Chernobyl is a scary, seemingly sinister place, where trees don’t decay and plants glow. A newly published study, however, shows that not all living things are necessarily doomed in this radioactive wasteland. Some birds in the exclusion zone are actually adapting to the harsh environment.
The birds aren’t just adapting though. Based on years of data collection, there’s evidence that some of the birds are actually benefiting from prolonged exposure to radiation. “Previous studies of wildlife at Chernobyl showed that chronic radiation exposure depleted antioxidants and increased oxidative damage,” said lead lead author Dr. Ismael Galván. “We found the opposite — that antioxidant levels increased and oxidative stress decreased with increasing background radiation.” In other words, radiation exposure is helping the birds adapt.
Using blood samples dating back to the 1990s, the researchers found that the birds’ physical condition improved and DNA damaged reduced with increased amounts of radiation. These animals were then better able to withstand even higher levels of radiation. It’s not like any of them turned into the Incredible Hulk, but this is the first evidence that animals can adapt to radiation.
Don’t go drinking radioactive waste though. It’s seriously deadly stuff, and the effect observed at Chernobyl is isolated to just 16 species, including the blackbird, the robin, and the hawfinch (above). However, the research does teach us more about how radioactive environments like Chernobyl or even Fukushima affect wildlife over time. It’s not all bad. But it’s certainly not good, either. [Functional Ecology]