#ChernobylFrogs16 Chernobyl Recap: the Wildlife

After the accident occurred in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986, the predominant view was that the area would become inhabitable not only for humans, but also for wildlife, during centuries. However, pretty soon it was clear that this was not the case for many animal species. Although some studies have reported clear impacts of high-dose radiation in several species of animals, many others have described the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone almost as a wildlife paradise sustaining big populations of wolves, lynxes, Przewalski horses (introduced in the area in 1998), mousse, wild boards, and even a growing population of brown bears. You can read a great summary of one of these studies by @GrrlScientist here.

So, here is what I saw during my recent #ChernobylFrogs16 fieldwork between 9-13th of May 2016.

Since my work was focused on amphibians, I mostly moved across the Zone during night time, so I didn’t have the opportunity to see many birds or insects. Anyway, I was able to see “big” birds such as black grouse (Tetrao tetrix), great egret (Casmerodius albus), white stork (Ciconia ciconia) or white tailed-eagle (Haliaetus albicilla). On my study localities, reed (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) and grasshopper (Locustella naevia) warblers, and especially thrush nightingales (Locustella locustella), were extremely abundant. Common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) calls were also a constant presence in the forested areas, and swifts (Apus apus) and common swallows (Hirundo rustica) were also everywhere around occupied and abandoned buildings within the Zone.

While driving through the Zone we also saw quite a few mammals, the most “spectacular” one, a grey wolf (Canis lupus) crossing the road in front of our car during our second night of fieldwork. It was just a quick glimpse of and adult individual, but what an animal!! We also saw an Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber; my very first one ever!), quite a few red deer (Cervus elaphus) including one few week-old calf that we almost step on it, and many moose (Alces alces) including some young animals. My Belgian colleagues were also able to see close to the Exclusion Zone checkpoint a group of Przewalski horses (Equus ferus przewalskii).

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And, regarding amphibians, that were my objective during fieldwork, I was able to see four species, the European treefrog (Hyla arborea), the fire-bellied toad (Bombina bombina), the edible frog (Pelophylax kl. esculentus) and the spadefoot toad (Pelobatus fuscus). We only saw two spadefoot toads on different areas of the Zone, but the other three species were really abundant.

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The sound of the fire-bellied toads was everywhere as soon as you stopped by any water area. It was the most abundant species in the Zone by far. Hundreds upon hundreds of males were calling at every single location we checked. I have never work with this species, since it is not common in any of the areas I have worked in, so it was definitely a pretty nice experience to see as many individuals calling at the same time. See here and here (with P. exculenta) short videos. Probably a good study model to use in the area in future trips…

The edible frog was also pretty abundant, with big concentrations of males calling as soon as the light disappeared. We also found quite many juveniles moving around the ponds, a sign of successful reproduction and development for the species in the Exclusion Zone.

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The European treefrog was the focal species of my study, and we also found it a bit everywhere. It was not as common as the previous two species, but still we were able to locate calling males in ca. 20 different localities, although often not in the kind of high density we want for our work. At the end, we sampled males in six different localities from hot areas to non-contaminated localities.

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Overall, my general impression was one of moving across an area teeming with wildlife. Some researchers have suggested that Chernobyl Exclusion Zone may act as a sink for many species that are attracted to the area because of the absence of human presence, but that suffer from the detrimental effects of radiation inside and are unable to maintain viable populations there. Honestly, that was not my impression at all… Just talking about amphibians, we find very high dense populations of breeding adults everywhere, with juveniles moving around. Quite likely individuals living in the more high contaminated areas may experience detrimental effects as a consequence of the radiation (and we have very preliminary indications of that), but high levels of radioactive contamination are found now only in very specific areas. In summary, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone looked more to me as a pretty wildlife preserve zone than the apocalyptic place it was supposed to be. An area worth to preserve as a Nature Reserve and wildlife laboratory.

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