Day 10. Running to the finish line

16 May 2017 Back home in Uppsala, back to the office!! At this time, Pablo should be flying back to Seville after an afternoon “out of the wild” in Kiev. Of course, our last day of the #ChernobylFrogs17 wasn’t an easy one…

We woke up early to have enough time to travel back to Kiev, deal with some paperwork for the samples and catch my plane to Sweden at 12:55. Pablo flight was scheduled for Wednesday, pretty early in the morning. First problem we encountered was Sergey telling us that we still did not have one of the signatures (and stamps) needed for exporting our samples… This was 5 hours from my flight.. Luckily this was solved pretty quick. No problem.

We emptied all the liquid nitrogen from our shipper in order to have it ready to flight and said goodbye to Sergey and Eugene (thanks, thanks and thanks for all your work, collaboration and great time in Chernobyl!!!). We exited Chernobyl Exclusion Zone after the classic radiation check, and went for the two hour drive to Kiev Boryspil Airport. The drive took way longer than expected, close to three hours, due to traffic jams in Kiev. No problem, we still had plenty of time…

Once I the airport, and thanks to our colleagues from the Chornobyl Centre, we started to deal with some bureaucratic issues around the export permits for our samples and dry shipper. After some time and some small payments on the other side of the airport, we were ready for the checking. Still plenty of time… The shipper ended up weighing 30 kg with all the samples, so we need to wait a little, and pay the overweight tax. Once this was solved it was time for deliver the shipper on the oversized area. And it had to go through the scanner. However, despite being on the oversized department, the scanner was a normal sized one. And our shipper, inside the protective metal box, which can not lay on one side, was clearly too big for the scanner. Anyway, the personal there said “no problem, put it through the scanner…” And the shipper got stacked there. And the scanner broke. Belt not working, scanner not working. Cose to one hour for my flight departure.

Waiting there, we were asked for one more permit checking with the export department.. 30 minutes for the flight and the scanner was dead, and no option for any other scanner was available. At this time it was pretty clear that Pablo would need to stay there and fix somehow the sending of the shipper to Sweden. Finally, someone arrived, open all the cable part of the scanner, touched here and there, and the scanner started to work again!! We took the shipper out of the box, putted the box on one side. Everything fitted through the scanner. Ready. 20 minutes for flight departure. Big hug with Pablo, big thanks to our Ukrainian colleague for her amazing help, and to the metal detection area. A queue of about hundred people. Showing that boarding on my plane started about 25 minutes ago, I managed to avoid the queue through the priority line. Only to be red positive on the metal detector, with only women working there for checking me. I had to wait for a men to check, 2 more minutes waiting… They ended up putting me in a full body scanner, adding some good microSv to my radiation accumulation for the trip 😂😂. All fine, run… to stop again at the passport control for EU residents…. Six people in front, about a minute per people to check and stamp passports. After insisting twice, I was allowed to go through the fast line. Passport scanned and stamped. And more run towards gate D9 wherever it was. “Final call for passengers flying to Stockholm”. Finally, the last one to board the plane, but I made it!!

Arriving to Stockholm, I was ready for the shipper not to appear due to the short time since we delivered it at the oversized area. But not, there it was, standing beautifully in the normal luggage belt, going towards me!! 

With the shipper and all the rest of equipment I started looking for my taxi. My wife had ordered a van, a big van for carrying a big box that can not lay on one side. Many times she said a van, a big van. Of course, the taxi waiting for me wasn’t a van, but a regular car. The shipper didn’t fit in there by any means. After good 15 minutes and several taxi drives talking, thinking and arguing between them about that big metal box, I found one with a van whiling to drive me to the lab in Uppsala!!

Samples stored, shipper worked perfectly (or so it seems). Other part of the samples is arriving now in Spain. Field trip finished. Almost, still some samples and the shipper need to travel to France, but that will be master of other history.

