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Study: Chernobyl Birds Actually Thrive In Radiation

April 28, 2014
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Birds seem to be adapting just fine to the higher radiation levels near the destroyed Chernobyl nuclear power plant—and may even be benefiting—according to a study published online last week in Functional Ecology.

Ismael Galván, PhD, the lead author, summarized the study’s surprising main conclusion:

Previous studies of wildlife at Chernobyl showed that chronic radiation exposure depleted antioxidants and increased oxidative damage. We found the opposite—that antioxidant levels increased and oxidative stress decreased with increasing background radiation.

Dr. Galván works in the evolutionary ecology department at the Spanish National Research Council. He was quoted in a news release from the British Ecological Society, publisher of the journal.

Laboratory experiments have shown that humans and other animals can adapt to radiation, and that prolonged exposure to low doses increases resistance to later, larger doses. The reactor explosion that occurred on April 26, 1986, near Chernobyl, Ukraine, contaminated the area with radiation, inadvertently creating a research opportunity.

The researchers examined (and then released) 152 birds from 16 different species at eight sites in and near the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The scientists measured background radiation levels at each site and took feather and blood samples from the birds. They then tested the blood for oxidative stress, DNA damage, and levels of the antioxidant glutathione.

In general, the researchers found that the higher the background radiation, the better the birds’ general condition. Higher radiation was associated with higher glutathione levels and less oxidative stress and DNA damage.

However, the type of melanin pigment in the birds’ feathers made a difference. Birds with larger amounts of pheomelanin, which uses up antioxidants, had less glutathione, more oxidative stress, more DNA damage, and worse overall body condition.

“The findings are important,” Dr Galván said, “because they tell us more about the different species’ ability to adapt to environmental challenges such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.”

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