Numerous loose canines roaming the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s ruins have been the subject of new studies, suggesting that radiation exposure may have caused them to develop genetic differences from canines found elsewhere.

Around 120,000 neighborhood and nearby Pripyat residents were compelled to flee and abandon their homes after the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe on April 26, 1986. The irradiated land surrounding the disintegrating power plant is still home to a sizeable community of pet dogs who, despite all the odds, established a strong population.

In a recent study, researchers sought to learn more about the unusual dog populations that inhabit the area around Chernobyl in light of the severe environmental contamination to which many are regularly subjected.

They genetically analyzed 302 dogs from populations residing inside the power plant and those 15 to 45 kilometers (9.3 to 27.9 miles) away from the catastrophe site using blood samples taken from stray animals between 2017 and 2019.

Chernobyl dogs living outside the New Safe Confinement Structure, which was built to contain radioactivity from the explosion of reactor four.


Chernobyl dogs living outside the New Safe Confinement Structure, which was built to contain radioactivity from the explosion of reactor four. Image credit: Clean Futures Fund+

The dogs living close to Chernobyl were genetically distinct from pets living elsewhere in the world just by looking at their DNA, which the researchers think is a result of the ionizing radiation they have been exposed to for generations.

The most recent study discovered that this community has 15 complex family structures distinct from other dog populations. It is also evident that the dogs easily roam the various regions and breed with one another.

“I think the most remarkable thing about the study is that we identify populations of dogs living in and in the shadow of the reactor, and we can tell who those dogs are just by looking at their DNA profile. To think of families living in places like near spent fuel rods is incredible and speaks to the resilience of dogs as a species,” Elaine Ostrander, study author and geneticist at the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute.

“We also find that the dogs living in the exclusion zone are likely descendants of pets from people who fled the area when the explosion happened. We can see the history of those pets etched in the DNA of dogs living in the exclusion zone today,” explained Ostrander.

A stray dog in Chernobyl in grass

Many Chernobyl dogs find shelter in abandoned buildings or construction zones within the nuclear exclusion zone. Image credit: Jordan Lapier

Up to 800 semi-feral dogs may have been residing in the area surrounding Chernobyl at the time of the most recent count, including in extremely contaminated areas like the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement building.

The dogs are classified as semi-feral because they occasionally have encounters with people. Veterinarians occasionally visit the area to update the animals’ vaccinations and handle any medical issues they may have. Local employees and researchers are known to feed the animals.

Now that this study has demonstrated that it is possible to differentiate between the various populations of Chernobyl dogs with reliability, the researchers intend to investigate whether the genetic variations affect their health, appearance, and behavior. According to the researchers, it might even shed light on genetic mutations that enable animals to withstand radiation exposure.

“Ideally, we’d like to find variants that the DNA has acquired over the 15 generations since the accident that permit the survival of the high radiation exposure versus low radiation exposure environment,” explained Ostrander.

A group of dogs standing in Chernobyl.

Free-living dogs in Chernobyl. Image credit: Tim Mousseau

Even though this study is still in its early stages, the researchers were thrilled to demonstrate how highly detailed genetic analysis is now possible, even on a motley crew of stray dogs.

“The next stage of this study will involve increasing our magnification to the level of the entire genome and its architecture. Once again, I can’t emphasize how revolutionary this is. We have been able to do this kind of study for humans and lab animals where budgets are high. We are now at the stage where this technology can be applied to just about any system anywhere,” Tim Mousseau, research author and professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, explained.

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