This has been a phenomenal trip, compromised by the weather, but rather successful at the end. I will summarize the trip in a blog post later, for now all that I can say is that this trip was great on the scientific level and even more on the personal. Thanks to all the people that has been part of this, obviously starting by Pablo (Burraco), soon-to-be-doctor and my partner in crime on this project. And thanks Sergey and Eugene, essentials for all the practical arrangements, the field work, and for all their knowledge about radioactivity and Chernobyl. Thanks also to América Valenzuela for her amazing piece about our work in Chernobyl, published almost live at El Independiente. She has been somehow also part of the team these days!! And, of course, thanks to everyone that has followed us here in this blog. Same as last year, it has been a lot of fun writing in this short of diary stile from the field, telling what we do and how is it to work in a place as special as Chernobyl. Thanks for being there!!


Day 9. Last day at the lab

15 May 2017. We are still happy, really happy after last night big catch. These two localities and 37 new frogs, will provide us with really valuable information to know a bit more about how living in a radioactive contaminated area, like Chernobyl, affects wildlife (and humans).

Our final full day in the Exclusion Zone was dedicated to sample the frogs collected last night. All the photos, measurements and tissue collection kept us busy from 9:30AM to 7PM. A quite intense lab day. These frogs put our grand total in five different localities, ranging from high contamination to clean areas, and 74 frogs. The weather did not allow us to do more, but anyway it was a good sampling trip. Together with last year work, we have sampled in eight different places inside de Zone, collecting a bit less than 200 treefrogs. For some of our planned studies these numbers are more than enough. For others, newly developed this year, we will probably need more individuals. And that means just one thing. We will likely return here next year, for #ChernobylFrogs18!! Part of our field material, is actually going to be kept here, in special our wading boots. Waiting for us to return next May, probably a bit later in the month, towards the end, trying to hope for better and more estable weather. 

After finishing with the sampling, it was time to pack “our lab”. In particular, it was time to carefully put all the precious samples in their boxes and the dry shipper. Part of these samples will travel with Pablo on Wednesday to Doñana Biological Station, in Seville, Spain. Other part, including the shipper, will travel (hopefully!!) with me to Sweden tomorrow. Some of the samples in the shipper will end up in the labs of our colleagues of the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety-IRSN in Cadarache, Southern France. And some others will stay here in Ukraine for dose assessment at the Chornobyl Centre. A truly international and multidisciplinary project!! 

Time tomorrow to drive to Kiev and back home. Still one day of #ChernobylFrogs17 ahead, and a final important thing remains. The dry shipper. It should all be ok for traveling with it in the plane, but just in case a person especializad in dealing with permits at the Chornobyl Centre will go with us to the airport. Let’s hope that everything will be fine with the shipper this time. But I will not be relaxed until having it at the Animal Ecology labs in Uppsala. And even then, it has to travel somehow to France. But that will be the next leg of the history. For now, time to say goodbye to Chernobyl and its frogs. We will be back!!! 

Staying the entire day at the Chernobyl lab means no special radiation accumulation, only the standard 2microSv, for a total of 109.

Day 8. A night to remember 

14 May 2017 We did it. Yes, we did it. I am really happy to correct myself about what I said yesterday regarding the success of our trip. Last night, against the weather forecast, in our last night of field work, we flipped over the fate of our research trip. We collected another 37 treefrogs in two different localities inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone!!

The day started in a pretty relaxed way. No frogs to work with in the lab, no bird fieldwork of our Ukrainian colleagues. We first filled our dry shipper with liquid nitrogen, starting to prepare it for our trip back with the samples. Basically, you add liquid nitrogen to the shipper and let it absorb the liquid, refilling often, until the special matrix is saturated with liquid nitrogen. On the day of our flight back, we will remove the not absorbed liquid, getting the shipper ready, dry, and safe for flying. After doing this we were fortunate enough to see part of Sergey’s archive of camera trap photos. You can have a look at some here. Amazing. Many hundreds of photos of all the mammals living inside the Exclusion Zone (and many birds too): bears, wolfs, lynxes, raccoon dogs, Przewalski horses, red and roe deer, moose, badger, wild boar… And many, many more, including some incredible footage of wolf hunting!! This archive is not only invaluable for research, but really worth a photo book.. 

