How the wild dogs of Chernobyl survive — and what humans could learn from them

Streaming HUBMarch 4, 2023

More than 35 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, the dogs of Chernobyl roam among the rotten, abandoned buildings in and around the shuttered plant – somehow still able to eat, breed and survive.

Scientists hope that studying these dogs can also teach humans new tricks about how to survive in the harshest, harshest environments.

They reported on Friday in the journal Science Advances a series of genetics studies expected to focus on 302 free-roaming dogs living in an officially designated “exclusion zone” around the disaster site. They identified populations whose varying levels of radiation exposure may have made them genetically distinct from each other and from other dogs around the world.

Ukraine calls on UN to push Russia away from Chernobyl to prevent ‘nuclear catastrophe’

“We have this golden opportunity” to lay the groundwork to answer an important question: “How do you survive in such a hostile environment for 15 generations?” said geneticist Elaine Ostrander of the National Human Genome Research Institute, one of the study’s many authors.

Co-author Tim Musso, professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, said dogs “provide an incredible tool to look at the effects of this kind of setting” on mammals as a whole.

The environment at Chernobyl is singularly brutal. On April 26, 1986, an explosion and fire at a Ukraine power plant released radioactive material into the atmosphere. Thirty workers died in the immediate aftermath, while the long-term death toll from radiation poisoning is ultimately estimated to be in the thousands.

The survival of wild dogs near the Chernobyl disaster site in Ukraine may give researchers insight into what humans might be capable of under similar conditions.

The survival of wild dogs near the Chernobyl disaster site in Ukraine may give researchers insight into what humans might be capable of under similar conditions. (Timothy Musso via AP)

The researchers say that most of the dogs they are studying appear to be descendants of domesticated animals that residents were forced to leave behind after the area was evacuated.

Musso has been working in the Chernobyl area since the late 1990s and started collecting blood from dogs around 2017. Some dogs live in a power plant, a dystopian, industrial setting. Others are about 9 miles or 28 miles away.

At first, Ostrander said, he thought the dogs must have interbred so much over time that they would be too similar. But through DNA, they could easily identify dogs living in areas with high, low and medium levels of radiation exposure.

“It was a huge milestone for us,” Ostrander said. “And the surprising thing is that we can even identify the families” – about 15 different ones.

Now researchers can start looking for changes in the DNA.

“We can compare them and we can say: OK, what’s different, what’s changed, what’s mutated, what’s evolved, what helps you, what harms you at the DNA level?” Ostrander said. This would involve distinguishing non-consequenceful DNA changes from purposeful ones.

Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant disconnected from power grid, fear of radiation leak

The scientists said the research could have wider applications, providing insight into how animals and humans might live in areas of the world under “constant environmental assault” and in the future – and in the high-radiation environment of space .

Dr. Kari Ekenstad, a herpetologist who teaches at Purdue University and was not involved in the study, said this goes toward answering important questions about how chronic exposure to high levels of radiation affects large mammals. First step. For example, she said, “Is it going to change their genome at a rapid rate?”

The researchers have already embarked on follow-up research, which means more time with the dogs, about 60 miles from Kiev. Musso said he and his colleagues were there last October and did not see any war-related activity. Musso said the team has become close to some of the dogs, naming one Prancer because she purrs excitedly at the sight of people.

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“Even though they are wild, they greatly enjoy human interaction,” he said, “especially when it involves food.”

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