Boars gone wild: Chernobyl edition

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chernobyl mammals

For wildlife, earth’s worst nuke disaster site continues to prove safer than living anywhere in range of humans.

Ever since the 1986 Chernobyl accident, people have been almost entirely excluded from a surrounding zone larger than the state of Rhode Island. The figure above shows the change in relative abundance of three large mammal species in the 10 years after the Chernobyl accident, based on surveys by a team of scientists from Belarus, Japan, the United States and UK.

Their long-term data yield no evidence that radiation is depressing mammal abundance in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Elk, roe deer, red deer and wild boar populations in the zone are comparable to those in four uncontaminated nature reserves in the region. Wolf abundance is more than seven times higher in the exclusion zone. (That increase in the wolf population likely caused the 1994 decline in wild boars evident in the figure).

While animals were clearly harmed by the massive exposure to radioactivity at the time of the reactor meltdown and explosion, populations seem to be resilient to chronic, long-term exposure. Or at least the harm is more than compensated by the absence of people. The authors explain:

Increases in elk and wild boar populations in the Chernobyl exclusion zone occurred at a time (early 1990s) when these species were undergoing a rapid decline in former Soviet Union countries owing to major socio-economic changes (which resulted in increased rural poverty and weakened wildlife management). Our data on time trends cannot separate likely positive effects of human abandonment of the Chernobyl exclusion zone from a potential negative effect of radiation…Nevertheless, they represent unique evidence of wildlife’s resilience in the face of chronic radiation stress.

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Long-term census data reveal abundant wildlife populations at Chernobyl, by T.G. Deryabina, S.V. Kuchmel, L.L. Nagorskaya, T.G. Hinton, J.C. Beasley, A. Lerebours, and J.T. Smith. Current Biology(2015)

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