The weather forecast for today was cloudy, with chances of rain, and just relatively warmer than yesterday. But, during the morning, the weather started to change. Finally, for the better!!! We had a sunny and really warm morning, wich increased our good mood exponentially.

Even better, just before leaving for the fieldwork we got a message with the link to a report on our work published on the Spanish digital newspaper El Independiente. We have been working on this with América Valenzuela, one of the great scientific journalists of Spain, since our arrival here. 

This was possible through many phone calls, Twitter messages and WhatsApps, thanks to the luxury our hotel wifi, and despite the madness of putting together our lab/field schedule and América’s busy media schedule. The report “El enigma de las ranas negras de Chernobyl” tells with great detail our current work here with the frogs, and some of the issues around wildlife living in the Exclusion Zone. We are really happy with this. Gracias América!! 

You can follow América’s work here, and also on Twitter (@A_Valenzuela) and Instagram. Do it!!

With a happy spirit because of the good weather and the good press report, we headed to the field around 7:30PM. Our target area was the same that we visited last night without success, but an area that we know is really good for treefrogs for our last year experience. As soon as we stopped the car, already with sunny and clear skies, tens of fire-bellied toads (Bombina bombina) were calling. 

Just the kind of good sign we have been waiting for all the week. Some minutes later and the first treefrogs were calling too!! Our first locality was situated in an area of medium levels of radioactive contamination, slightly far from the Nuclear Power Plant, but still possible to see the big structure of the chimney and the new sarcophagus.

After a couple of hours, we got out of the pond with 17 new frogs. It was still 10:30PM. We moved to a second locality in the same zone, but inside high contamination area. Only a few frogs were calling there, on the distance. We decided to move a bit further, towards the border with Belarus, to another locality with medium levels of radiation. Frogs didn’t look to be at high activity rate, but anyway we enter into the system of small ponds and channels. We started collecting frogs, slowly, one by one, even using sometimes a recorded treefrog song in our smartphones to activate them to call and locate them easily. After another couple of hours, 20 more frogs were in our sampling bags…

What a change from previous days… This was, quite probably, our last night in the field for the season. We have no much option for going today, since we will have to leave the Zone early on Tuesday. So, in the last moment, in the last night, we managed to move from a slightly depressing campaign, to a great one. Five localities sampled, and close to 80 individuals with almost a thousand of different sampled collected. A great addition to last year work, and really great material to evaluate the effects that living under chronic low-dose radiation has for wildlife.

We are happy, very, very happy!!

Today, it will be time for a marathon of lab work, with 37 frogs to sample. It will take us the full day, from 9AM to, probably, 6PM. It is going to be exhausting, but it doesn’t matter, that’s the kind of day we have been looking for since our arrival!!

During the afternoon we managed to see moose, red deer and two Przewalski horses (no wolf this year…).

The total radiation dose accumulate during the trip is now at 107 microSv.

Day 7. Quick lab, but no more frogs

13 May 2017 Weather does not stop playing against us. Cold and rain are back, and frogs are inactive once more. This is the tricky face of fieldwork, it does not matter how much you plan a field trip, how much you design your sampling or even if you add extra days for safety. If weather conditions turn against you, there is little you can do. It’s clear now that this #ChernobylFrogs17 field trip is not going a be a great success. We have increased our experience in the Zone, our experience with treefrogs, and collected some good material, although much fewer individuals and localities than the initially planned. No doubt that we will be back here next year. Hopping for better weather and more frogs.

Today we started the day working in the lab, after the classic local breakfast of an omelette of ca. 6 eggs for each our us!! We set up again all our lab and sampled the 13 frogs collected last night in our high radiation locality. 

With Pablo and I working together in the lab things went pretty fast. All the frogs were processed in about 3 hours. Yes, around 15 minutes for each frog. It may sound a bit too much, but our sampling includes a photo for color analysis, basic size measurements, two microbiome samples, two liver samples, blood analyses, sperm samples, four different muscle tissue samples, and the collection of the tibiofibula for estimating the age of every individual. A total of ten different micro vials for each frog.

