8 Facts About the Animals of Chernobyl

iStock/Tijuana2014
iStock/Tijuana2014

Three decades after the Chernobyl disaster—the world’s worst nuclear accident—signs of life are returning to the exclusion zone. Wild animals in Chernobyl are flourishing within the contaminated region; puppies roaming the area are capturing the hearts of thousands. Tourists who have watched the critically acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl are taking selfies with the ruins. Once thought to be forever uninhabitable, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has become a haven for flora and fauna that prove that life, as they say in Jurassic Park, finds a way.

1. The animals of Chernobyl survived against all odds.

The effects of the radioactive explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986 devastated the environment. Around the plant and in the nearby city of Pripyat in Ukraine, the Chernobyl disaster’s radiation caused the leaves of thousands of trees to turn a rust color, giving a new name to the surrounding woods—the Red Forest. Workers eventually bulldozed and buried the radioactive trees. Squads of Soviet conscripts also were ordered to shoot any stray animals within the 1000-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Though experts today believe parts of the zone will remain unsafe for humans for another 20,000 years, numerous animal and plant species not only survived, but thrived.

2. Bears and wolves outnumber humans around the Chernobyl disaster site.

While humans are strictly prohibited from living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, many other species have settled there. Brown bears, wolves, lynx, bison, deer, moose, beavers, foxes, badgers, wild boar, raccoon dogs, and more than 200 species of birds have formed their own ecosystem within the Chernobyl disaster area. Along with the larger animals, a variety of amphibians, fish, worms, and bacteria makes the unpopulated environment their home.

3. Most Chernobyl animals don’t look any different from their non-Chernobyl counterparts.

Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

Tour guides tell visitors not to pet Chernobyl animals due to potential radioactive particles in their fur, but some biologists have been surprised that the incidence of physical mutations appears lower than the blast of radiation would have suggested. There have been some oddities recorded within the area—such as partial albinism among barn swallows—but researchers think that the serious mutations mostly happened directly after the explosion. Today’s wild animals are sporting their normal number of limbs and aren’t glowing.

4. Radiation may have killed off Chernobyl’s insects.

In contrast to the large carnivores and other big fauna, bugs and spiders have seen a big drop in their numbers. A 2009 study in Biology Letters indicated that the more radiation there was in certain locations around the Chernobyl disaster area, the lower the population of invertebrates. A similar phenomenon occurred after the 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Bird, cicada, and butterfly populations decreased, while other animal populations were not affected.

5. Despite looking normal, Chernobyl's animals and plants are mutants.

There may be no three-headed cows roaming around, but scientists have noted significant genetic changes in organisms affected by the disaster. According to a 2001 study in Biological Conservation, Chernobyl-caused genetic mutations in plants and animals increased by a factor of 20. Among breeding birds in the region, rare species suffered disproportional effects from the explosion’s radiation compared to common species. Further research is needed to understand how the increased mutations affect species’ reproductive rates, population size, genetic diversity, and other survival factors.

6. The absence of humans is returning Chernobyl to wilderness.

As WIRED points out, the Chernobyl disaster presents an unintended experiment in what Earth would be like without humans. Hunting is strictly illegal and living within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is not recommended. The fewer humans there are, the more nature can re-establish itself unencumbered by human activity. According to The Guardian, an official nature reserve recently created on the Belorussian side of the zone claims to be “Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding,” where animals are losing their fear of humans. In fact, a few species are actually living better within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone than outside of it. Wolves were found to be seven times as abundant on the premises than in other, non-radioactive areas. Moose, roe deer, red deer, and wild boar were found to have similar numbers within the CEZ as compared to those in three uncontaminated nature reserves in Belarus.

7. An endangered wild horse is making a comeback thanks to Chernobyl.

A Przewalski's horse lays in a meadow
PATRICK PLEUL, AFP/Getty Images

British ecologists Mike Wood and Nick Beresford, who specialize in studying the effects of radiation on Chernobyl’s wildlife, observed that the Przewalski’s horse—an endangered wild species that originated in Mongolia—is thriving within the CEZ. In the late 1990s, about 30 Przewalski’s horses were released in the Ukrainian side of the CEZ. Based on camera trap images, Wood estimated that some of the original horses (identified by their brand markings) are still alive. Photos of juvenile horses and foals also indicated that the population is expanding.

