Who Is Living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone?

April 21, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Entrance to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone at Checkpoint "Dityatki"
Photo credit: Nick Rush-Cooper (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Camera study reveals abundant wildlife thirty years after disaster.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) is a quiet place. Aside from shift workers who tend to the reactor (never for more than five hours a day), only a dwindling population of fewer than 200 elderly illegal residents are scattered across a few villages.

Thirty years after the worst nuclear accident in history occurred there, the area surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant remains one of the most severely radioactively contaminated areas in the world.

But that hasn’t kept wildlife out, new research finds.

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camera study, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, showed that many wildlife species continue to inhabit the CEZ.

Scientists have suspected this might be the case for some time. A previous study concluded that animal populations were thriving based on an analysis of animal track records and aerial surveys from Belarusian authorities and scientists.

James Beasley, assistant professor at the University of Georgia's and senior author on the study, wanted something more solid. "For this study we deployed cameras in a systematic way across the entire Belarus section of the CEZ and captured photographic evidence--strong evidence--because these are pictures that everyone can see," he said.

A pack of wolves visits a scent station in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The photograph was taken by one of the remote camera stations and was triggered by the wolves' movement.

Wolves at a motion-triggered camera trap in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.​ (National Geographic/Jim Beasley/Sarah Webster​)

Over a five-week period, the researchers set up remote cameras at 94 sites within the CEZ. The researchers were particularly interested in carnivores — including raccoon dogs, red foxes, Eurasian boars, and Gray wolves — because animals feeding at the top of the food chain are expected to have particularly high exposure to contaminants.

Members of each of those species were caught on camera close to or within the most highly contaminated areas, and they appeared to be in high abundance. "We didn't find any evidence to support the idea that populations are suppressed in highly contaminated areas," said Beasley.

Though this study verifies that numerous mammals occur throughout the CEZ, the researchers caution that further study is needed to examine other possible negative effects of chronic radiation exposure in these animals, such as genetic mutations and poor survival rates.

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