2018 Day 6. Treefrog radioactive paradise


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18 May 2018

30. We collected 30 treefrogs on a single night!!

Once again the visit to the long ditch that runs parallel to the east side of Prypiat river on the nort if the Exclusion Zone give us the best results. This area, in which we have sampled in five different localities over the three years of our “Chernobyl frogs” project is definitely a paradise for amphibians, despite being an area with medium and high radiation levels.

We started our daily routines in the lab, sampling the thirteen frogs collected the previous night near Chernobyl city in an area of low radiation levels. Work on the lab was more or less as usual. There are never two equal days on a field lab, and there are always small incidences that need to be solved on the spot. Anyway, work on the lab was good, and there were not too many frogs to deal with.

Sergey even managed to pass all the frogs through the radiometer, so we have now good measurements of radioactive dose rate from all our frogs, including these from clean areas. Actually, it tourned out that not all these frogs were completely clean from radiation, and some showed low levels of contamination. Even more interesting.

Thanks to our acquired abilities (mostly, the amazing Jean-Marc’s technique of extracting blood!!) we were also able to run successful blood analyses for 12 out of the 13 frogs. These are amazing results that will tell us a lot of details about the physiological state of all these frogs. Results so far, after a quick view, are pretty consistent, showing variability on the diverse parameters we measure, but always between reasonable limits. We need to keep on adding more data here!!

By mid afternoon all the samples were collected. With the work, cryovials have started to accumulate in our dry shipper, and we even needed to add more liquid nitrogen there. This is one of the “luxuries ” of working here, with the International Radioecology Laboratory people, we have access (although not easy access) to good amounts of liquid nitrogen in the field, essential for storing all our samples for conducting physiological and genetic analyses.

Weather forecast was not too good for the night, with chance of rain, and temperatures going down. Anyway, after our early dinner we were ready to go to the field, with the idea of visiting different locations along the east bank of the Prypiat river, in the north of the Exclusion Zone. We have worked in this area since 2016, always with success. We started our journey to this area with good vibes, although the way was not as easy as expected, and we even need to take out a rather large tree from the middle of the path!!!

Once on location, we split our group in two teams, as in some previous days. We arrived to our first locality after a drive across the middle of nowhere, going around trees and up and down bumpy fields. This route, by the way, it would be impossible to do without the navigation skills of our Ukrainian colleagues that identified and marked this track for us many months ago. Thanks!!

After stopping, Evgeny (Žénja), Pablo and I moved to the first pond, and Sergey and Jean-Marc went back to sample on different localities. Our locality was located in rather high levels of radioactive contamination, with peaks around 20-30 microSv/hour (normal, background levels are around 0.1-0.3 microSv/hour). Soon after arriving we heard our first treefrog!! After twenty minutes more treefrogs were calling in the distance and we moved in. The area was easy for orientation, with few water channels going in circle. Water level was a bit higher than ideal, although enough (just barely enough) for working and crossing from side to side of the channels. The first frogs I caught were totally on the limit, captured with one hand while the other was putting the chest waders up in order to avoid water entry. Five centimeters deeper and they would have been out of reach…

Some frogs were loyal to their name and often calling from tree branches, a meter high from the water. Not always was easy to spot them there, and twice I had to use my left hand to catch them from a crisscross of branches (both times successfully!!). Through the phone we knew that our colleagues were not successful on their first locality, but managed to collect 16 frogs on a second place in which we have worked since 2016, on mid radiation levels.

At the end, we were also able to catch 14 frogs in our place, for an amazing total of 30 for the night, including a completely new locality. That’s fantastic!!! It was a particularly good night for Sergey and me, both with 11 frogs captured 🙂 These 30 frogs will definitely give us lot of things to do in the lab…

So, the plan for today is an intensive, super intensive, session of work in the lab with these frogs (let’s see if we can finish them before the night). If weather is good (forecast of rain for the entire day), we will try to capture more frogs in mid-high contamination areas close to Belarus. Anyway, long day ahead f work, sweet!!

Working on high contamination area resulted in a daily dose rate of 15 microSv, for a total of 40 for our trip. On the way today, we saw mousse, red deer, wild boar, white-tailed eagle…


2018 Day 5. Lucky thirteen


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17 May 2018

Frog activity is still rather low in the Zone, but last night we managed to catch 13 frogs in a completely new locality for us, our locality 13 for the project!! Activity in the lab run smoothly too. We only need now some good weather and a night of good frog activity to move forward.

The day started as usual with lab work, sampling the last frogs from our first high contamination locality that we didn’t had the time to finish the previous day, and the additional six collected in two localities the previous night. Our work in the lab is pretty well organized by now, and by lunchtime we were able to finish with all the frogs. We managed to run samples in the iSTAT blood analyzer for all the frogs but one. The technique by now is fully under control!! This will give us a really good indication of the physiological situation of our study frogs in the Zone.

We even had the time for taking some good photos of our frogs (wait for Jean-Marc great photos!!). These are the kind of photos we will keep on using again and again in our work, when given talks, publishing papers or having any communication activity. So, in a way, they are also important for the project!!

