The word Chernobyl likely conjures up eerie images of buildings long-abandoned by residents who fled the nuclear fallout.
But the area is far from deserted, as evidenced by a study showing how animals from eagles to mink and otter live there.
After the Chernobyl power plant exploded in 1986, causing the worst-ever civil nuclear disaster, humans abandoned an area spanning 1,000 square miles known as the Exclusion Zone. Since then, scientists have been fascinated by the animals that might inhabit this desolate pocket of Ukraine bordering Belarus.
To study the presence of scavengers specifically, scientists from the University of Georgia tied fish to debris like tree branches in 83 locations along the Pripyat River, and in irrigation canals built by farmers in the early 20th century. The positioning was intended to mirror how fish are naturally transported to the fringes of land by the river. Bait was positioned a minimum of 1,100 yards apart so scavengers didn’t become used to visiting the trial sites. The researchers set up cameras to document the critters that might be lured by the fishy treats.
After a week, 98 percent of the carcacsses had been taken. The footage showed 10 species of mammal and five birds gorged on the fish: Mice, the least weasel, American mink, Eurasian otter, pine marten, racoon dog, red fox, wolf, Eurasian Jay, common magpie, raven, tawny owl and the white-tailed eagle. Across the various experiments, mesocarnivores—animals such as foxes whose diet consists of between 30 to 70 percent meat—were the biggest eaters.
The team then compared how the animals at the riverside compared with in canals, as well as how many and how quickly the fish were eaten. This led the researchers to conclude the Exclusion Zone “supports a highly diverse and efficient vertebrate scavenging community,” they wrote in their study published in the journal Food Webs.
Who ate what depended on the location: For instance scavengers ate more by rivers because fish were easier to spot there. They explained their findings are important because of the effect scavengers have on the wider food web by linking adjacent ecosystems.
In a 2015 study, ecologists showed for the first time that animals such as gray wolves inhabited a region in the area spanning around 1,000 square miles.
James Beasley, author of the new study and associate professor at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, commented: “We’ve seen evidence of a diversity of wildlife in the CEZ through our previous research, but this is the first time that we’ve seen white-tailed eagles, American mink and river otter on our cameras.”
“We tend to think of fish and other aquatic animals as staying in the aquatic ecosystem. This research shows us that if a reasonable proportion of dead fish make it to shore, there is an entire group of terrestrial and semi-aquatic species that transfer those aquatic nutrients to the terrestrial landscape,” he said.
The scavengers studied by the team aren’t the only animals that wander the exclusion zone. A 2018 report by The Guardian documented the around 300 stray dogs that inhabit the zone. Residents of villages near the disaster were banned from taking their pets with them. Most animals were shot, but some survived leaving behind a community of canines to fend for itself. As for humans, it remains unknown if they will ever be able to safely return.