Who glows from radiation: the mysteries of the Chernobyl forest
Who glows from radiation: the mysteries of the Chernobyl forest

Almost thirty-four years ago, an accident occurred on the territory of Kiev Polesie that cast doubt on the safety of nuclear reactors throughout the world. The explosion of a nuclear reactor at the 4th power unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 brought enormous grief, first of all, to the families of those who were involved in extinguishing the fire that broke out at the time of the explosion.

It also crippled the health and fate of the direct participants in the elimination of the consequences of the disaster, made irreversible changes in the lives of those who had to leave their homes forever.

As you know, a very clearly defined border between the exclusion zone and the “clean” territory does not exist. The Dityatka checkpoint separates the Zone from the outside world: a metal gate, two booths and two workers who check documents.

The presence of a man who walks with a dosimeter between the cars that leave and check the cars and personal belongings of passengers reminds of the increased level of radiation. A typical Polesie road begins after a three-minute inspection at the checkpoint: overgrown fields, self-sowing of pines, slightly more than usual fire lanes along the road.

There are no zombies, mutant animals, or other phantasmagoric manifestations of either a bizarre forest or violent human imagination. There are no two-headed deer, and centaurs do not live in the Chernobyl forest. Animals and birds are full-fledged inhabitants of the zone. They do not shine at night from radiation.

Ecology: what happened to the Chernobyl fauna?

Reference: Radiation resistance and susceptibility of any living organisms is determined by the dose of lethal load at the time of acute radiation exposure. For example, reptiles, amphibians and fish are more stable than birds and mammals, and invertebrates will “outperform” all the above. Soil microflora can withstand millions of doses of radiation, while 450 rad are lethal for humans.

From the point of view of a zoologist Valentin Kryzhanovsky, one of the first researchers of the Chernobyl zone, secondary effects give an answer to what happens to living organisms when exposed to an excessive dose of radiation. The researcher claims that deaths due to radiation exposure were seen in all, without exception, representatives of the fauna living in the area close to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Thanks to his studies, it becomes clear that repair mechanisms are activated with chronic exposure of living objects to lethal doses of radiation that to some extent neutralize the negative effect of radiation on the body. In simple words, natural selection, the screening mechanism, takes effect.

Entire populations of animals and birds have died due to the accumulation of radionuclides at the cellular level in the first years after the accident. Only a few returned to normal over time. However, according to Valentin Kryzhanovsky, not so much a decrease in the radiation background as the absence of people caused the initial surge in the number of different species of large vertebrates: from ungulates to predators.

Unfortunately, looting and poaching in the zone quickly returned all the positive factors to the level of the pre-emergency state. At the same time, species that have adapted to coexist with humans have sharply reduced their numbers in the Chernobyl zone. Domestic and field sparrows, starlings, pigeons, urban and village swallows, and other species have migrated in search of a better fate. They are not in the zone today.

Thus, the determining factor for changes in animal populations in the zone was not radiation exposure, but the complete absence of human influence.

That is, the mass eviction of people from a large territory turned the exclusion zone into a platform for the study of natural processes without anthropogenic influence.

Four-legged hosts of the Zone

Some experts believe that we greatly exaggerate, calling the Zone of Alienation, a territory free from people. The zone is very different. Strategic objects are located in its southern part. Transport is located at separate locations. Several thousand people are busy with the functionality of the new confinement, and new technological processes for the disposal of nuclear fuel waste are being tested.

There are specialized enterprises almost throughout the Chernobyl zone – the Chernobyl Pushcha plant, whose employees are responsible for sanitary cutting and fire safety. In addition, there is a border service, and biologists come.

The Chernobyl Scientific Ecological Center operates, whose employees are engaged in continuous radiation monitoring, inspect and research. In the area, in some places, there are self-settlers, tourists, illegal stalker tourists go … You can only call the southern horizons of the zone a “wild oasis” with a very big stretch.

The wildest territory of the Chernobyl exclusion zone is its northwestern part, which borders Belarus. This is a good site for those species of animals that cannot coexist with humans: lynx, black stork, and so on. There is data from the 60s of the last century about the wolf population in these places, that is, it was a zone long before the accident and, unlike the same lynx, for a wolf, a person is not a problem.

