March 18, 2009

Chernobyl Disaster Still Affecting Nearby Animal Population

An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant more than 20 years ago still haunts wildlife near the region of the disaster, researchers said on Wednesday.

In a recent study, researchers found that numbers of bumblebees, butterflies, spiders, grasshoppers and other invertebrates were still far below normal levels in areas affected by the blast in Ukraine.

"Ours was the first study to focus on the abundance of animal populations," Anders Moller, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, told Reuters.

Moller worked alongside Professor Timothy Mousseau from the University of South Carolina.

Previous findings showed that radiation in the area had a negative impact on bird populations.

"We wanted to expand the range of our coverage to include insects, mammals and plants," said Mousseau. "This study is the next in the series."

Researchers observed the populations of creatures living in regions that had been contaminated.

They used what Mousseau told the BBC were "standard ecological techniques" - plotting "line transects" through selected areas, and counting the numbers of insects and spiders webs they found along that line.

"We took transects through contaminated areas in Chernobyl, contaminated land in Belarus, and in areas free of contamination.

They were stunned to find that some areas contained almost no animal life.

"What we found was the same basic pattern throughout these areas - the numbers of organisms declined with increasing contamination."

"There are areas with an abundance of 100 animals per square meter," Moller said. "And then there are areas with less than one specimen per square meter on average; the same goes for all groups of species."

The World Health Organization estimates that 9,000 people were killed as a result of the accident. Environmental group Greenpeace says the death toll could eventually reach 93,000.

Researchers also noted that animals living near the disaster site had certain deformities, including discoloration and stunted limbs, than normal animals.

"Usually (deformed) animals get eaten quickly, as it's hard to escape if your wings are not the same length," Moller said. "In this case we found a high incidence of deformed animals."

However, Dr Sergii Gashchak, a researcher at the Chornobyl Center in Ukraine, disagrees with Moller and Mousseau's findings.

"Wildlife really thrives in Chernobyl area - due to the low level of [human] influence," he told BBC News.

"All life appeared and developed under the influence of radiation, so mechanisms of resistance and recovery evolved to survive in those conditions. After the accident, radiation impacts exceeded the capabilities of organisms. But 10 years after the accident, the dose rates dropped by 100 to 1,000 times."

But for Mousseau, "the verdict is still out concerning the long-term consequences of mutagenic contaminants in the environment."

"Long-term studies of the Chernobyl ecosystem offer a unique opportunity to explore these potential risks that should not be missed."


Image Caption: This two-month-old an eagle owl nestling in 2002 was found by Shelter workers not far from the "sarcophagus". He is among endangered species, which representatives about 50 nested pairs remained in Ukraine. This find testifies that in Exclusion Zone there are nested pairs of these rare birds. A nestling has been transferred to the Kiev Zoo, which has experience of these birds keeping and rearing. [ More Chernobyl Pics ]


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