New research is showing that the population of wolves living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) is genetically different from their counterparts outside of the region. Remarkably, the irradiated wolves appear to have developed protective mutations that increase their odds of surviving cancer.
Populations of wolves, as well as other animals, have boomed in the CEZ of Ukraine since the area was abandoned following the infamous 1986 nuclear disaster. In the absence of people, wildlife has been allowed to thrive without disruption of human activity.
However, to enjoy this freedom, animals must confront the glaring problem of radiation. After all, that is why humans left in the first place.
To understand how these animals survive against the odds, Cara Love, an evolutionary biologist and ecotoxicologist at Princeton University, has been studying the wolves of Chernobyl for a decade.
In 2014, Love and her colleagues headed to the CEZ and took blood samples from the wolves to understand their responses to cancer-causing radiation. Some were also fitted with radio collars to gather information on their locations and their exposure to radiation.
“We get real-time measurements of where they are and how much [radiation] they are exposed to,” Love said in a statement.
The research showed that wolves in the CEZ are exposed to more than 11.28 millirem of radiation every single day for their entire lives – that’s over six times the legal limit for human workers.
The researchers also noted that the wolves have altered immune systems, similar to patients undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. Furthermore, genetic analysis suggests that parts of the wolves’ genome have developed some resilience to cancer.
Similar findings have been seen among the hundreds of semi-feral dogs that live in the CEZ. In 2023, scientists found the free-wheeling dogs of Chernobyl were genetically different from pet dogs living elsewhere in the world.
Love’s discovery could have implications for human health too. Love hopes to use the findings to identify protective mutations that increase people’s odds of surviving cancer.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing war with Russia have prevented Love and her collaborators from returning to the CEZ. There’s no telling if and when they will be able to return.
“Our priority is for people and collaborators there to be as safe as possible,” said Love.
The new research was presented last month at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology’s Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington.