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On April 26, 1986 in the northern part of Ukraine, about 80 miles from Kiev, a nuclear power plant named “Chernobyl” experienced a massive surge in the “#4 reactor” which resulted in a chemical explosion, releasing over 500 dangerous radionuclides into the air.
Residents of the cities surrounding Chernobyl fled, turning them into abandoned ghost towns – except for the animals. Sadly, most residents left their pets behind to fend for themselves…and “fend” they did.
Much to the surprise of everyone, decades later, the descendants of those abandoned “Chernobyl” dogs have survived, interbred, and also thrived beyond what anybody thought possible.
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As a matter of fact, they thrived so much, that a new rare “dog” was created from the ashes of nuclear fallout.
Dogs in the area have had to adapt to survive in the contaminated environment, and some have developed very unique physical characteristics, such as longer limbs and a thicker coats, which may help them survive in the harsh conditions.
But there is something even deeper going on with these amazing creatures and scientists are now studying them to see how the radiation has possibly changed their entire genetic makeup.
Of the dogs sampled, 132 lived in close proximity to the nuclear plant, either inside the facilities that store spent nuclear fuel, in the railway station next to the plant or in the woods directly surrounding it. Another 154 were stray dogs in Chernobyl City, a largely abandoned town 15 kilometres from the nuclear plant. The last 16 were stray dogs in Slavutych, a more populated area 45 kilometres from the plant that has been exposed to less radiation.
The researchers compared these genomes with those of more than 200 free-breeding dogs from other parts of Ukraine and 12 nearby countries.
The genomes of the dogs living close to the nuclear plant and in Chernobyl City were both markedly different from dogs that lived far away from the blast location.
At this stage, it is unclear whether this is because their genomes have been altered by radiation, because individuals with certain genetic features have been more likely to survive the radiation and pass down their genes, or as a result of 37 years of inbreeding due to the dogs’ relative isolation.
“We had to characterise these different populations as the necessary first step in order to do the experiment we want to do next, which is to find out how [the Chernobyl dogs] have survived in this hostile environment of radiation, cold temperatures and limited food,” says Ostrander.
All the dogs in the study were mixtures rather than any specific breed, but the researchers found that the dogs living close to Chernobyl City and the nuclear plant appear most genetically related to German shepherds, suggesting they are descended from German shepherd pets. “That means we can use German shepherds from other places as a kind of background to look at genetic scarring on the Chernobyl dogs,” says Spatola.
The team will also compare the Chernobyl dog genomes with those of dog specimens in museums that pre-date the nuclear disaster to look for evidence of genetic alterations.
The results may help to identify genetic variants that increase cancer resistance or assist the development of protections against radiation exposure, both for people on Earth and those venturing into space, where radiation levels are higher, say the researchers.
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This informative and fascinating video further explores the lives of these rare dogs.
These days, the Clean Futures Fund makes frequent trips to the exclusion zone in order to spay and neuter, tag and feed these miracle pups. They say it’s very important to keep the dog population low, so the local Ukrainian authorities don’t euthanize the animals.
Experts believe that studying these wondrous animals will reveal a lot about how longterm radiation impacts species.
Also, an interesting side note: back in 2019, many of the younger dogs of Chernobyl were actually brought to the US and adopted by American families.
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