Talking about photos, Pablo continues with our colorimetric studies trying to assess the variation of frog coloration and if this changes with contamination level. So far, no many dark frogs this year, just a few.

Due to some bureaucratic limitations we didn’t had the chance of going too far during the night, so we had to work in low contamination areas during the night. Sergey drove us to a marsh area quite close to Chernobyl city we had not visited before.

We arrived to this place with plenty of time before dusk, just to listen to many water frogs and fire-bellied toads in the distance. No sign of our treefrogs, but we now that at this time we need to way until it gets dark for these frogs to start calling. So, we wait and wait. During this time, Sergey was able to imitate the call of a tawny owl (Strix aluco) good enough as to attract it at a very close range. That was fun.. At the same time, far away, we heard the first treefrog calling. Time to put the chest waders on and move through the reeds to find the place where they were calling.

Calling activity was low. Once there it was possible to listen to 4-5 males, good but not super good. At the end, after quite a lot of patience, the five of us managed to catch thirteen frogs in about an hour of moving back and forth through the pond. This is great. A completely new locality for the project, just in the middle of all our previous localities and with enough frogs as to do many good tests. Being a low contamination site is also quite good, since most of the frogs we had until now this season were from a highly contaminated place. Sweet!!

After this, we move to the same location in which we capture four frogs the previous night, but there was no additional activity there. Not even in another place in which we also collected frogs in 2016. The night started to be cold, so we decided to get back and try more luck in the next night.

So, the plan for today is lab work during the morning with these thirteen frogs, and try to go to some mid contaminated localities on the east bank of Prypiat river during the night. We have worked there the last two years and we know that this is good treefrog area. So, let’s see how it goes, and if the weather stays good (some rain forecasted and a bit colder than we wanted…).

Working in low contamination areas, we only accumulated 3 more microSv to our total dose, for a total of 25 microSv during the trip. During the night, we also saw Przewalski horses, a nice group on our last location, rumbling in the middle of the foggy night.

2018 Day 4 Busy day, poor night


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16 May 2018

Today was our first busy day at the lab, with 23 frogs to sample from the previous night, collected from a high contamination area. As always on the first day of a campaign it took us wuite some time to get everything organized, but finally it was a great (and exhausting lab day). The night was not so good… we visited three different localities but only managed to collect 6 more frogs.

During the day, it was time for us to sampling all the treefrogs. This time we were four people working together in the lab, which at the beginning is always something chaotic. Sergey was in charge of the radiometer, getting the radioactive dose rate for each individual. This is a process quite quick for highly contaminated animals, that will save us a lot of time (and money) on later analyses.

Jean-Marc was mostly in charge of the tricky extraction of blood for our blood physiology analyses with the iSTAT, and the sampling of frog saliva for hormonal analyses.

Pablo, same as last year, was responsible for the colorimetric evaluation, basic measurement of the frogs, and the obtention of samples for genomic analyses, telomeres length estimates, bone for skelotochronological estimation of the age of the frogs, and (new this year) some behavioral tests.

Finally, I took samples for analyzing skin and gut microbiome, oxidative stress, DNA damage, sperm and charging the cartridges for running the iSTAT blood analyzer.

At the beginning this was way too complicated to organize. Too many people doing too many things with the same frog. But, after a few frogs things started to run, although a bit slowly, quite ok for the amount of samples per individual (more than 30 different parameters!!!). Working with the iSTAT was a nightmare at the beginning. Cartridge after cartridge went to the bin because of lack of enough blood, bubbles when we tried to fill the cartridge and more. At the cost of 13€ per cartridge… Then, Jean-Marc modified a bit the blood extraction technique, getting more blood, I modified a bit the insertion technique… and with our frog 12-6 (locality 12, frog number 6), everything worked!! The song of the iSTAT printer when a sample is successful is now by far our favorite song in the house!! Finally, we managed to get results from 7 out of the 12 last frogs, after six consecutive failures!!

At the end, they were too many frogs and too little time. So, it was not possible for us to sample the last five frogs. We left them for the next morning. It was time for us to go again to the field, looking for more frogs in areas of low/medium contamination. We divided us in two teams, so we can check more localities at once. Anyway, the locality that Pablo and I visited with Evgeny, was full of water frogs, but nothing more. Not a single treefrog, not even fire-bellied toads… The area, located in the center of the Exclusion Zone, was part of a former youth camp during the soviet times, all abandoned now. Fate for Sergey and Jean-Marc was pretty similar, two treefrogs in a medium contamination place.

We decided to move for a clean locality that we visited during our 2016 trip, with the idea of collecting frogs there to complete some of the different parameters that we have added on the last years. But neither there we had much success. We were able to locate and capture four male treefrogs, in the middle of big noisy calls from water frogs and fire-bellied toads. It was midnight and no more frogs were calling, so we decided to go back and hope for better luck on next nights. So, a total of six new frogs to add for the trip, for a total of 29.

The plan for today is to finish sampling the last frogs of the first locality and these six collected last night. Hopefully the iSTAT will keep on working well and can complete all the sampling. During the night we plan to go to some localities near Chernobyl city and other areas in low/no contamination. Weather forecast looks semi-OK, warm but with chances of rain in the afternoon. So, let’s see if frogs are active, and how many!!

