A Distinct “Nuclear” Family for Chernobyl Dogs

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A distinct “nuclear” family for Chernobyl dogs

Study sheds light on how a radioactive environment affects mammals.< /p>

Stray dogs search for food outside the workers' cafeteria at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the August 17, 2017, near Chernobyl, Ukraine. (File photo)

Dogs that live in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant are genetically distinct from those that live outside, shows work by a US team led by University of Carolina geneticist Gabriella Spatola South.

To arrive at this finding, the researchers analyzed the genomes of 302 dogs representing three distinct canine populations living freely inside the power plant and at distances varying from 15 to 45 kilometers from the site of the disaster.

Anna Vlasinko greets two stray dogs at the security post where she works in front of the new giant enclosure built on the remains of reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, August 19, 2017. (File photo)

  • On April 26, 1986, a major nuclear accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, located 130 kilometers north of Kiev in Ukraine (at that time in the USSR).
  • The explosion blasts radioactive material into the environment, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and creating an exclusion zone uninhabited by humans.
  • < li>The area is still frequented by wild and domestic animals, including some 800 dogs, descendants of those left behind when residents fled the disaster.

  • These dogs live in the abandoned buildings of plant or its vicinity and are often fed by work crews and tourists.

The Chernobyl Dogs research group was set up in June 2017 in response to the increase in the size of the wild dog population in the exclusion zone. Thus, between 2017 and 2019, three veterinary stations were created to provide care for stray dogs, but also to collect blood samples representing their geographical diversity.

< p class="sc-v64krj-0 dlqbmr">A volunteer feeds a stray dog ​​outside a veterinary station just outside the Chernobyl power plant on June 8, 2018. (File photo)

Samples from 132 dogs living near the power plant, 154 stray dogs from the city of Chernobyl and 16 stray dogs from Slavutych were collected to establish their genetic profiles.

Pavel Burkatsky uses a blowgun to fire a tranquilizer dart at a stray dog ​​in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, August 19, 2017. Burkatsky was taking part in the Chernobyl Dogs project. (File photo)

This work established that the dogs came from 15 different families, with some spread over large areas and others more confined. Overall, it determined that Chernobyl dogs are genetically distinct from other populations of purebred or crossbred dogs in twelve other countries.

Clean Futures Fund co-founder Lucas Hixson pets a stray dog ​​outside a veterinary station next to the Chernobyl power plant.

In addition, the analysis of the samples shows that the groups of dogs present in the exclusion zone are also different from each other depending on the geographical distance from the plant. In addition, the dogs living in the immediate surroundings of the plant, mainly German shepherds, are more inbred than those living further away, such as in the neighboring towns of Chernobyl and Slavutych, located respectively 14 km and 45 km from the site.

The researchers also established that the dogs in the plant and those in the city of Chernobyl did not seem to interbreed much.

Two stray dogs walk past a Ferris wheel in the ghost town of Prypiat near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on May 29, 2022. (File photo)

Data collected shows that dogs living in certain areas around the plant have levels of cesium 137 – a toxic radioelement – ​​more than 200 times higher than in those living ten kilometers away in the city of Chernobyl.

This study presents the first characterization of a domesticated species at Chernobyl. It makes it possible to study the effects of long-term exposure to low doses of ionizing radiation, note the authors of the study published in the journal Science Advances (in English ).

A dog rests next to a radioactivity sign in the ghost town of Prypyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, April 8, 2016. (File photo)

However, it remains difficult to determine what genetic differences may have been caused by the exposure to radiation or other factors.

Either way, scientists believe that the unique genetic diversity of Chernobyl dogs makes them good candidates for further studies aimed at understanding the long-term effects of radioactive environments on the health of large mammal populations.

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