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Chernobyl Nuclear Site Has Become a Thriving Wildlife Haven, New Study Reveals

Oct 06, 2015 05:33 PM EDT

An explosion at Russia's Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 released radioactive particles into the atmosphere and caused thousands of people to evacuate. Since then, no one has returned to the area which has long been characterized as a wasteland. But a recent study is overturning that view, revealing that the area has become a haven for wildlife such as elk, roe deer, red deer, wild boar and wolves.

"It's very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are much higher than they were before the accident," Jim Smith, a researcher from the University of Portsmouth in the UK, said in a news release. "This doesn't mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming, and forestry, are a lot worse."

This recent study contradicts previous studies that indicated the effects of radiation at the Chernobyl site had reduced wildlife populations. To the contrary, population sizes are comparable to those of four uncontaminated nature reserves in the region. Moreover, the wolf population at the Chernobyl site is seven times greater than what is found in nature reserves.

"These results demonstrate for the first time that, regardless of potential radiation effects on individual animals, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone supports an abundant mammal community after nearly three decades of chronic radiation exposure," the researchers said in their press release.

These population increases in Chernobyl were also observed during a time when elk and wild boar were declining in other areas of the former Soviet Union, according to the researchers.

Their study sheds light on the resilience of wildlife and the ability they have to expand and thrive in a habitat unpopulated by humans and may be relevant in studying the more recent Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

The study's findings were recently published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.

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