Scientists believe Chernobyl’s stray dogs could teach world about radiation exposure

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New research published in Science Advances has shed light on how dogs living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone have adapted to survive in one of the most radioactive places on Earth – and could hold the key to understanding radiation exposure on humans.

The study found that the feral dogs living near the power plant today are descendants of dogs that were either present at the time of the accident or that settled in the area shortly afterwards.

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Researchers hope to use this study as a starting point in determining how the dogs have adapted to survive, with the ultimate goal of better understanding the effects of long-term radiation exposure on human genetics and health.

The Chernobyl disaster occurred in the early hours of April 26, 1986, when two explosions rocked the nuclear power plant near the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl, then part of the Soviet Union. The accident at reactor four spewed radioactive material into the air, leading Soviet authorities to evacuate thousands of people from the surrounding area.

Homes were left behind, and in many cases, pets. In the days after the accident, response crews sought out abandoned and stray dogs, with the goal of killing them to stop the spread of radioactivity.

A general view of the New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure over the old sarcophagus covering the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine April 7, 2022. (File photo: Reuters)
A general view of the New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure over the old sarcophagus covering the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine April 7, 2022. (File photo: Reuters)

However, some dogs managed to survive. The ongoing presence of the dogs in the area shows that they were able to survive and breed, even while living near the reactor.

The study’s co-author, Elaine Ostrander, a geneticist at the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, said: “We have so much to learn from these animals. This is a golden opportunity to see what happens when generations of large mammals live in a hostile environment.”

While the immediate impacts of the accident at Chernobyl were obvious, with around 30 people who worked at the power plant and firefighters who attended after the disaster dying of radiation poisoning within a few months of the catastrophe, the long-term effects are still hotly debated.

People risk exposure to low doses of radiation in all sorts of contexts, including through certain medical scans or while working at nuclear power plants.

The researchers acknowledge challenges such as finding out which genetic changes in the dogs are caused by radiation and which are caused by other factors, such as inbreeding or non-radioactive pollutants.

However, they argue that their detailed knowledge of the dogs’ ancestry, as well as knowledge of the levels of radiation different dogs were historically exposed to, “provides an ideal focus group for our future studies.”

Meanwhile Timothy Mousseau, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and co-author of the study, is planning another sampling trip in June as the ongoing war in Ukraine hasn’t stopped the group’s research.

Fewer tourists visiting and leaving food scraps have made it difficult for the dogs to survive, the Nature journal reported. So, the team is working with a non-governmental organization to provide food to the strays, safeguarding the survival of Chernobyl’s dogs — and their radioactive legacy.

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