Stray dogs survive nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, develop distinct DNA and behaviour

Living amid the fallout of the world’s worst nuclear disaster may not seem like a sensible lifestyle choice, but the dogs of Chernobyl may have evolved to make it work, a study suggested.

Some animals, including dogs, survived and continued to breed long after Chernobyl was sealed off to humans CREDIT: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Scientists found that strays living in the exclusion zone of the Ukrainian disaster have developed distinct DNA and behaviour from other canines.

Since the nuclear catastrophe took place in April 1986, the area surrounding the nuclear power plant has largely been abandoned by humans. 

But although radioactive contamination devastated wildlife populations there, some animals survived and continued to breed – including feral dogs, some of whom may have descended from domestic pets. 

The team found that the strays had formed into packs, like wild dogs and wolves, but the groups were living close together, a behaviour not seen in undomesticated animals. 

The dogs have been monitored by the Chernobyl Dog Research Initiative since 2017, and a new study of blood samples taken by the project team has shown that the animals were genetically different from other canines. 

Now the team are planning to study the new genetic traits to see if any of the mutations is helping them to survive in the radiation zone. 

Discovering how mammals evolve to live in harsh radiation environments could bring important insights into how to prevent cancer in humans, or protect astronauts in the deadly radioactive environment of space. 

Dr Elaine Ostrander, a geneticist from the National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), said: “We don’t yet know what, if any, genetic differences might allow dogs to survive in one versus another environment.  

“Looking for changes in the DNA that have helped one versus the other population survive is the long-term goal of the study and one we are working towards now.

“We think that is an important experiment because those changes, if identified, would be helpful for understanding early events in cancer, help guide using therapies for diseases that are motivated by radiation exposure, and would suggest ways in which we can better protect ourselves from both accidental and natural radiation exposure.  

“For instance, we know that space is a high radiation environment, and information from this study could help scientists design ideal protection for those spending significant time in space, as space exploration continues to expand.”

The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26 1986 with the explosion of reactor number four at the nuclear power plant causing an updraft of radioactivity which spread across Europe. 

Two people died immediately and 29 within the coming days of acute radiation syndrome, while the United Nations estimated some 4,000 more died from the fallout.

Many women also aborted their babies for fear they would be affected by radiation poisoning. 

Some 300,000 people were evacuated from their homes and, in the aftermath, a 1,000-square mile exclusion zone was set up around the site.