8. You can adopt a Chernobyl puppy.

Hundreds of pooches—the descendants of dogs abandoned by their owners during the site’s evacuation on April 27, 1986—have made the desolate area their home. Until 2018, it was illegal to bring any animal out of the zone due to the risk of radiation contamination. But now, puppies cleared of radiation are getting a chance to find their forever homes. Spearheaded by the Clean Futures Fund and SPCA International, the management and adoption program ensures that the stray dogs are spayed, neutered, and vaccinated so they will be healthy and ready for adoption.

How to Keep a Cat Out of Your Christmas Tree

MW47/iStock via Getty Images
MW47/iStock via Getty Images

You may be able to resist poking around the Christmas tree until December 25, but your cat has different plans. The tree you spent hours decorating is nothing more than an oversized toy to the feline in your home. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to dissuade your pet from swatting away all your hard work.

As Lifehacker reports, an elaborate skirt is the key to a cat-friendly tree. If a cat loves the soft, fluffy material beneath the tree, it may lose interest in the branches overhead. A different approach is to use the skirt as an opportunity to create an uninviting barrier between your cat and the tree. It's hard to mess with ornaments when they're hanging above a layer of tape laid out sticky-side up, or even a bed of pinecones if you want something that looks more natural.

Some curious cats can't be deterred by a few obstacles in their way. For these cases, PetCareRx recommends using a safe cat repellent. There are many smells cats can't stand, like bitter apple, citronella, potpourri, and even Vicks VapoRub. You can either spray pine cones or cotton balls with these scents and tuck them around the tree, or spray them directly onto the branches. Your cat will suddenly be repulsed by the shiny new object in the living room, plus your tree will smell a little more festive—especially if it's fake.

Even after taking these precautions, it helps to have a few more safeguards in place. Limiting ornaments to the top half of the tree where they'll be out of kitty's reach, and securing them with strings instead of wire hooks, means they're less likely to end up on the ground or in your pet's paws. Location is also crucial—setting up your tree right next to a sofa or another piece of furniture your cat likes to climb on is like inviting him to use it as a launchpad.

If you're thinking of skipping the traditional tree altogether this year, here are some regional alternatives.

[h/t Lifehacker]

Treat Your Achy Back to a Cozy, Vibrating Sloth Pillow This Winter

Smoko
Smoko

Battling your way through the biting winds of winter just to get to your office or run a simple errand—even if you’re just dashing a few yards to and from your car—can make your body feel like it’s been through an actual battle. And while cold weather definitely justifies curling up on the couch under a weighted blanket for hours on end, sometimes a regular throw pillow just isn’t enough to soothe your stiff muscles.

Smoko’s plush boo pillow from Urban Outfitters ($49), however, just might do the trick. Not only does it have a fleece exterior, it also vibrates: Just press the power button on the right arm, and the pillow will give you a subtle, relaxing massage to sink into while you binge-watch whatever television series your friends won’t stop talking about. According to PopSugar, it comes with three AA batteries, so you don’t have to worry about bundling back up for a last-minute trip to the convenience store after you realize the only batteries you have are in your TV remote.

The smiling sloth face on the front gives you the impression that you’re being hugged by the world’s cutest, coziest arboreal mammal. There’s also a handle on the top of the pillow, so you can easily relocate from the couch to your bed whenever you feel like it.

In short, the sloth-themed pillow might make you actually look forward to hearing your local meteorologist drop the term “wintry mix” in the forecast. And, at $49, it’s an ideal gift for anyone on your list who loves sloths and/or enjoys indulging in sloth-like behavior.

You can get one (or more) from Urban Outfitters here—and, for the full effect, why not pair it with a nice ugly Christmas sweater? Here are our 11 favorites.

[h/t PopSugar]

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