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Wildlife thrives in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

A group of scientists coming from different countries has made the decision to study the state of the ecosystem of the Chernobyl exclusion area. As a consequence of the disastrous accident that happened in 1986, the local environment was heavily polluted with radioactive particles.

Plants have grown up around abandoned houses

But, according to the results of the recent research, today the area resembles a natural reservation. It is inhabited by large numbers of wild animals.

One should note that previous researches showed that the catastrophe had badly affected local wildlife. But the recent data prove that the local ecosystem has begun to recover.

The scientists have discovered that the impact of human activities on the ecosystem is more disastrous than that of radiation. They have also found out that the degree of pollution does not make a significant impact on the recovery processes.

The researchers have studied a number of species of local animals and determined that the population of wild animals inhabiting the polluted zone is similar to (and in some cases even bigger than) the number of these animals in the neighboring areas.

Wild boars are common around Chernobyl

However, in large areas of the exclusion zone radiation levels dropped dramatically within months, says Jim Smith at the University of Portsmouth, UK. Wildlife began to bounce back, taking advantage of the absence of people.

A team of US and Ukrainian ecologists set up traps to explore how small mammals were responding. They caught a range of voles, mice and shrews – and found that the abundance of animals and the diversity of species was more or less identical both inside and outside the exclusion zone.

In other words, within 10 years of the disaster, the small mammal populations were apparently showing no ill effects from the radiation.

We should not be surprised by these findings, says Smith. "There have been a lot of radiobiological studies over the decades to find out what it takes to really damage animal populations, to do some serious reproductive damage. And across most of the exclusion zone, the doses aren't really high enough to have that effect."

Last year Smith and his colleagues in Belarus, the UK, Russia and Germany published details of the most in-depth survey to date into the mammalian populations in the exclusion zone. Again, they suggest that the radiation now has only a limited impact on wildlife.

Brown bears have been spotted.

Between 2008 and 2010 they surveyed hundreds of kilometres of animal trackways, to assess population densities of elk, wolf, wild boar, roe deer and foxes. They found that the track densities were similar to those recorded at four radiation-free nature reserves in Belarus.

If anything, wolves are faring better at Chernobyl than at the other reserves. The data suggests they might be seven times as abundant.

Beresford, with his colleague Mike Wood of the University of Salford, UK, has also reported encouraging results.

They set up motion-activated camera traps in the exclusion zone, as part of an ongoing project to better understand the risk to humans and wildlife associated with exposure to radioactivity. They found evidence of an extraordinary abundance of species. There were beavers, badgers, lynx and bison: even a brown bear made an appearance.

But it would be wrong to say there is universal scientific agreement that the wildlife of Chernobyl is hale and hearty.

Rare Przewalski's horses live in the exclusion zone

Anders Moller at University of Paris-Sud and Timothy Mousseau at the University of South Carolina in Columbia have spent 15 years exploring the impact of wildlife in the area. They have reached a very different set of conclusions.

"In almost all cases, there is a clear signal of the negative effects of radiation on wild populations," says Mousseau. "Even the cuckoo's call is affected."

For instance, in 2009 Møller and Mousseau performed their own mammal track count in the exclusion zone – albeit on a much smaller scale than the study Smith and his colleagues undertook. The results, published in 2013, suggested that track abundance is low where radiation levels are high.

Another study the pair published in 2009 suggested that insects and spiders are less abundant in areas of the exclusion zone where radiation levels are high.

The study suggested there was an impact on insect abundance even in areas of the exclusion zone where radiation levels are now extremely low.

Animal remains on the shore of a cooling lake

"Based on Chernobyl studies, not just our own, most of the rigorous scientific reports indicate that there are measurable genetic consequences of exposure to low-dose-rate radiation," says Mousseau. Those consequences come either in the form of damage to chromosomes or elevated mutation rates.

"They're publishing evidence of effects at radiation levels within the range of UK background radiation levels," says Wood.

How is it possible for radiation levels far below those considered harmful to have a significant impact on animal health?

Moller and Mousseau argue that the studies used to establish safe levels of radiation are largely performed under laboratory conditions. Out in the real world, animals face a multitude of ecological pressures that are not replicated in those lab studies. In natural settings, animals might be weaker and consequently more vulnerable to the effects of low-level radiation.

However, Moller and Mousseau are virtually alone in their views. Most of the other researchers who have spent time working at Chernobyl take issue with their findings.

Bank voles may be affected

"I very much question some of the dose rates where effects are being claimed on the insects," says Smith. "We did some studies on aquatic invertebrates. We didn't find any of these effects even in the most contaminated lakes."

It is not just Moller and Mousseau's findings that are questioned. Their research methods have also come in for criticism. It does not help that, in 2002, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty ruled that Moller had fabricated the data for an unrelated study, a claim that he has always denied.

One of their latest studies claims that bank voles in the exclusion zone have unusually high numbers of cataracts, and that this is linked to radiation levels. It was published in January 2016.

The emphasis now is on making sure that the studies involve scientists with expertise in radiation studies as well as in ecology, so that there can be no doubting either the quality of the research or the conclusions that are reached.

The hope must be that by the time the next significant Chernobyl anniversary rolls by, the legacy of the disaster is clear and unambiguous.[1]

[1] During the preparation of the article were used the materials of the site http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160421-the-chernobyl-exclusion-zone-is-arguably-a-nature-reserve