Humans abandoned the area after the explosion leaked cancer-causing radiation into the environment and a 1,000-square-mile zone was roped off to prevent further human exposure.
But in the nearly 38 years since the nuclear disaster, wildlife has reclaimed the area — including packs of wolves who seem to be unaffected by the chronic exposure to the radiation.
Cara Love, an evolutionary biologist and ecotoxicologist in Shane Campbell-Staton’s lab at Princeton University, has been studying how the mutant wolves have evolved to survive their radioactive environment and presented her findings at the Annual Meeting of Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology in Seattle, Washington last month.
With the specialized collars, the researchers can get real-time measurements of where the wolves are and how much radiation they are exposed to, Love said.
They learned that the wolves are exposed to 11.28 millirem of radiation daily for their lifespans — more than six times the legal safety limit for humans.
The Chernobyl wolves’ immune systems appeared different than normal wolves — similar to those of cancer patients going through radiation treatment, the researchers found. Love pinpointed specific regions of the wolf genome that seem to be resilient to increased cancer risk, the release states.
The research could be key to examining how gene mutations in humans could increase the odds of surviving cancer — flipping the script on many known gene mutations, like BRCA, that cause cancer.
Dogs were immediately in the area after the disaster and have adapted better than other species — like birds which experienced extreme genetic defects as a result of the toxic radiation.
The findings are especially valuable as scientists have learned that canines fight off cancer more similarly to the way humans do than lab rats.
Unfortunately, Love’s work has stalled some as she and her colleagues have been unable to return to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone — first due to the COVID-19 pandemic and now due to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.