After the work, we enjoyed a great lunch in our field station prepared by our ucranian colleagues. Having finished with the work also allowed me to have free time to fix the last details of a press report about our work that will came out on Sunday in a Spanish newspaper. It’s going to be great. Stay tuned. 

After our usual early dinner, we moved to the field. The weather, once again, was not very promising. After a cloudy and rainy day, our expectations were on of lower side, for saying the least. We choose to try to catch frogs on the eastern side of the Exclusion Zone, on the other side of Pripyat river, and area of medium contamination levels (high in some specific areas).

We visited this Zone already last year, collecting frogs in three different localities. Weather was cloudy and not too cold when we arrived. Even Sergey was optimistic!! But, our initial fear become a true reality. In the first locality we only hear one very, very, distant frog. Nothing on the second spot. A lonely male calling on the third place. We headed back to base, empty handed. Again.

Next night will be quite probably the last for us here for this year. As I said at the beginning, this is not going to be a very successful trip. We have collected good, valuable, samples that will increase the sampling size of some of our studies. But we are going to be very short of samples for others. The first, you will see the published. For the others, we will need to wait and came back next year. And also wait and hope for some of the applied projects to get funded!!

For tomorrow the weather forecast is just a bit better, warmer but probably still rainy. We will be back to the same areas as last night, hoping for a bit of lack and some few more frogs. 

Wildlife in general was not very active today. The more interstate animals we saw were three southern white-breasted hedgehogs (Erinaceus concolor), a first for me.

Spending the morning in the lab, and no much time in the field during the night, mean that our total accumulated dose only raised 6 microSv, from 92 to 98 microSv.

Day 6. Back to the past

12 May 2017 
Finally, a sunny and (relatively) warm day!! And a night of catching frogs, although just in one locality, since temperature dropped during the night and frogs gradually stopped their calling activity. Anyway, we managed to collect 13 new frogs from a locality in high radiation area, around 1 km from the nuclear power plant, the same we visited last year during our first day here (“Day 2 At the shadow of Chernobyl reactor 4“).

This is a crucial locality since it’s one of the very few places in which we have found big enough treefrog populations inside highly contaminated areas. As I mentioned in previous days, the areas that still maintain high radiation levels in Chernobyl are small, so not many options when you need to find ponds suitable for treefrog breeding inside there. And that’s why we are so happy with these new 13 frogs, they are essential for estimating the effects that living in high radiation areas has on amphibians genetics and physiology.

Our day started helping again our Ukrainian colleagues in their work checking breeding performance of birds using next boxes in different areas of the Exclusion Zone. It was quite nice to be around on a sunny day, looking for birds. Seeing a warm and sunny day, after all the cold, freezing, ones was a relief, but also put us in a constant stress looking for clouds, wind or anything that could turn the weather into nasty for frog breeding again. 

We even had time, after lunch in the field, for “the official photo” of the #ChernobylFrogs17 team.

At the end, temperature cooled dawn a bit. We decided to sample in the locality close to the Nuclear Power Plant, inside highly radioactive area, that we visited last night. For our experience last year, we knew that this was a good place for treefrogs. So, if they were not present, it was because breeding activity has stopped due the cold weather. 

As soon as we arrived, fired-bellied toads (Bombina bombina) were calling. This is also a warm sensitive species, so a good sign, a motive for optimism. We waited there for the sun to set, and pretty soon we heard treefrog males calling in the distance. After a couple of hours, and a lot of wanderings through reeds and ponds ( and bios of the dosimeter), we managed to catch 13 males. Today it was specially tricky to find them into the reeds, they were not that exposed in the shore as in other nights. But we did it. 

However, as the night advanced, temperature continued to drop, and when we leave the area, calling activity was almost ceased. We looked for frogs in another three localities in medium contaminated areas, but not a single frog was calling there. So, we headed back to our base in Chernobyl, hoping for something better tomorrow.

