A camera trap survey of the forests and town surrounding the location of the Chernobyl power plant nuclear meltdown in 1986 has given a glimpse into the lives of the animals that have reclaimed the deserted landscape. But rather than suffering from the huge amounts of radiation and contaminants belched out by the disaster, researchers have found that the wildlife populations in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) are flourishing.
A previous study by the same research team had found that the populations of wildlife in the CEZ were doing well, but it relied simply on counting animal tracks to estimate numbers. This new study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, has used camera traps to confirm these earlier findings, and reiterate how the animals living within the disaster zone are thriving.
“The earlier study shed light on the status of wildlife populations in the CEZ, but we still needed to back that up,” explained James Beasley of the University of Georgia and co-author of both studies in a statement. “For this study we deployed cameras in a systematic way across the entire Belarus section of the CEZ and captured photographic evidence – strong evidence – because these are pictures that everyone can see.”
The team used a camera trap scent station technique, in which they not only set up a remote camera to take photos whenever anything triggers it, but they also applied a fatty acid scent in order to attract any animals walking nearby. They focused mainly on the wild carnivores in the area, because they often sit at the top of the food chain and are good indicators as to the general health of an ecosystem.
“Carnivores are often in higher trophic levels of ecosystem food webs, so they are susceptible to bioaccumulation of contaminants,” says Sarah Webster, another of the co-authors. This means that while animals lower down the food chain – such as deer – might have smaller levels of contamination, as predators like wolves eat multiple deer, the contaminants build up, or accumulate. “Few studies in Chernobyl have investigated effects of contamination level on populations of species in high trophic levels.”
They found no evidence to suggest that these animals had been negatively affected by the radiation or any other contamination, with wolves, wild boar, red foxes, and raccoon dogs being the most frequently seen species. By setting up 30 camera traps throughout an area of over 2,160 square kilometers (834 square miles), they found that what was driving their distribution was not variations in radiation, but the more basic needs of food and water.