In April 1986, a catastrophic nuclear accident took place at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Ukraine's border with Belarus, spewing out vast amounts of dangerous radioactive debris. Today, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) spans 2,600 square kilometers (1,000 square miles). It’s almost void of human life, but for the country's wildlife, it's an inviting wilderness in which to thrive.
A research team from the University of Georgia, who have been investigating the CEZ’s wild residents for years, recently set up an experiment to investigate the area’s scavengers. They placed whole carp along the banks of rivers and canals and set up camera traps to snap any critters that showed up for a snack.
Analyzing their footage, the team spotted 15 different vertebrates – 10 mammals and five birds. The mammals included three species of mice, raccoon dogs, wolves, American mink, and Eurasian otters. Among the birds were tawny owls, jays, magpies, and white-tailed eagles. Excitingly, the researchers had never seen a handful of these species in the area before.
"We've seen evidence of a diversity of wildlife in the CEZ through our previous research, but this is the first time that we've seen white-tailed eagles, American mink and river otter on our cameras," said study co-author James Beasley in a statement.
A previous study by Beasley and his colleagues in 2015 found abundant populations of mammals like elk, red deer, wild boar, and wolves in the CEZ.
For their new study, the team focused just on scavengers, and were pleased to discover that 98 percent of the fish they'd left out had been demolished – a sign of a very healthy scavenger community and, in turn, a blossoming wider ecosystem.
"This is a high rate of scavenging, and given that all our carcasses were consumed by terrestrial or semi-aquatic species, it verifies that the movement of nutritional resources between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems occurs more frequently than often recognized," explained Beasley.
"We tend to think of fish and other aquatic animals as staying in the aquatic ecosystem. This research shows us that if a reasonable proportion of dead fish make it to shore, there is an entire group of terrestrial and semi-aquatic species that transfer those aquatic nutrients to the terrestrial landscape."
The researchers found that the fish were scavenged most efficiently when placed by the river as they were easier to spot, but that species richness was greatest around the canals. This is because the canals are surrounded by more vegetation, providing a safer environment for animals that prefer to lay low.
The team note that their findings reveal the presence of a “highly efficient community of vertebrate scavengers” in the CEZ, an important feature of any healthy ecosystem. It seems the abandoned CEZ is an unexpected haven for much of Ukraine’s wildlife.