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Rapid Evolution Observed In Chernobyl Dogs

Studies of feral dogs living inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) revealed that the animals are potentially undergoing rapid genetic mutations. Scientists conducted analysis on the animals to study the effects of continuous exposure to low level radiation.


The CEZ was abruptly created in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on April 26th 1986. 


Instantaneous fuel fragmentation inside Chernobyl reactor four caused a nuclear meltdown irradiating vast stretches of the immediate area. Soviet officials evacuated 45,000 residents by April 27th, the number eventually reaching an estimated 115,000 by May 14th.


The speed of evacuation forced many Ukrainians to leave their beloved pets behind. Although Soviet officials brought in conscripts with kill orders for any animals within the newly evacuated CEZ, an area now encompassing 1000-square-miles, many survived.


In the absence of humans, nature quickly reclaimed the city of Pripyat and surrounding villages. Today, descendants of those pampered pets roam the CEZ as feral cats and dogs - a staple feature of this irradiated ecosystem. 


In the four decades since the nuclear disaster, the CEZ has become an important wildlife refuge. Przewalski's Horse, European Bison and White Tailed Eagles, endangered in the rest of Eastern Europe, have established key breeding populations in the CEZ.


The CEZ’s newfound ecological importance has made scientists increasingly keen on identifying the effects of prolonged low-level radiation on animal populations.


A 2016 study of CEZ Eastern Tree Frogs discovered that their green pigmentation had turned black due to airborne radiation.


It was theorised that darker pigmentation enabled the frogs to ionise airborne isotopes thereby limiting their effects. The discovery emboldened scientists studying other fast-breeding populations for genetic mutations in the CEZ.


Talking to the New York Times, senior author and genomics expert at the National Human Genome Research Study, Elaine Ostrander, confirmed that assessing ‘critical mutations’ in CEZ animals was vital to understanding the effects of prolonged irradiation.


“Do they have mutations that they’ve acquired that allow them to live and breed successfully in this region?” she said, discussing CEZ feral dog genomes. “What challenges do they face and how have they coped genetically?”.


The study utilised the Clean Futures Fund, a project that cares for CEZ feral dogs, to gain blood samples from over 302 separate animals. 


Astonishingly, results revealed that in as little as ten generations CEZ dogs had become a genetically distinct population. Genetic mutations found within their DNA identified fifteen separate family groups, all of which had remained in relative genetic isolation from similar populations in the nearby Chernobyl city only ten miles away.


Senior author of the study and biologist at the University of South Carolina, Dr. Timothy Mousseau, was astounded by the findings:


“I was completely surprised by the near total differentiation between the two populations, the fact that they’ve existed really in relative isolation for quite some time”. 


While the research findings hint at the possibility of rapid evolution, the study is still in its infancy. A comprehensive analysis of further genetic samples is needed to substantiate links between mutation and radiation.


Research cannot currently differentiate the increased rate of mutations between radiation and the effects of rampant inbreeding – a consequence of the bottleneck population created by feral dogs’ CEZ containment.


Their lives are also incredibly harsh, a University of Cambridge study estimated the average lifespan at “four to five years,” making studies into the prevalence of cancerous tumours almost impossible. The animals are simply not living long enough to develop them.


Researchers have also admitted that the CEZ’s isolation, including physical barriers, may have accelerated said changes.


While further studies are required to determine the exact source of the animals’ unique mutations, the research represents a key first step in understanding animal life in the CEZ.



Edited by: Alanna Fullerton

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Tags: #Russia #Ukraine #FeralDogs #ChernobylExclusionZone #GeneticMutation #Chernobyl #Soviets #CEZ #GreenTreeFrog


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