Unleashed, the reasons why stray dogs might be thriving in Chernobyl

Dogs Chernobyl nuclear disaster power plant Ukraine Pripyat wildlife thrive

Animals roaming in the nuclear exclusion zone have developed DNA and behaviour distinct from other canines, say scientists

SCIENCE EDITOR 3 March 2023 •

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.

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 contaminationdevastated 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. 

Dogs Chernobyl nuclear disaster power plant Ukraine Pripyat wildlife thrive
Scientists hope that the genetic discovery could offer insights in preventing cancer in humans CREDIT: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

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 began 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. 

Dogs Chernobyl nuclear disaster power plant Ukraine Pripyat wildlife thrive
The stray dogs have been monitored by the Chernobyl Dog Research Initiative since 1997, 11 years after the nuclear disaster CREDIT: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

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. 

However, in recent years, researchers have found that closing off the land to humans has allowed wildlife to flourish, with the area now a haven for lynx, bison, brown bear, wolves, boar and deer as well as 60 rare plant species. 

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone currently represents the third-largest nature reserve in mainland Europe and is often considered an accidental experiment in rewilding. 

Previous studies showed that exposure to radiation speeds up the genetic mutation rate among plants, with some species evolving new chemistry that makes them more resistant to radiation damage and protects their DNA.

Scientists have pointed out that in the past when early plants were evolving, levels of natural radiation on Earth were far higher than now, so species may be able to switch on dormant traits to survive. 

However, it was unknown whether the same protective adaptations would be seen in larger animals.

The new study was based on 302 free-roaming dogs living in the exclusion zone, which were found to have different genetic make-ups depending on how much radiation they were exposed to. 

The NIH team is now planning to study the genetic changes to find out whether they are helping the dogs to survive. 

The research was published in the journal Science Advances.


  1. These good dogs were leading peaceful lives until last year. Let’s hope that eating foul, rotten orc meat did not set them back again.
    There must never be another attack on Kyiv oblast again; the allies should make absolutely sure of it.

    The DT reports today that :

    “Ukrainian forces were reportedly digging new defence trenches to the west of Bakhmut: a sign that a tactical withdrawal could be imminent.”

    This is an utter disgrace. Not for Ukraine, but for the failure of the west to provide sufficient resources to prevent this.
    All through the long months of horror, the local commanders had only tired old Soviet artillery to drive off a fucking horde of scum.
    This must be the last tactical withdrawal. The west must redouble their efforts.

      • Today the DT is running not one, but three “putler’s finished” articles.
        What do you think? Should I post them, or are you tired of seeing such material?

  2. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a great place to visit. We were there in late December 2021. Although it was bitter cold, we had a great time. There’s a lot to see, more than one realizes. One of the sights are the stray dogs. The tour guide told us about them and suggested buying dog food. We would make a stop along the way to the zone from Kyiv to do some last-minute shopping, since there was no opportunity to eat someplace once there. The tour lasts the entire day, early morning to the evening.
    Indeed, even in the dead of winter, we saw many dogs. They were well-fed and seemed quite healthy and normal in every respect. We fed all of them, at every sightseeing stop where the dogs were, and they seemed to be virtually waiting for tourists. We even fed a fox, which was already being fed by another sightseeing tour.

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