things scientists are studying.Sources:

Stone, Richard. The Long Shadow of Chernobyl. National Geographic. 2006 Apr: 32-53.

USC Chernobyl Research Initiative.

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