The plan now is to go back to the lab during the morning and process all the new frogs, and keep on looking to the weather in order to go to the field during the night and try to catch more frogs in three localities that we visited last year in medium radiation areas on the east bank of Pripyat river. Forecast, once again, is not good, cloudy during the day, with chances of rain, and co,d during the night. Just the opposite needed to activate warm depending species. Temperature during the night should be similar to last night, a bit on the limit. We will go anyway… 

Apart from all the amphibians and birds, today we saw moose, red deer, probably a raccoon dog (too fast in front of the car to be sure), tons of hares, and a squirrel.

Moving during the day in mid radiation areas and, specially, sampling during the night in highly contaminated locations means that the total accumulated dose also raised today, from 58 microSv to 92, a total of 34 microSv. The plans now, if weather allows, are for moving across mid-low contaminated areas, so no big increases should be expected from now. 

Day 5. Three in a row without frogs 

11 May 2017 The weather still doesn’t want to be in our side. So, one more day without new frogs collected here in Chernobyl.

Since we didn’t went to the fiel last night, we had no frogs to work with in the lab. So, we started the day helping Sergey (Gaschak) on his regular checks of next boxes, occupied mainly by great tits (Parus major). These next boxes are distributed across the Exclusion Zone, covering different habitats and levels of radiation. 

One a the first places we visited was located inside the “famous” Chernobyl’s Red Forest. This area, one of the more radioactively contaminated places in the world, took this name shortly after the 1986 accident when most of the pine trees in the zone died as a consequence of the high radiation levels experienced and the pine needles that turned to a red-brown color. 

Although radiation levels can be very variable here, they are always in the highest levels. The maximum dose rate that we detected today here was of 60 microSv/hr, when background radiation levels can be in normal circumstances around 0.2 microSv/hr.

 This area was also affected by a big fire last year, which quite likely can cause the mobilization of radiation accumulated in the soil and vegetation, destabilizing the zone.

After the Red Forest , we visited other areas, including beautiful deciduous forest, mainly composed of birches where we keep on checking more next boxes, and even found a sparrow hawk nest. During the morning , we visited several ponds, ditches and bogs, as potential good habitats for treefrogs. On our way back to Chernobyl we spotted a raccoon dog, a first for me!!

Despite the relatively sunny and nice weather of the morning, clouds started to cover the sky in early afternoon, followed by rain. After dinner we went out to the field with the idea of visiting some of the places checked during the morning, in particular the ones located inside the Red Forest in order to collect frogs from highly contaminated places. But, once again in this trip, we were unlucky. Only a few water frogs were calling in all the places we visited during the night, and even these for a very short period.

We decided to change a bit our strategy in the field, and instead of looking for new localities, going back to the places in which we collected treefrogs last year (see “Chernobyl recap: the Science”). If frogs are not active in these localities we know certainly that it’s because of the cold weather conditions has stopped all breeding activity. Even more, since half of the samples that we are collecting this year are new, this will help us to have a more complete sample design, even if the sample fewer localities. Anyway, we visited the place that the sampled in first place last year (see “Day2: At the shadow of Chernobyl reactor 4), in which treefrogs, water frogs and fired-bellied toads were really abundant. After a while, we only hear very few and short calls by water frogs. No trace of frog breeding activity. So, back to Chernobyl without frogs, and looking for better weather tomorrow and a bit of frog activity. Weather forecast looks a bit similar than today, slightly better maybe. We will be back to the field in the afternoon. Let’s see..

The only positive thing of returning earlier than expected tonight is that it gave me the opportunity, in the very last moment, of calling back home and talk with my older daughter on her 8th birthday, the second consecutive of her birthdays that I miss for being in Chernobyl. Not happy about that…

Apart from the raccoon dog, we also saw today among others moose, roe deer, black grouse, white tailed eagle, and lots of hares and nightjars.

Visiting the Red Forest and other medium radiation areas means that our accumulated dose raised today from 6 microSv to 58 microSv, a quite significant increase.

