A nuclear disaster at a power station in Chernobyl, Ukraine, discharged huge amounts of radioactive material into wide swaths of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, home to millions of residents, in 1986. And nearly 30 years later, University of Georgia researchers are seeking to uncover the effect this accident has had on the wildlife in the area.

Specifically focusing on wolves on the Belarus-side of the affected area, Associate Research Scientist Stacey Lance and Assistant Research Scientist James Beasley of UGA’s Savannah River Ecology Lab are heading a team to determine how much radiation the wolves are exposed to.

“The Chernobyl disaster captured the world's attention, largely due to the human tragedy, but little is known about its impact on local wildlife,” said Christopher Thornton, lead program officer of the Committee for Research and Exploration at the National Geographic Society, in an email to The Red & Black.

The researchers will pull data from scat surveys, wildlife cameras and radio transmitter collars that will be placed on up to nine wolves, transmitting data on radiation levels and location to computers in real time, Beasley said.

The transmitters, developed by Beasley and Thomas Hinton, former senior research scientist at SREL and coordinator of the STAR Network of Excellence in Radioecology with the Institute of Radioprotection and Security in France, will quantify radiation levels, Beasley said.

The researchers have also established two approximately 50-kilometer areas — one with high radioactive contamination, one with medium contamination — and will collect DNA to figure out what species it came from and individually identify animals to estimate population size, Lance said. This will help them figure out whether population size differs depending on habitat or contamination level for these species, she said.

They will then integrate this data with the information they gather from the wildlife cameras, which should show the distribution of carnivores within the zone relative to habitats and radiation levels, giving researchers an idea of both distribution and abundance, Beasley said.

“All of these projects are intertwined to tell the story of population ecology of carnivores within the zone,” he said.

Searching for answers

The research is important because scientists still don’t know what effect chronic exposure to radiation has on wildlife, so there’s no protection for the animals in the exposure areas, Lance said.

The International Atomic Energy Association has been calling for more research to answer these questions because the models they have now assume a static level of exposure “and we know that’s not the case, so hopefully our data can help inform these models,” she said. NGS, IRSN and the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority are all funding the research. 

However, wolves are inherently difficult to study because they’re naturally secretive, elusive and there are fewer of them, so other scientists have opted for smaller animals in their studies, Beasley said.

“If you’re doing a population ecology study, a lot of people will pick something like a small mammal where you can catch lots of them and so wolves and things like that are just harder to work with,” he said. “It’s far more effort and challenging to catch an animal like a wolf than a mouse, but if you know the techniques, it’s doable. It just takes a lot more time and effort and the number that you catch is going to be far lower than species like small animals.”

However, wolves are also good subjects in that the researchers can expect to see a variety of contamination levels within a regular week due to their large home range, as opposed to a mouse, which would stay in one small general area, Lance said.

“They’re pretty much ideal in measuring the variability in exposure because they’re going to range over many miles and so they’ll be exposed to vastly different levels of contamination,” Beasley said.

From Belarus to the U.S.

Exposure to this radiation isn’t of any danger to the researchers though, as long as they’re just driving or walking around in the zone for short periods of time, Lance said. 

But after working there for three and a half weeks, none of the researchers had accumulated the level of exposure one would get from having a lumbar ex-ray, she said.

“I think the public doesn’t really understand that they’re exposed to radiation all the time from flying, from ex-rays, from various medical treatments — it’s hard to put it in perspective,” Lance said.

The researchers started the first field season Oct. 1. And while Beasley and Lance have returned to the U.S., their students and others are still in Belarus working on getting collars on the wolves and finishing up the research for this field season before they come back to the states in late November, Beasley said. He and Lance will return in the spring to collect transmitter collars from the wolves, but are seeking additional funding to expand the research. 

“All this information we’re getting now would be a foundation, and what we learn from this we would expand and develop future studies that expand on our findings, that would possibly explore other species of carnivores or various other species that have been understudied,” he said.

Joseph Schoon, a freshman forestry major from Tyrone, said it’s good that UGA is doing this research because it could be applicable to other nuclear disaster sites.

However, while the beautiful Belarusian landscape is a welcome relief from American strip malls and parking lots, the dilapidated houses and lonely cemeteries still serve as a reminder of all the people that were uprooted from their homes, Lance said.

“It’s incredibly humbling to drive through village after village after village,” Beasley said. “But on the other side, it’s become a pretty remarkable wildlife reserve — there’s wildlife everywhere in the exclusion zone, so you can drive around everywhere in a given day and see wild boar, moose, red deer, a whole variety of different species. And so it’s a pretty incredible place to do wildlife research.”