Chernobyl wolves are leaving the radioactive area, possibly spreading.
PACKS of wolves living near the site of the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine could spread mutant radioactive genes as they begin to venture outside the exclusion zone which surrounds the abandoned nuclear power station, scientists have warned.
The 1,600 square mile zone was sealed off after the 1986 disaster, in which a malfunction triggered an explosion which released vast amounts of radiation from the reactor into the air. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history.
New evidence has shown grey wolves living in the vicinity could be leaving the exclusion zone for the first time – raising the prospect that mutant genes could spread from them into the wider population.
After the disaster, the entire town of Pripyat, which has a population of 49,360 was permanently evacuated.
Even though radiation levels are still too high for people to return, the area has become a haven for wildlife, and is now home to large numbers of lynx, boars and horses.
Wolf numbers are estimated to be seven times greater than those of surrounding areas, because there are no people to keep numbers in check.
The study, undertaken by researchers at the University of Missouri, Columbia, suggested at least one of the predators had ventured 186 miles beyond the boundaries of the exclusion zone.
In total, his team tracked 14 grey wolves by fitting them with GPS collars.
Thirteen of them, adults over the age of two, stayed within the zone – but the 14th, a juvenile male, had travelled well beyond it over the course of a 21-day period.
Unfortunately, his collar manufactured, making it impossible to tell whether or not he had settled permanently outside the zone.
The research paper, published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research, said: “The dispersal of a young wolf is an important observation because it suggests that the CEZ may serve as a source for some wildlife populations outside of the CEZ.”
It said the discovery “raises questions about the potential spread of radiation-induced genetic mutations to populations in uncontaminated areas”.
Dr Michael Byrne, who led the team, told the Live Science website “one area can hold only so many large predators” adding that it was “the first proof of a wolf dispersing beyond the exclusion zone”.
He stressed: “No wolves there were glowing – they all have four legs, two eyes and one tail.”
He also pointed out that there was currently no evidence to suggest mutations are being brought into the wider areas outside the exclusion zone.
In the aftermath of the accident, 237 people were diagnosed as suffering from acute radiation sickness, of whom 31 died within the first three months.
The disaster has also been linked with higher rates of cancer. The environmental charity Greenpeace has suggested that in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, the accident may have resulted in between 10,000 and 200,000 additional deaths in the period between 1990 and 2004.