Day 4. Treefrogs 0 – Dry shipper 1

10 May 2017 
I am not going to lie, today was the least exciting day of all my days working in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Due to the really cold weather we did not went for frogs last night. And that means no frogs today to process in the lab. Nothing to do…

Weather continued to be pretty cold, with rain, hail and even some snow during the day. Temperature dropped as low as to just 1C. And we are here looking for a warm-loving frog!! So, no reason to go the field either tonight. On the positive side, weather forecast looks better from now. Probably still not super good tomorrow, but quite ok for frogs to restart breeding activity from Friday (forecast of 17-8C). And there were clear skies at the end of the day. We stay positive.

Another very, very, positive thing of the day was that having nothing to do in the lab allowed us to go to the rescue of our dry shipper. We knew that it was at Boryspil Airport in Kiev, and that they planned to bring it here at some point. But also knowing that “at some point” can easily be translated to “nobody knows when”, we decided that the 5 hours drive back and forth to Kiev was worthy. And finally there it was. But, before allowing us to take it back, I was asked THE tricky and potentially expensive question by the customs official “How much this thing costs?” I said a number, and maybe, just maybe, the price I said was “slightly” low… Just maybe… So, now the dry shipper is here, inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, ready to be filled with more frog samples in a few days. I hope.

Tomorrow, again, we will have no frogs to work with in the lab. So, our plan is going to the field with Sergey and Eugeni during the day, helping them in their work checking breeding success in birds using next boxes located in areas with different levels of radioactive contamination. And, if the weather is good enough, we will be back in the field during the night looking for more frogs in areas with medium level of radioactive contamination. Weather forecast is still a bit into the limit, not much sun and maximum of 13C, and around 7C during the night. Fingers crossed. 

No changes in the levels of radiation accumulation, 2 more microSv to add, for a tot of 6. Still more os less the same levels than at home.

Day 3. Pop- up lab, but no frogs tonight 

9 May 2017 
Finally, the cold weather has stopped us here in Chernobyl. Temperature dropped to just 1C during the night, and barely raised above 10C during the day. That’s a “lethal” combination for treefrogs breeding activity. So, at Sergey’s suggestion, we stayed at our hotel rooms tonight. And for Sergey not going to the field, the situation has to very bad, I can tell you. So, no frogs, and no new sampling localities to add to our project for now. Forecast is quite similar for Wednesday, starting to improve probably on Thursday and more probably near the weekend. This is my first night without frogs in Chernobyl, but this type of problems are completely normal (although unwanted) when you do fieldwork. And that’s why this year I planned the Chernobyl campaign for 8 nights, instead of the four of last year. We have lost one, probably two with next night. Let’s see if weather clears soon…

Anyway, the day was far for relaxed for us here. We woke up after just 5 hours of sleep and after the traditional “Chernobyl breakfast” of three fried eggs, plus pancakes (people that has passed by here know well what I am talking about…), we started with our lab work. First day in a field lab is always quite a busy day. We first set up all our material in two different tables, one with the photo equipment for colorimetric analyses, and a larger one for processing the frogs and obtain all the different tissue samples we want for our studies (blood, liver, different muscles, sperm, gut…). We have a pretty good space to work here, what I call as a joke our “pop-up” lab in Chernobyl. For a week only, like a circus arriving in town!!

We still don’t have our dry shipper with us (should arrive today… maybe), but thanks to Sergey and his colleagues we have two big tanks of liquid nitrogen for us. So, no problem for quickly freeze and store all our samples, quite a luxury in the field.

Getting all the samples we want (and we want quite many) it’s a really time-consuming process. Full processing of the 24 frogs took us from 10AM to 18AM. Of course, first days are always slow days until you acquire a work routine. Anyway, I think that Pablo and I have now a very fast (well relatively fast) way of working together. Each of us in in charge of a different task, so we can do all the work in a quick, coordinated way. Being the first day we also did some silly mistakes, like taking half of the photos for the color studies in JPEG format instead of RAW. Luckily we realize this, and since the frogs were still not processed, it was possible to do it all over again. Just one of the ways in which you can loose time in the lab, and an example of how focuses and careful you need to be when collecting data in the field.

