Compared to the Chernobyl meltdown, the levels of radiation released by the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant disaster in 2011 were a drop in the bucket. Even so, a new series of studies has shown that certain types of birds, plants and insects in Japan are all suffering from the impacts of fallout. Researchers say studying these organisms will help them better understand the complex dangers of radiation.

These studies were all recently published in the Journal of Heredity and detail observations on how non-human organisms in the immediate Fukushima-Daiichi area were affected by radiation a mere few months after the initial power plant disaster.

"A growing body of empirical results from studies of birds, monkeys, butterflies, and other insects suggests that some species have been significantly impacted by the radioactive releases related to the Fukushima disaster," Timothy Mousseau, lead author of one of the studies, said in a recent statement.

A common theme among all the studies is that prolonged exposure to low doses of radiation has a very different effect on organisms compared to sudden high-level exposure, like what was seen at Chernobyl.

Interestingly, researchers found that instead of outright killing or obviously harming organisms, the low-dose radiation effects were insidious. In rice, for instance, low level gamma radiation in Fukushima Prefecture began to alter healthy seedlings on a genetic level in only three days, hampering the activation of self defense traits and altering DNA replication.

"The experimental design employed in this work will provide a new way to test how the entire rice plant genome responds to ionizing radiation under field conditions," explained Randeep Rakwal, who authored the study.

Butterflies suffered too. While populations remained stable with no mass insect deaths, pale grass blue butterflies in the immediate Fukushima area were found to be smaller and growing slower than average, suggesting an impact at a developmental level.

"Detailed analyses of genetic impacts to natural populations could provide the information needed to predict recovery times for wild communities at Fukushima as well as any sites of future nuclear accidents," Mousseau said. "There is an urgent need for greater investment in basic scientific research of the wild animals and plants of Fukushima."

All studies detailing the aforementioned results and more can be found as symposium articles "Outcomes of Fukushima" in the Journal of Heredity.