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


Thirty-five years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, the dogs of Chernobyl roam among the rotting, abandoned buildings in and around the shuttered plant – somehow still able to find food, breed and survive.

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

They published the first of what they hope will be many genetics studies Friday in the journal Science Advances, of 302 free-roaming dogs living in an officially designated “exclusion zone” around the disaster site. will focus on They identified populations whose varying levels of radiation exposure made them genetically distinct from each other and from other dogs around the world.

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“We have this golden opportunity” to lay the groundwork to answer an important question: “How can 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 Mousseau, a biology professor at the University of South Carolina, said dogs “provide a wonderful tool to look at the effects of this type of setting” on whole mammals.

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

The rescue of wild dogs near the Chernobyl disaster site in Ukraine may give researchers insight into what humans might do in similar situations. (Timothy Museo via AP)

The researchers say that most of the dogs they are studying appear to be descendants of pets that were forced to leave behind when residents evacuated the area.

Mousseau has been working in the Chernobyl area since the late 1990s and began 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, they thought the dogs would have interbred so much over time that they would be too similar. But through DNA, they can easily identify dogs living in areas with high, low and moderate levels of radiation exposure.

“It was a big milestone for us,” Ostrander said. “And surprisingly, we could even identify families” — about 15 different ones.

Now researchers can start looking for changes in 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 hurts you at the DNA level. ?” Ostrander said. This would involve distinguishing non-consequential DNA changes from purposeful ones.

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The research could have broad applications, the scientists said, providing insight into how animals and humans can survive now and in the future in regions of the world under “constant environmental assault” — and in the high-radiation environment of space. .

Dr. Carrie Ekenstad, a veterinarian who teaches at Purdue University and was not involved in the study, said this is a first step toward answering important questions about how chronic exposure to high levels of radiation affects large mammals. For example, he said, “Is it rapidly changing their genome?”

Researchers have already begun follow-up research, which means spending more time with the dogs at the site, about 60 miles from Kiev. Mousseau said he and his colleagues were there last October and saw no war-related activity. Mousseau said the team has become close to some of the dogs, one given the name Prancer because she jumps around excitedly when she sees people.

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“Even though they’re wild, they still enjoy human interaction a lot,” he said, “especially when food is involved.”

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