At least, staying at the hotel tonight provided us with the opportunity of having a good rest and recover for a long night of field work. It also allows me to have a long an amazing phone call from a Spanish science journalist very interested in our work here. So, expect a great report soon 😉 This is one of the luxuries of having wifi in Chernobyl!! 

Not going to the field tonight, and not having more frogs, means that we will not have much to do tomorrow. Nothing to do in the lab. So, probably, we will go to Kiev (2hour drive) and try to “rescue” our dry shipper from the airport. It looks like this can be the faster way for having it with us. Looking at the weather forecast, it looks like that we are going to have two very inactive days here (at least). So, looking forward to an improvement of the weather and more frogs!!

Being in the lab all day long means no new wildlife to had to our list, and not a big change in radiation accumulation: total of 4 microSv for the trip now, again normal, standard, background levels.

Day 2. Treefrogs in the cold

8 May 2017. We started the day without have finished the previous one. Pablo arrived to Kiev without problems (not as our dry shipper) at 1AM. After a quick update and a few hours of sleep we were picked up by one of the members of the Radioecology Lab in Slavutych, Ukraine, and headed to Chernoby. Once there we moved to Chernobyl city, our “base camp” in the Zone. This city was inhabited by ca. 14.000 persons in 1987, and is still used by a few hundreds, mostly male workers (in time shift regime, and dressed in camouflage costumes). Chernobyl is located in an area (almost) clean of radiation, and among others things is the place of our field station and hotel. As always here, we were quickly surprised by a couple of things. First, we were expecting a rather modest and simple accommodation, in Sergey’s words. And, certainly, we are not at the Ritz, but both Pablo and I have a full suite for each of us (Chernobyl style), with two beds bedroom, living room with tv, dining area and private bathroom. Not bad at 15€/night!! Our second surprise came when we discovered that inside a building located 100 metres from our hotel, and that looks as abandoned as many others, it’s possible to find an ATM machine and a bar/shop!! Surprises never stop in Chernobyl… 

Since we had all the afternoon free before starting to look for frogs in the night, Sergey was patient enough as to guide us in a visit to the nuclear power plant (with the brand new protective cover, put in place last November), and to the abandoned (and sadly famous) city of Prypiat. This city, located just 3 km from the nuclear power plant, was in 1987 the home of ca. 50.000 persons that were evacuated a day after the accident. Despite the initial promises, they never went back. No people lives now in Prypiat. 

For me it was the second visit to the city, and I had the same feelings as in the previous one last September. A combination of sadness for what happened here to so many families and of more sadness for seeing not just an abandoned city, but a looted one., victim of human greed and stupidity. Almost every room in every building (sports center, cultural centre, river cafe…) has been destroyed by humans after the accident. All objects removed or tear down in pieces. It’s not a city freeze in time and reclaimed back by nature, but a destroyed one.

After this little touristic trip we finally put all our gear in the 4×4 car and headed to the field: Sergey, Pablo, Eugeni (another local colleague) and I. The goal was to look for our focal species, the Eastern treefrogs (Hyla orientalis) in areas of low radiation, in the southwest of the Exclusion Zone. The weather was not really promising, as forecasted. After a warm day, the afternoon arrived with a notable temperature drop and some rain. Once in the field, it was clear that the night was far from ideal for catching treefrogs, a rather warm dependent species. It was cold and foggy. But as soon as we stopped at our first locality, we hear the calls of water frogs (Pelophylax esculentus/ridibundus/lessonae) another warm dependent species. Probably it wasn’t going to be bad after all. 

Even better, a bit far in the distance it was possible to hear some treefrog male calling!! It wasn’t easy, or fast, but after more than two hours of searching in an area of small ponds, channels and reedbeds, we got our first 14 males of the season. After this, we moved to a different locality, also in a non-contaminated area, and despite the fog and cold, we also managed to catch an additional 10 males. At the end, it was a great night of frogging in the least promising conditions.