Working in areas with no contamination means that we only accumulated 3 microSv extra, for a total of 22 for the trip. During the night we managed to see one Przewalski horse, red dear, red fox and many hares.

Here some extra photos of the lab work, our radiometer working with a frog, and one of our Eastern treefrogs (Hyla orientalis).

2018 Day 3 First frogs

15 May 2028

Finally, the first frogs of our #ChernobylFrogs18 season are here!! Last night, we managed to collect 23 Eastern treefrogs (Hyla orientalis) from a high contamination locality near Chernobyl Power Plant. So, we can start now our lab work and get all the different samples we need to evaluate, from all kind of different approaches, the effects that living in areas contaminated with radioactive material has on these frogs.

The day started as boring as possible. With no frogs from the previous night, we had nothing to do for the entire day. Everything was ready from our Monday work on the lab, all vials and boxes labeled, all the sampling tools ready. We spent the morning talking about how we will organize the sampling (who is going to collect what), and doing nothing but walking in the garden, taking photos of the insects living there and looking at the sky and every cloud passing by. Well, Pablo, managed to move forward with one manuscript he is writing from here!!

The weather look good during the day, warm and sunny, with some clouds now and there. After two days of rain, this should be good for treefrogs restarting breeding activity. But you never know… Our plan for the night was to visit a locality near the Chernobyl Power Plant, in high radiation area, where we have collected frogs the two previous years. This locality has an abundant amphibian community, so it was our best chance for going to a good place and see if frogs were active, or not…

We arrived to this locality quite early, well ahead to dusk, but already with fire-bellied toads (Bombina bombina) quite actively calling, always a positive thing. Being in high contamination area (peaks of 40-60 microSv/h), it was time to use our tyvec protective suits for the first time. Once in the ponds, we divided our team in two groups, with Pablo and me heading to the left side of a trench were treefrogs were more active last year.

The start of the night was quite frustrating… We spent more than half and hour there, by the water, listening to some toads, but not a single treefrogs. It looked very, very bad. We even started to talk about alternative plans for doing something here if frogs were finally not active anymore this season… And suddenly, as light disappeared, we heard the first treefrog call of the season. We waited. We didn’t want to catch this frog too quick, we wanted this male to activate the others. We walk into the pond, water by the waist level, and approached the area were this frog was calling. As we wanted, more frogs started calling around, one on the right, two on the left, some other farther away. Suddenly, the night started to look really positive. We soon realize that recording the songs of the frogs was too difficult, too complicated, in this environment. So we prioritize the collection of frogs over any other thing, and Pablo put the recorder back and started to move looking for more frogs.

In some minutes we were surrounded by a large number of calling treefrogs. Using our walkie-talkie we knew that our colleagues, on the other side of the pond, had just 2-3 makes around, too few, so they also move to our area. After an hour, we managed to catch 22 treefrogs!! I have to mention the six collected by Pablo, sick with some cold, with half-broken headlamp, and the recorder difficulting movement. Well done Pablo!!

After this, we went back to the car and move to other localities not too far, in the center of the Exclusion Zone. After stopping a few times on the road trying to listening for treefrogs without success, we moved to one of the localities we visited the previous night. As soon as we approached the pond, one male was calling really loud. Good sign again! However, soon we realize that this was the only active male this night. We collected it to use it as the first frog to sample today, so we can try all our movements and collection techniques before starting with the more important ones. After visiting more localities to find nothing, we returned back to our Chernobyl lab at 1AM.

Today we have a pretty busy day ahead. All day working in the lab, sampling all the frogs, from checking coloration and behavior, to obtain samples for examining microbiome and transcriptomics. First day in the lab, on one of these campaigns is always an exhausting and difficult day. During the night, we plan to keep looking for frogs, this time in the Northeast side of the Zone, close to Belarusian border, again in high contamination area. Fingers crossed for the day!!

Moving around during the night in high contamination area means that our dose rate move up to 19 microSv in total for the trip.

Total frogs collected during #ChernobylFrogs18, so far: 23

2018 Day 2. Waiting for the frogs

14 May 2018

Sadly, no good news from Chernobyl… First night in the field for the year, and first night that we came back without any single frog. As forecasted, we had quite rainy weather, with several storms falling during the day and temperatures much lower than in the previous week. This may have affected the breeding activity of amphibians here and resulted in a single treefrog heard during the night, and even this one very briefly.

We started the day doing practical things here. It may came as a surprise to many, but the first thing we did was going to the local supermarket/cash machine in order to get some local money to pay our hotel. Yes, there is cash machine in the middle of the Exclusion Zone!! Next time when you watch some documentaries and hear that entering the Exclusion Zone is something frightening and highly risk, just remember this photo of Pablo with normal clothing taking cash from a cash machine inside the Zone.

In fact, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone covers a rather large area (2600 square km) and big parts are completely safe, as safe as to have supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, and cash machines inside!! We even found it difficult to find highly contaminated areas, with good ponds in which trying to find amphibians!!

