Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

Adaptive Radiation

The 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine offers a rare opportunity to study what happens in a natural environment over time after it is dosed with a blast of radiation. About thirty people died from acute radiation syndrome or burns during the disaster, and it has been blamed for an increase in thyroid cancer deaths.

University of South Carolina biologist Timothy Mousseau has been returning to the area for over a decade to investigate how the radiation in the off-limits area surrounding the plant, a 1,000 square-mile region called the exclusion zone, has impacted flora and fauna. Alas, he has not found Godzilla, but he has found an increase in the frequency of tumors, deformed beaks in birds, and a decline in insect populations, The New York Times reports.

"This level of chronic exposure is above what most species will tolerate without showing some signs, either in terms of how long they live or in the number of tumors they have, or genetic mutations and cataracts," Mousseau tells The Times. "It’s a perfect laboratory setting for us."

Mousseau also has found, according to his most recently published research, that some bird species appear to have adapted to the increased radioactivity by increasing their production of protective antioxidants, and that they have less genetic damage.

The study seems to offer a glimpse into an example of 'unnatural' evolution in action, as two types of birds – chaffinches and great tits – appear to have boosted their antioxidant production, while barn swallows and robins have not.