Environment

Chernobyl: A Biodiversity Hot Spot?

By Jessica MarshallJan 21, 2006 12:00 AM

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Don't plan on moving to Chernobyl anytime soon. The 1986 nuclear disaster released 400 atomic bombs' worth of radioactive contamination and will ultimately be responsible for 10,000 human deaths. An egg-shaped 18-mile radius remains evacuated, dotted with desolate ghost towns. Yet the human exodus has created a thriving wildlife preserve, scientists agree. The area is populated by larger groups and more types of mammals than before. Storks, wolves, beavers, and eagles that are rare or endangered outside the area are moving in.

The news is not all rosy, though. Radiation effects linger on. According to James Morris, a biologist at the University of South Carolina, trees in the extremely contaminated Red Forest next to the reactor still "don't know which way is up." They branch and twist oddly, the chemical signals that orient their growth disrupted, Morris says.

Meanwhile, barn swallows have lost their sex drive. "They fly back from Africa to breed, and then a fifth don't even try," says Timothy Mousseau, also a University of South Carolina biologist. Males who use their long, elegant tail feathers to attract mates now have less stuff to strut: Their tails are short, probably deformed by radiation. As for humans, Morris says, "People probably could live there, if people were happy leading short lives."

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