Wildlife in Chernobyl: Debate Over Mutations and Populations in the Fallout Exclusion Zone.
Actually, in the early years, when contaminated dust coated everything, researchers found countless examples of the monstrous mutations imagined in 1950s horror movies: malformations, dwarfism, gigantism, strange growths, and, yes, even some glowing.
But those effects were seen only in plants. While Attack of the Giant Leaves doesn’t seem as horrible as the Creature With the Atom Brain, no one has ever found seriously deformed wild animals (or zombies) after the Chernobyl accident. Mutant animals born in the wild die or get eaten before they can be discovered. Whatever the biological costs of radiation to individuals, the fittest survived.
Chernobyl’s abundant and surprisingly normal-looking wildlife has shaken up how biologists think about the environmental effects of radioactivity. The idea that the world’s biggest radioactive wasteland could become Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary is completely counterintuitive for anyone raised on nuclear dystopias.
The news isn’t good for all animals. Many species that like human company—swallows, white storks, pigeons—mostly left the region along with the people. Also, small creatures seem to be more vulnerable to the effects of radiation than large ones. That may be why Chernobyl rodents studied in the 1990s had shorter life spans and smaller litters than their counterparts outside the zone. Stag beetles had uneven horns. But it didn’t affect their population numbers.
And because the health of wild animal species is usually judged by their numbers rather than the conditions of individuals, Chernobyl wildlife is considered healthy. According to all the population counts performed by Ukraine and Belarus over the past 27 years, there is enormous animal diversity and abundance. The prevailing scientific view of the exclusion zone has become that it is an unintentional wildlife sanctuary. This conclusion rests on the premise that radiation is less harmful to wildlife populations than we are.