Wildlife is Thriving at the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Site

The University of Georgia
The University of Georgia

Stray puppies aren’t the only signs of life in the Chernobyl exclusion zone (CEZ). Aside from the employees who continue to clean up the aftermath of the 1986 nuclear power plant accident, the area is teeming with wildlife—and not three-headed mutant animals, as one might expect.

A new study published in the journal Food Webs paints a very different picture of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. By placing motion-activated cameras on site, researchers from the University of Georgia had the chance to see white-tailed eagles, wolves, raccoon dogs, mink, and the elusive Eurasian otter. They confined their research to the Polesie State Radiation Ecological Reserve (PSRER), a 2600-square-kilometer area surrounding the Pripyat River in present-day Belarus. The area is highly restricted, and the lack of people in the area helped contribute to the boom in wildlife, researchers wrote in their paper.

Earlier research from 2015 revealed that wolves and other animals were abundant in the region. In this latest study, researchers placed fish carcasses along the banks of rivers and canals to see what types of scavengers would take the bait. Fifteen different vertebrate species, including a variety of mammals and birds, were spotted over the course of the month-long study. Some of the animals had never been spotted there before.

“We’ve seen evidence of a diversity of wildlife in the CEZ through our previous research, but this is the first time that we’ve seen white-tailed eagles, American mink, and river otter on our cameras,” James Beasley, associate professor at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, said in a statement released by the University of Georgia.

This study helps researchers better understand the ecology of scavengers in the area, which is still contaminated with radioactive isotopes. The materials can pose health threats like cancer, cataracts, and digestive issues to humans. People are prohibited from staying in Chernobyl for longer than three weeks at a time.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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Watch: In 1948, Idaho Officials Sent 76 Beavers Parachuting Into Idaho’s Wilderness

A young beaver with all four feet firmly on the ground.
A young beaver with all four feet firmly on the ground.
yrjö jyske, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When people started building up the area around Idaho’s Payette Lake after World War II, its original residents began interfering with irrigation and agricultural endeavors. They weren’t exactly staging an organized protest—they were just beavers doing what beavers do.

Nevertheless, officials at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game decided their best bet was to find a new home for the long-toothed locals. The surrounding wilderness provided plenty of options, but transportation was another issue entirely. Traversing the undeveloped, mountainous terrain would require both trucks and pack animals, and experts knew from past relocation efforts that beavers weren’t fond of either.

“Beavers cannot stand the direct heat of the sun unless they are in water,” department employee Elmo W. Heter explained in a 1950 report [PDF]. “Sometimes they refuse to eat. Older individuals often become dangerously belligerent ... Horses and mules become spooky and quarrelsome when loaded with a struggling, malodorous pair of live beavers.”

To keep Payette Lake’s beavers healthy and happy during the journey, their human handlers would need to find another method of travel. As Boise State Public Radio reports, that’s when Heter suggested making use of their leftover WWII parachutes.

Two beavers would sit inside a wooden box attached to a parachute, which could be dropped from an airplane between 500 and 800 feet above their new home in the Chamberlain Basin. The cables that fastened the box to the parachute would keep it shut during the flight, but they’d slacken enough for the beavers to open the box upon landing. After testing the operation with weights, Heter and his colleagues enlisted an older beaver named Geronimo for a few live trials.

“Poor fellow!” Heter wrote. “You may be sure that ‘Geronimo’ had a priority reservation on the first ship into the hinterland, and that three young females went with him.”

Once Geronimo had certified the safety of the mission, the team began migrating the whole beaver population. During the fall of 1948, a total of 76 beavers touched down in their new territory. It wasn’t without tragedy, though; one beaver fell to his death after a cable broke on his box. Overall, however, the venture was deemed much safer (and less expensive) than any trip on foot would have been. And when department officials checked in on the beavers a year later, they had already started improving their ecosystem.

“Beavers had built dams, constructed houses, stored up food, and were well on their way to producing colonies,” Heter wrote. As Idaho Fish and Game’s Steve Liebenthal told Boise State Public Radio, the area is now part of “the largest protected roadless forest” in the continental U.S.

You can watch the Idaho Fish and Game Commission’s full 14-minute documentary about the process below.

[h/t Boise State Public Radio]