Human economy is always an additional resource for it. For example, roads, bridges are a convenient denouement for seasonal migration, pets are profit, food. Today, a wolf will eat roe deer in the forest, in three days it will go to the village and eat a horse, then it will go to eat apples in an abandoned garden. This is all a resource for the animal, he likes everything.

Ungulate animals are also comfortable in the exclusion zone, the typical Polesie, with its inherent glades and swamps. In addition, there are abandoned gardens that significantly increase the food resource for most animals. The biggest threat to them is poachers, whom there have been and still are a lot.

To see Przhevalsky’s horses is a favorite pastime for visitors to the zone.

Przhevalsky’s horses — rare inhabitants of the Mongolian steppes — were brought here from the Askania-Nova Reserve in 1998 as part of the Fauna program, initiated by Valentin Kryzhanovsky. At first, when the “Fauna” was conceived, the horses had to trample and eat the forest, like once tarps and tours. That is, at least a little restrain succession and overgrowth. However, they were brought not so much, only a few dozen, but to the delight of ecologists and scientists, horses are actively breeding. Although poaching and the natural mechanisms for regulating the density of settlement of animals level their population very much, so in fact their numbers barely change.

An interesting fact in the coexistence of Mongolian horses and Ukrainian predators is that no individual was eaten by wolves during the entire stay of the horses in the zone. The wolf is very conservative, it is afraid of some new kind of prey. It understands quite clearly the difference between our horse and Przhevalsky’s horse. Therefore, it does not hunt for it, but prefers a “proven” wild boar, that is, the main forage species found in the zone.

Przewalski’s horses do not fulfill the basic function with which scientists originally identified these animals – the delay in forest overgrowing of former economic territories. Nevertheless, they have become an interesting object for other studies, including those that demonstrate how species accustomed to open spaces begin to be developed in forest ecosystems, and how wonderful they cope with it.

Chernobyl: birds of prey

There is an already empty pond cooler below, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Now, there is little left of it, a reservoir for collecting melt and rain water. However, this does not prevent herons, various waders from running and doing their own business. White-tailed eagles calmly eat among them. When you observe one flock of eagles so distinctly on the territory of an industrial facility, cognitive dissonance clearly begins.

You turn your head, rub your eyes, look again: an industrial facility and a flock of wild eagles! Nevertheless, the zone is very different from the rest of Polesie. The human factor is considered the main reason that affects the population of birds of prey here. Is it possible to find a better territory for the study of these species than sections of the exclusion zone where people have not lived for 34 years?

The reserve on the site of the Chernobyl zone

There are two completely opposite opinions. The first is that all animals in the zone have died out from radiation. The second is that thanks to the eviction of people, the zone has become a reserve. It is overpopulated with wild animals. As it turned out, the truth is somewhere in between. Despite strict restrictions on entry, poaching in the zone is flourishing, there is no total control over the entire territory. Scientific activity is carried out by individuals who come to the zone mainly by “arrivals”.

Studies of scientists have shown that large mammals and birds of prey, which are rare throughout Ukraine, remain the same in the exclusion zone. The territory freed from people is too small to significantly affect the development of populations of such species. Moreover, poaching and the lack of proper protection do not distinguish it too much from other sections of Ukrainian Polesye.

This is clearly seen in the example of a bear that disappeared from plain Ukraine 100 years ago. In the 2000s, scientists found its traces in the exclusion zone, which was incredibly rejoicing. However, later, it became clear that the clubfoot beast enters the territory of the Ukrainian Chernobyl Forest from the Belarusian side, and so far no changes are expected in its migration. That is, the bear, as a full-fledged forest owner, is not going to return to Ukrainian Polesie yet.

Be that as it may, the exclusion zone is a unique territory where it is possible to see the change in individual animal populations at the moment when a person leaves the corresponding territory.

On the other hand, the zone is not a protected oasis; people are still present in it. A period of 34 years is a moment for history, which, nevertheless, gives a chance to draw some conclusions. Environmental analysis confirms that today the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a European boreal forest with full trophic links, where deer eat grass and wolves eat deer.

Today, animals do not glow from radiation, but rather enjoy a free life, and in their own way shine only from pleasure. In the end, the Chernobyl zone is a transboundary territory, an excellent ecological corridor for preserving complexes of European species of flora and fauna, the only and unique place on the planet, there is nothing to add.