Chernobyl’s Wolves Develop Unexpected Ability as They Thrive in Radioactive Landscape

By: Savvy Dime Staff | Published: Feb 16, 2024

After the explosion of a nuclear reactor in 1986, Chernobyl became home to extreme levels of radiation that has proven deadly to humans. The explosion is known as one of history’s worst nuclear accidents, forcing the evacuation of 150,000 people from land that has not been inhabited by humans since.

The wolves that were impacted by Chernobyl’s radioactivity developed a baffling and unexpected ability that will have lasting implications for medical research.

Tragic History and Aftermath

The explosion at Chernobyl happened during a routine maintenance check where electrical control systems were shut down against safety regulations. 30 people were killed in the immediate blast and researchers speculate that the resulting exposure to radiation may have killed thousands more.

Advertisement
Black and white photo shows the remnants of the Chernobyl power plant after the explosion of the nuclear reactor. Debris surrounds a massive gaping hole in the center of the building

Source: Wikipedia

150,000 people were evacuated from the immediate area and the surrounding towns. 50 years later, the region remains too radioactive for humans to survive, making the wolves and other animals that inhabit the region that much more fascinating.

Advertisement

An Unlikely Haven for Wildlife

In the decades since Chernobyl’s abandonment by humans, wildlife has repopulated and flourished.

Advertisement
A group of shaggy, squat horses graze in a wintery field. One of the buildings of Chernobyl looms in the background

Source: Wikipedia

A near-extinct breed of horse was even introduced to Chernobyl in the hopes that an environment un-impacted by humans might allow the endangered species to expand. Since their introduction, the Przewalski’s horses have nearly doubled their population.

Uncovering the Mysteries of Chernobyl’s Animals

Many of the animals in Chernobyl have exploded in population, baffling scientists with their abilities to reproduce in such an environment. Mutant wolves inhabiting the abandoned radioactive Chernobyl Evacuation Zone (CEZ) have been found to possess anti-cancer genes that could have significant implications for human research.

Advertisement
The abandoned landscape of Chernobyl is pictured with the primary power plant in the center. The plant is surrounded by lush forest and vegetation

Source: Wikipedia

Researchers from Princeton began studying these animals in 2014 in an effort to understand how these animals have been able to survive radiation that is six times the amount a human body can tolerate.

Tracking and Researching the Gray Wolf Population

Cara Love, head of the research team sent to Chernobyl, directed efforts towards drawing blood samples and placing trackers on the gray wolves that roam the CEZ. The radio tracking collars were also able to transmit constant information about the amount of radiation that the wolves were being exposed to.

Advertisement
Two gray wolves sniff along the sparse, leaf-covered forest floor in the CEZ

Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Love stated that the team got “real time measurements of where they are and how much [radiation] they are exposed to.” With these methods, the team was able to discover that the wolves of Chernobyl had altered immune systems.

Revealing the Anti-Cancer Properties of Chernobyl’s Wolves

Further analysis of the genetic make-up of the wolves found that many genes linked to cancer were altered. These mutations appear to have evolved in response to the radiation, leaving the wolves with immune defenses that humans do not possess. Researchers wonder how widespread this resiliency is among all of the animals that are now the primary occupants of the CEZ.

Cats descended from the abandoned pets of Chernobyl lounge out in the open next to an industrial building

Source: Wikipedia

Comparing multiple populations, the team from Princeton noted that the mutated DNA of the wolves within the CEZ was distinct from the DNA of other wolves outside of the 1,000 mile radius.

Advertisement

How Chernobyl’s Wolves Could Change Cancer Research

The mutations in this gray wolf population might hold the key to life-saving treatments for human cancer patients.

A nurse administers chemotherapy to a cancer patient, which is a drug treatment that is administered to kill cancerous cells

Source: Wikipedia

There is abundant research about the genes that increase risk of cancer in humans, but Love’s team hopes that these wolves can pave the way for research into protective mutations as well.

Advertisement

Other Mutations in Chernobyl’s Animal Population

Chernobyl’s radiation has caused countless other mutations in the animals that reside there. Scientists have discovered mutated tree frogs with unique pigmentation and dogs have been found to have a completely different genetic profile from their counterparts outside of the CEZ.

Frogs lined up in a row display the color differences between those found in the CEZ and those of the same species found outside of it. The pigmentation is far darker in the mutated frogs than it is in outside populations

Source: Reddit

Many of these mutations still require extensive study until we can fully understand the reasons behind the animal population’s continued survival in Chernobyl.

Advertisement

Barriers to Continued Study

Although Chernobyl’s mutated animals hold enormous medical research potential, scientists have been unable to enter the CEZ in recent years as a result of the war in Ukraine and continued danger.

A camouflaged tank rolls through the streets of Ukraine with another following behind. Both have soldiers sitting on top of them. A burned and abandoned building can be seen in the background

Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Love commented on the issue by stating that “Our priority is for people and collaborators there to be as safe as possible.” The CEZ has become even more dangerous as a result of the war, with landmines becoming a common presence in the area. Before the war began, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic also complicated access to the region.

Advertisement

Current Discoveries and Efforts

Although the CEZ itself has become inaccessible, related research has appeared elsewhere since the presentation of the wolf discovery at the Annual Meeting of Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology in Seattle this year.

Two scientists discuss a poster that details immune responses

Source: Wikipedia

Studies involving cancer-causing genes in dogs have led to major discoveries around combating the disease. Researchers hope that once the CEZ is accessible, these breakthroughs can be used in tandem with the unusual genetic landscape of Chernobyl.

Advertisement