After this, we worked in the lab for the rest of the day, organizing all our material, labeling vials for storing the different range of samples we want to collect, and waiting for the arrival of Jean-Marc and the liquid nitrogen. Finally, Jean-Marc arrived at 4PM, although without any luggage, nor his material, nor the dry shipper (once again lost somewhere in the way, same as last year). People at the airport promised to recover all this for today, or tomorrow, or… Soon after Jean-Marc arrived, three big containers full of liquid nitrogen arrived too, ready for our samples. It was great to finally meet Jean-Marc in the field after all the previous weeks/months of preparations and emails!!

After dinner with heavy rain outside, we organized all the field equipment and headed to the field. The plan was visiting some areas of medium/low contamination levels at the center of the Exclusion Zone. Anyway, the weather was not really promising.

We stopped in an area that looked pretty good and with some activity of fire-bellied toads (Bombina bombina) and water frogs (Pelophylax sp.), usually good indicators of a nice locality for our focal species, the Eastern treefrog (Hyla orientalis). Anyway, after a quite long time waiting and searching, we only managed to listen very briefly to one male calling. Even water frogs stopped calling. We moved to a different location, but again no frogs were active there. On the way to a third locality, heavy rain started to fall again. It was time to call it a day (well, night), and get back to our base.

So, first day, zero frogs. Weather forecast looks better today with sunny weather, 23-13 C and no rain. Let’s see… Our plan for today is doing nothing during daytime, just looking at weather forecast and try to be positive, and during the night go to some good localities that we have visited the previous two years, on high contamination area near the Power Plant. If frogs are active in the Zone, they will be active there. Let’s see if we can start sampling them!!

Staying in the lab for big part of the day, and working briefly in mid/low contamination areas, resulted in just 2 microSv of total radioactive dose rate accumulated for the day, equivalent to background radiation levels. No big animals spotted.

2018 Day 1. Rainy arrival in Chernobyl


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13 May 2018.

So, here we are, already in Chernobyl city, inside the Exclusion Zone. And already we experienced some troubles.

First, our French colleague Jean-Marc Bonzom (and his dry shipper!!) got stuck in the middle of flights problems and did not arrive yesterday as planned. He will (probably) arrive today, one day later than expected, so our Ukrainian colleagues will need to go back to Kiev to pick him up. Another negative news is that after a month of beautiful sunny and warm weather, we arrived to a rainy and coldish Kiev. And, as I’m writing this (Monday morning) is still raining, and expected to continue for the day. We know from last year that this is far from ideal for our warm-loving Eastern treefrogs, but let’s see. Weather forecast from tomorrow looks much better, back to warm and sunny days. Fingers crossed here…

The first day at #ChernobylFrogs18 started for us in Uppsala, packing the last things at the Animal Ecology Unit, Uppsala University, mainly the refrigerated cartridges for the blood analyses. Our Stockholm-Kiev direct flight went without any incidences. All smooth at the customs, and all our four bags of lab and field material arrived without problems.

Car fully loaded with our material at the Evolutionary Biology Center, Uppsala

In Kiev, our friend Sergey Gaschak (head of the Radioecology Lab at the Chornobyl Research Center) was waiting for us for the drive to Chernobyl (a bit more than 2 hours drive to the North). We arrived at the main entrance checkpoint to the Exclusion Zone at 9PM, under the rain, and after a quick paperwork we entered the Zone.

We settled in our state-owned hotel (exactly same rooms as last year, this time apparently with heating system finally working, not much for the warm water, but anyway… fine). And straight to our field lab for leaving there our equipment and a quick dinner with Sergey. One great novelty at the lab is that we will have now a radiometer there (the white and red machine in the background), which will give us measurement of radiation level of each of our frogs at the moment, without the need of much more complicated, long and expensive analyses as in the previous years!! That’s great news!!

So, the plan for us today is organizing all our lab stuff during the day (tubes, machines, photo studio…). Sergey will be working in other bird studies during the day. Some colleagues will go to pick up Jean-Marc (and liquid nitrogen!!!) back to Kiev. Hopefully everybody will be here in the afternoon, and we will probably go to the field already this night, trying to catch some frogs. As I said, the forecast is far from good, with coldish and rainy weather, but will see!!! The full plan for our trip is to stay inside the Zone for 8 days, and move out for our final 3-4 days (around Chernihiv/Slavutych) trying to catch frogs in areas never affected by the radioactive fallout.

Dosimeter are on now, but did not accumulate anything during our first hours in the Zone (we are inside the Exclusion Zone, but on a clean area). No much time either to see wildlife, although nightjars were abundant in the road as soon as we enter the Zone.

