I’ve heard this once or twice before. When humans moved out of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, wildlife moved in. Pictures snapped by a camera trap:
One of the first rescuers on the site of the nuclear disaster, Gaschak has devoted recent years to photographing lynxes, otters, owls and other wildlife, and has even discovered the footprints of brown bears…
At the time of the disaster, there were few wild animals living in the region around the nuclear plant. But as the humans moved out in the wake of the catastrophe, large mammals appeared and thrived. While the animals showed incredibly high levels of radiation, they still looked normal. There were no giant wolves or three-headed deer.
According to a book on animal and plant life in the zone, A Natural History of Chernobyl, the only abnormalities found in animals has been albino spots and deformities in barn swallows.
Unless there’s some other explanation, it rather sounds like living things can tolerate far higher levels of radiation than had previously been believed.
I suppose the idea that high levels of radiation cause mutations – and three-headed deer – comes from an understanding of living things as being wholly determined by their genes, and if the DNA in their genes is fragmented or modified by radiation, then the resulting plant or animal will reflect these changes. But assuming that the DNA in Chernobyl plants and animals actually actually is getting damaged by high radiation levels, it doesn’t seem to matter.
One possible explanation might be that when plant or animal cells become damaged, they usually won’t grow and divide like normal cells. They may even die. But undamaged cells around the damaged cells may continue to grow and divide, and the normal cells rapidly outnumber the damaged cells. And a wolf like the one in the photo may well have a great many dead and damaged cells in it, but these are gradually being flushed out and replaced by normally growing and dividing cells. And there’s only really a problem when very large numbers of cells are damaged or killed.
Whatever the explanation, this story had me wondering whether the danger from radiation may have been hyped – much like the dangers of environmental tobacco smoke -. It could be that nuclear physicists simply have no idea how dangerous radiation really is, and so the danger levels have been set artificially low until it becomes clearer.
In this respect, Chernobyl will be no doubt prove to be an interesting and informative experiment.