War in Ukraine threatens intriguing wildlife science

JIt’s collapsing in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine was a human tragedy. But it was also a biological opportunity. Since 2000, Timothy Mousseau from the University of South Carolina and Anders Moller from the Laboratory of Ecology, Systematics and Evolution at Orsay, near Paris, have led the Chernobyl Research Initiative Lab in collaboration with a dozen Ukrainian colleagues. . They examined how animals and plants in what is now, by default, a wildlife sanctuary, have adapted to their radioactive environment.

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Over the years they have published over 120 articles. They started by studying the genetics of barn swallows (pictured) living at varying distances from the reactor. They found that the mutations made the body size of the birds more variable in areas of high radiation. They then demonstrated that populations of colorful birds declined more than those of less colorful birds, supporting a long-held claim that bright colors are used as an honest signal of good health (something birds have little chances of enjoying in such a hostile place). They even found evidence that birds around Chernobyl have developed a tolerance to radiation, showing that those living there have higher population densities than their conspecifics in similar circumstances near the Fukushima power plant in Japan. That melted just 11 years ago, down from 36, giving residents less time to adapt.

All these works were stopped following the invasion of Ukraine. Among the victims are a six-year camera trap experiment recording the distribution and abundance of mammals, a project monitoring the effects of radiation on the microbiomes of wild dogs, a study of genomics, physiology, reproduction and rodent ecology, and collaboration with Nasathe US space agency, to understand how plants adapt to chronic radiation exposure, which could be important if crops are grown on board spacecraft or on celestial bodies with little or no atmosphere intercepting radiation.

There is also the threat that the study site could be permanently damaged. Dr Mousseau suspects that the noise of fighting in the area has already caused wildlife to flee in the opposite direction. He saw something similar during noisy cleanups in Fukushima, although the animals eventually returned.

However, Fukushima was not strewn with landmines, which he said happened when Russian troops moved into the area. If true, it would pose a hazard to wildlife and biologists.

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Read more about our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis

This article appeared in the Science and Technology section of the print edition under the title “A Casualty of War”

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