More tomorrow at #ChernobylFrogs18

Chernobyl Frogs 2018: Final preparations and a clip


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(“Últimos preparativos y un video”, en español, más abajo)

We are less than two days away for the start of our fieldwork campaign in (and around) Chernobyl. All the field gear and lab material is ready and well packed in our suitcases. that includes, among other small things:

2000 2ml cryovials for all the physiological and genomic samples
210 50ml Falcon tubes for storing the frogs once sampled
200 cotton dry swabs for microbiome sampling
300 glass slides for immunological studies
48 plastic containers for holding the frogs in the lab
250 plastic Pasteur pipetes
175 Chem8+ iSTAT cartridges for blood physiology tests
20 Microgard 1500 Plus protective suits
400 nitrile gloves
Abaxis iSTAT blood analyser and printer
Tascam DR-100 MK3 audio recorder
Garmin eTrex 20x gps
Fujifil XT-1 photo camera with two lenses and colour checker
2 GoPro cameras
2 Rados Rad-60 S dosimeters
2 Olight 1500 lumens headlamps…


Part of our field and lab equipment for #ChernobylFrogs18

Weather forecast is still rather good, maybe a bit rainy and stormy some days, but that should not be a problem. On Sunday, Jean-Marc Bonzom will fly from southern France to Kiev, and we will arrive a bit later from Stockholm, to be all picked up at the airport by our colleague, and #1 expert on Chernobyl wildlife, Sergey Gaschack.


So, next post will be already from inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on Day 1 of #ChernobylFrogs18. Fingers crossed for good fieldwork!!! We will keep you posted daily!!!

But for now, here you have a short video clip ahead of the new fieldwork. I hope you like it!!


Sólo quedan un par de días para el inicio de nuestro trabajo de campo en (y alrededor de) Chernobyl. Todo el equipo para nuestro trabajo de campo y de laboratorio está listo y empaquetado en nuestras maletas, incluido:

2000 2ml crioviales para guardar todas nuestras muestras fisiológicas y genómicas
210 50ml tubos Falcon para guardar las ranas una vez muestreadas
200 bastoncillos de algodón para tomar muestras de microbioma
300 portaobjetos de cristal para estudios inmunológicos
48 contenedores de plásticos para mantener las ranas en el laboratorio
250 pipetas Pasteur de plástico
175 cartuchos Chem8+ iSTAT para análisis sanguíneos
20 trajes protectores Microgard 1500 Plus
400 guantes de nitrilo
Abaxis iSTAT analizador sanguíneo e impresora
Tascam DR-100 MK3 grabadora de audio
Garmin eTrex 20x gps
Fujifil XT-1 cámaera fotográfica, con dos objetivos y patrón de color
2 GoPro cámaras
2 Rados Rad-60 S dosímetros
2 Olight lámparas frontales de 1500 lumens…

El pronóstico del tiempo sigue siendo muy bueno, quizás con algo de luvvia y tormentas ocasionales, lo que no debería ser un problema. El domingo, Jean-Marc Bonzom volará desde el sur de Francia hacia Kiev, donde Pablo Burraco y yo llegaremos un poco más tarde, para ser todos recogidos por nuestro colega, y experto #1 en la fauna de Chernobyl, Sergey Gaschack.

Así que, la próxima entrada de este blog será ya desde el interior de la Zona de Exclusión, en el Día 1 #ChernobylFrogs18. A ver si tenemos suerte con el trabajo de campo!!! Iremos informando aquí diariamente de nuestros progresos!!!

Por ahora, un corto video antes de empezar el trabajo de campo!!! Espero que guste!!


Chernobyl frogs 2018: The Game


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(más abajo, version en español “Las ranas de Chernobyl 2018: El Juego”)

Let’s have some fun!!

Field work is often exhausting and stressful, even more if we did it in a distant country and under special safety circumstances. But this doesn’t mean that we can not have fun once there. So, to make things more interesting, let’s try playing a game this year!!


Getting ready for collecting frogs in an uncontaminated area, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, May 2017 (photo: Pablo Burraco)

As mentioned in a previous entry of this blog, we are pretty close to the start of our field work in Chernobyl #ChernobylFrogs18. We will look at the effects that chronic low-dose radiation has on the morphology, physiology and genetics of the European treefrogs (Hyla orientalis) living inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine. We will arrive in Kiev this Sunday and our first night trying to catch frogs will be on Monday 14th May.

So, why not have some fun and try to guess the number of frogs we will collect during this trip? The winner, apart from the scientific glory of fieldwork cleverness, will get from us a 15x20cm dedicated photo print of her/his choice from the ones we will publish in this blog or @GOrizaola Twitter account during the field work (13-25 May).


Eastern treefrog (Hyla orientalis) males, captured in May 2017 inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine.

Just to give some clues. We will be in the field for a total of 10 nights, and depending on the weather, the activity of the frogs, and our ability to find good localities and catch enough frogs, our goal is to collect 12-20 frogs in about 10-15 localities across a gradient of radiation. Of course, the more localities and frogs, the better… we will not stop catching frogs until the very last night.

Here you have a table summarising how we did the last two years, on a quick and very successful trip during 2016, and on a much longer trip last year heavily affected (on the negative side) by miserable cold weather. So, go ahead and make your guess (total number of frogs) leaving a comment here on the blog or replying to our tweets on this topic at @GOrizaola Twitter account. Entries accepted until Sunday 13th 23.59 Ukrainian time.

UntitledFingers crossed, good frogging and good luck!!!!

Las ranas de Chernobyl 2018: El Juego

Vamos a divertirnos!!

El trabajo de campo es muchas veces una actividad dura y estresante, en especial si se desarrolla en países lejanos y bajos circunstancias especiales de seguridad. Pero eso no quiere decir que no nos podamos divertir… Así que para hacer todo un poco más entretenido, qué tal si jugamos a un juego este año?

