- Scientists compared dogs living within the Chernobyl power plant and those living farther away.
- Researchers found the Chernobyl dogs to be “genetically distinct.”
- The data could help to reveal the long-term effects of radiation exposure.
Almost 40 years after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, hundreds of feral dogs still live in the abandoned world surrounding the ruins of the Ukrainian power station.
The canine population is now the focus of a scientific study to look at what the genetic makeup of the animals might reveal about living in a radioactive environment.
In a new report released on Friday in the journal Science Advances, scientists examined the genetic structure of 302 dogs representing three distinct “free-roaming dog populations” — comparing those living within the power plant and others living from about 9 miles to 28 miles away.
The team of researchers conducted a genetic analysis that found the dogs living in the 18-mile exclusion zone are “genetically distinct” from those living farther away from the disaster’s epicenter.
While these results do not show that radiation is undoubtedly what caused these genetic differences, the data could help better understand the long-term effects of radiation exposure.
Differentiating between which genetic changes are caused by radiation and which are caused by “other influencing factors” will be complex.
Even so, the researchers have a “golden opportunity” to start to answer the question: “How do you survive in a hostile environment like this for 15 generations?” said co-author of the study and geneticist Elaine Ostrander, according to the Associated Press.
The dog’s DNA samples are highly valuable, Ostrander said, because they often share the same spaces and diets as humans, according to Nature.
“We’ve never had an opportunity to do this work in an animal that reflects us as well as dogs,” she said.
When the power plant in Ukraine exploded in 1986, residents who evacuated the area had to leave their pets behind. While authorities at the time culled many animals to stop contamination from spreading, clean-up workers cared for some dogs, according to the New Scientist.
The Chernobyl Dog Research Initiative — which provides veterinary care — estimates that more than 800 feral dogs are living in the area.