During the day we saw wild boars, red deer and many, many nightjars (I had never seen so many!). And, also today, in our way to Prypiat we saw one Przewalski horse, a lone male, one of the ca. 100 than roam in the Exclusion Zone.

The plan for tomorrow is sampling the frogs collected during the night (lot of different measures, photos and tissues for sampling), and if the weather is not too bad get back to the field for more frogs in areas of medium contamination level. But the weather forecast is really depressing, 2C for the night.. Let’s see..

Since we were moving almost the entire day in low contamination areas, our total dose accumulated today was 2 micro Sv, the same anyone can have at home in standard conditions.

Day 1. In Kiev, but without the dry shipper

The fIrst leg of our trip to collect more samples of treefrogs living inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in order to understand a bit better the effects of the chronic exposure to low dose ionizing radiation in wildlife it’s done. I am now at Boryspil Airport hotel, in the outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine. But, no good news, our precious dry shipper has not arrive, or at least it is not here with me. All the rest of equipment arrive without problems, but the “special luggage” dry shipper did not appear at all. And the personal at the Kiev airport were totally unable to tell me where it is, if still in Sweden, or somewhere here, or where. This is a rather important (and quite expensive) piece of equipment. It will help us to travel back with the samples. Not having it will not prevent us from work, since we have other containers and liquid nitrogen in Chernobyl, but… Let’s see if they found it quickly and we can get it here before going tomorrow to Chernobyl, or they can send it there before the end of next week. 

At the time I am writing this, Pablo Burraco, the other member of the team ( plus with our local colleague Sergey Gaschak), is waiting in Frankfurt Airport for his connecting flight to Kiev. Pablo will arrive here in a few hours, after midnight (with our wading boots!!).

The logistics of this kind of work are simply crazy. As you can imagine, the amount of paperwork needed in order to enter into the Exclusion Zone, moving there “freely” during night time in order to catch the frogs, and get out with our sample are monumental. That, on top of the normal collection and export permits… But working in an area as Chernobyl, in which there is no option for buying anything, and the nearest “store” can be at an hour drive is also a challenge of preparation. Every single piece of equipment needed, from vials, to scissors, to marking pens has to came with us. And, so, I flew with ca. 20 kilos of material (excluding the 25 kg of dry shipper + protective case). The list includes 1500 2ml cryovials, 200 50ml Falcon tubes, 600 nitrile gloves, 40 plastic container to hold the captured frogs in the lab, 50 ziplock bags for keeping the captured frogs in the field, 6 different types of scissors, four types of tweezers, 2 scalpels with their pack of blades, 4 cutting boards, 300 cotton swabs for microbiome sampling, 1000 heparinized micro tubes, 250 glass slides, one glass staining bucket, a caliper, two headlamps plus batteries for the field, a foto camera, tripod, color checker and two table lamps for colorimetric work, a GoPro camera (hopefully there will be time for using it in the field), and the two dosimeters for measuring both real time dose rate and total radiation dose accumulated by Pablo and me during the stay in the Zone.

Tomorrow, a member of the International Radioecology Laboratory will pick up us at the hotel and we will head up to Chernobyl during the morning, meeting Sergey there. We will stay inside the Exclusion Zone until the end of next week, working and sleeping there (yes, there are several places in which you can sleep inside the Exclusion Zone!!). If the weather behaves, there will be time for our first sampling night tomorrow. More than any, it’s the weather the thing that worries me the most right now… After a week of absolutely perfect conditions for treefrog breeding activity (sun, more than 20C during the day and ca. 10C during the night), the forecast now is of cloudy, at times rainy, and cold weather (as low as 2C during the night). Let’s see if this stays, and how much this will affect frog activity and our chances of catching them… And let’s see what happens with our dry shipper… Fingers crossed!!

As always, you can have more info about our work in Twitter @GOrizaola, @pabloburraco and following #ChernobylFrogs17. And, if you have any question about of work in Chernobyl, we are more than happy to answer!!