Como hemos dicho en entradas anteriores de este blog, estamos ya muy cerca de comenzar nuestro trabajo de campo en Ucrania #ChernobylFrogs18. Una vez allí, trabajaremos para intentar evaluar el efecto que vivir en una zona contaminada de manera crónica con substancias radioactivas tiene en la morfología, fisiología y genética de la Ranita de San Antonio Oriental (Hyla orientalis). Aterrizaremos en Kiev el domingo 13 de mayo, para comenzar nuestro trabajo de campo la noche del lunes 14.

Así que, por qué no intentar entretenernos y averiguar el número total de ranas que vamos a coger durante estos días? El ganador, además de la gloria científica, se llevará una copia fotográfica dedicada a tamaño 15x20cm de una fotografía a su elección entre las que publiquemos en este blog o en la cuenta de Twitter @GOrizaola durante estos días (13-25 mayo).

Para dar unas pistas, estaremos en el campo durante 10 noches en las que, dependiendo del tiempo, de la actividad de las ranas y nuestra habilidad para encontrar buenas localidades y para capturar las ranas, intentaremos capturar entre 12 y 20 individuos en 12-20 localidades. Por supuesto, cuantas más localidades y más ranas, mejor para nuestro estudio… así que no pararemos de intentar capturar ranas hasta la última noche.

Aquí está un resumen de cómo nos fue en años anteriores: durante una visita rápida y muy productiva en 2016, y durante nuestra visita, más larga pero afectada muy negativamente por el mal tiempo el año pasado. Así que, adelante!! La predicción (número total de ranas) puede dejarse como comentario en este blog o como respuesta a los tweets que sobre este tema publiquemos en la cuenta de Twitter @GOrizaola. Se aceptarán entradas hasta las 23.59 horas del domingo 13 de mato, hora de Ucrania.

UntitledCrucemos los dedos por una campaña con éxito. Buena suerte a todos!!!

Chernobyl frogs: Season 3 (2018)


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(“Las ranas de Chernobyl: Temporada 3 (2018)”, versión en español más abajo)


It’s May, and for us this means one thing: the time for our third season of work with the amphibians of Chernobyl has arrived. For the newcomers to this blog, since 2016 we have been studying the effects that living under chronic exposure to low-dose radiation has on amphibians. For doing this, we work inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, in Ukraine, around the nuclear power plant that suffered the worst nuclear accident in history with the explosion of the reactor number 4 on the 26 of April 1986. This explosion released radioactive material equivalent to ca. 400 nuclear bombs like the one deployed over Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. After the explosion, an Exclusion Zone of ca. 2600 square kilometres was created around the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, and about 300.000 people were evacuated from the area. The physical and psychological impact of the accident on humans was severe.


City of Pripyat, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, evacuated after the 1986 accident. May 2017.


The basic aim of our work is trying to understand how an area that still maintains parts heavily contaminated with radioactive material, and that was supposed to become a nuclear wasteland for centuries, is now merely 30 years after the accident full of wildlife. Some studies conducted in the area have reported damage in animals living in contaminated areas (reviews in Yablokov et al. 2009, Mousseau and Møller 2014), although some others have not found any effects and even reported abundant and thriving populations of big animals (Deryabina et al. 2015). One thing is clear in Chernobyl after 32 years: there is still no scientific consensus about the effects that living inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, under chronic exposure to low-dose radiation, is causing to wildlife. A good understanding of the effects that living in radioactive contaminated areas has on animals is, of course, crucial for defining the way in which nuclear accidents, and nuclear energy production and waste disposal in general, should be managed.


Collecting frogs in a highly contaminated pond, 1.5 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, May 2017.


Over the last two years we have focussed our work on the Eastern treefrog (Hyla orientalis), a small green frog with males weighing 5-8 g, and a long breeding period in which males can be calling at the breeding localities from May to July. The breeding activity of the species is highly warm-dependent, so males are especially active after sunny days (>20° C) and on warm (>10° C), rain-less, nights.


Male Eastern treefrog (Hyla orientalis), Chernobyl, May 2017.


During our 2016-2017 work, we collected more than 150 breeding males to examine the effects of the radioactive contamination on the morphology, physiology and genetics of these amphibians. On our previous field campaigns, we sampled localities distributed across a gradient of radioactive contamination, from areas with high radiation levels (8800 KBq/m2 Sr90; 1000 KBq/m2 Cs137) to clean areas (44 KBq/m2 Sr90; 104 KBq/m2 Cs137). Once in the lab, from each frog we collected a wide array of samples, from skin swabs to examine the composition of their microbiome, to sperm and blood samples, and different muscle tissues for genomic analyses.


Getting ready for collecting frogs in an uncontaminated area, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, May 2017 (photo: Pablo Burraco)


With our work, we want to understand if these frogs living in radioactive areas are suffering, or not, from the exposure to radioactive contamination, or if they are suffering some detrimental effects but are able to reduce the damage. Or, even more interesting, if they are already showing signs of adaptation to living under radioactive contamination, as some studies have started to suggest (Møller and Mousseau 2016).

This year, we will head to Chernobyl on the 13th of May for two weeks of intense field and lab work, in which we will aim at collecting treefrogs both inside and outside the Exclusion Zone. On top of collecting frogs in uncontaminated localities inside the Zone (internal controls), we want to collect frogs also from uncontaminated places further away of the Zone, to use them as external controls. Anyway, once again, most of our work will be conducted in areas of medium and high radioactive contamination inside the Zone, in which we will try to collect 15-20 male treefrogs from each of 8-10 localities, depending on weather conditions and the intensity of the breeding activities of the frogs.


Pond located near the Red Forest, Chernobyl, one of the most radioactive contaminated places on Earth, May 2017.


New in 2018

The team from last year (Pablo Burraco and myself from Uppsala University, Sweden, and Sergey Gaschack from the Chornobyl Centre, Ukraine) will be joined by Jean-Marc Bonzom from the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN). Jean-Marc, a researcher at the IRSN Radionuclide Ecotoxicology Laboratory in Cadarache, has been part of this project from the beginning, but always from the distance of the lab. This year, Jean-Marc will be with us during the entire campaign. He will be also on charge of bringing the dry-shipper to Ukraine, crucial for storing our frozen samples, and that caused quite some problems last year… Welcome on-board Jean-Marc, bienvenue!!!


Left to right: Germán Orizaola, Jean-Marc Bonzom and Olivier Armant, Nice, June 2017.

Also new this year are some additional traits that we will measure both in the field and the lab. With our new sound recorder, we will record the calls of the male treefrogs, trying to evaluate if males from contaminated areas differ in their calls from these from clean localities. Once in the lab, we will examine all the previous traits from last years but we will also obtain a full blood physiology profile for each frog thanks to our new blood analyser (Abaxis i-STAT), expected to arrive on May 8th (fingers crossed!!). This will give us a good indication of the existence, or not, of liver and kidney malfunctions and/or general physiological imbalances that organism may suffer as a consequence of living in a radioactive environment. We will also conduct some new behavioural tests on the motility and escape behaviour of the frogs, looking for differences in activity between localities.


Our lab at the Chernobyl Field Station, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, May 2017 (photo Pablo Burraco)


Contrary to last year in which we experienced really cold, miserable, weather, with even some snow, the weather forecast for these days is extremely good, with sunny days and temperatures moving from 30° C during the day to around 15° C during the night. The weather has been on these numbers now for two weeks, let’s see if it’s not too good for the frogs, and we not found them “a bit too tired”…


Weather forecast for May 2018 in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Data from http://www.wunderground.com

As we did in previous years, we will provide detailed information about our preparations for the trip, our activities in the field and the lab, and about how is it to work in a radioactive contaminated area as Chernobyl in this blog, our Twitter accounts (@GOrizaola, @pabloburraco, using the hashtag #ChernobylFrogs18) and also on Instagram (@gorizaola). Please, if you have any questions, ask us by any of these media. I hope you like it!!!

Let’s go!! Ходімо!!


Las ranas de Chernobyl: Temporada 3 (2018)

(Este año, como novedad, algunas de las entradas de este blog serán bilingües, con traducción al español. Al menos las que aparezcan antes de ir a Chernobyl estarán publicadas en inglés y español, una vez allí todo dependerá del tiempo, el sueño y el cansancio…)

Mayo ya está aquí, y eso para nosotros significa una cosa: ha llegado la hora de nuestra tercera temporada de trabajo con los anfibios de Chernobyl. Para la gente que lea por primera vez este blog, desde 2016 hemos estado estudiando los efectos que la exposición crónica a niveles bajos de radiación tiene sobre los anfibios. Para ello, trabajamos dentro de la Zona de Exclusión de Chernobyl, en Ucrania, alrededor de la central nuclear que sufrió el mayor accidente nuclear de la historia con la explosión del reactor número 4 el 26 de abril de 1986. Esta explosión liberó material radioactivo equivalente a unas 400 bombas atómicas como la detonada en Hiroshima, Japón, en 1945. Tras la explosión del reactor, se creó una zona de Exclusión de unos 2600 km2 alrededor de la central, evacuándose a unas 300.000 personas de la Zona. El impacto físico y psicológico del accidente sobre la población humana fue severo.

El objetivo principal de nuestro trabajo es tratar de investigar cómo un área que aún hoy mantiene zonas altamente contaminadas por radiación, y que se suponía iba a convertirse en un desierto nuclear carente de vida, se ha transformada en sólo 30 años en una zona llena de vida salvaje. Algunos estudios desarrollados en la Zona han señalado efectos negativos de la radiación en animales que ocupan áreas contaminadas (revisiones en Yablokov et al. 2009, Mousseau and Møller 2014). No obstante, otros estudios no han detectado daño alguno en otras especies, e incluso han encontrado poblaciones abundantes y saludables de grandes mamíferos (Deryabina et al. 2015). Una cosa está clara en Chernobyl después de 32 años: en la actualidad sigue sin existir un consenso científico sobre el efecto que la exposición crónica a niveles bajos de radiación, como los experimentados actualmente en la Zona, tiene sobre la fauna salvaje. Un conocimiento preciso del nivel de ese impacto es indudablemente clave para definir protocolos de actuación eficaces ante nuevos accidentes nucleares, así como para la correcta regulación de la producción de energía en centrales nucleares y la gestión de los residuos generados.

Durante los últimos dos años nuestro trabajo en la Zona se ha centrado en la Ranita de San Antonio Oriental (Hyla orientalis) un pequeño anfibio de color verde intenso, en el que los machos pesan unos 5-8 g, y que mantiene un largo período de actividad reproductora que puede extenderse en la Zona desde mayo hasta julio. La actividad de esta especie es muy dependiente del calor, por lo que los machos están especialmente activos en noches sin lluvias y con temperaturas medias (>10° C), precedidas de días soleados y con temperaturas por encima de 20° C.

A lo largo de nuestro trabajo durante 2016 y 2017, capturamos unos 150 machos de esta especie, en los que examinamos los efectos que vivir en una zona con contaminación radioactiva tiene sobre la morfología, fisiología y genética de estos anfibios. Durante estas campañas muestreamos en zonas distribuidas a lo largo de un gradiente de contaminación radioactiva, desde zonas con altos niveles de contaminación (8800 KBq/m2 Sr90; 1000 KBq/m2 Cs137), hasta zonas limpias, no contaminadas (44 KBq/m2 Sr90; 104 KBq/m2 Cs137). Una vez en el laboratorio, de cada individuo se tomaron diversas muestras, desde muestras para examinar el microbioma de la piel, hasta diferentes tejidos musculares para estudios genético, pasando por muestras de sangre y esperma.

Con nuestro trabajo queremos evaluar si estos anfibios están sufriendo, o no, efectos negativos como consecuencia de vivir en zonas contaminadas por substancias radioactivas. O si están sufriendo algún efecto, pero son capaces de neutralizarlo y disminuir el daño. O, más interesante todavía, si pudieran estar mostrando ya patrones de adaptación a vivir en estas zonas radioactivas, como algunos estudios previos han comenzado a sugerir (Møller and Mousseau 2016).

Este año iremos hacia Chernobyl el 13 de mayo para comenzar dos semanas de intenso trabajo de campo y de laboratorio en el que tendremos como objetivo capturar ranas tanto dentro como fuera de la Zona de Exclusión. Además de seguir capturando ranas en algunas localidades de la Zona de Exclusión que permanecen no contaminadas (controles internos), queremos muestrear en zonas contaminadas lejos de la Zona de Exclusión para tener también controles externos. De todas formas, una vez más, gran parte de nuestro trabajo lo desarrollaremos en zonas de radioactividad media y alta dentro de la Zona de Exclusión. En estas localidades, el objetivo es capturar 15-20 machos en cada localidad, muestreando unas 8-10 localidades dentro de la Zona, dependiendo de las condiciones climatológicas y de la intensidad de la actividad reproductora de la especie.

Novedades en 2018

Nuestro equipo de años anteriores (Pablo Burraco y yo desde la Universidad de Uppsala, Suecia y Sergey Gaschack desde el Centro Chornobyl, Ucrania) se verá reforzado esta vez con la participación durante todo el periodo de muestreo de Jean-Marc Bonzom, del Instituto Francés de Protección Radiológica y Seguridad Nuclear (IRSN). Jean-Marc es un investigador del Laboratorio de Ecotoxicología Radiológica del IRSN en Cadarache, y ha sido parte integrante de este proyecto desde sus inicios, aunque siempre desde la distancia del laboratorio. Este año tendremos la suerte de contar con su colaboración también en el campo!! También estará a cargo de llevar hasta Ucrania el contenedor especial para mantener nuestras muestras congeladas, una pieza vital en nuestro equipo, que espero que no de tantos problemas como el año pasado… Bienvenido a bordo Jean-Marc, bienvenue!!!

Otras novedades de este año serán algunos de los parámetros que vamos a medir tanto en el campo como en el laboratorio. Con nuestra nueva grabadora haremos grabaciones de los cantos de lo machos con la idea de examinar si estos difieren entre zonas con diferentes niveles de contaminación. Una vez en el laboratorio, además de examinar todos los parámetros de años anteriores, este año tomaremos muestras adicionales de sangre para hacer un completo análisis de parámetros sanguíneos en nuestro nuevo analizador (Abaxis i-STAT), que llegará a nuestras manos (esperemos!!) el 8 de mayo. Estos análisis nos darán una idea muy precisa sobre si estas ranas están experimentando, o no, daños en el hígado y riñones, o desajustes fisiológicos generales, como consecuencia de vivir en ambientes radioactivos. Por último, también haremos algunos estudios de movilidad y comportamiento para ver si difieren entre ranas de distintas localidades y niveles de contaminación.

Al contrario que el año pasado en el que el tiempo fue frío, desapacible y incluso tuvimos nieve, el pronóstico del tiempo para nuestros días en el campo no puede ser mejor, con días soleados y temperaturas entre los 30° C por el día y los 15° C por la noche. El tiempo se ha mantenido en esas condiciones durante las últimas dos semanas, veremos si no es demasiado bueno y nos encontramos a las ranas demasiado avanzadas en su actividad reproductora, “demasiado cansadas”…

Tal y como hemos hecho en años anteriores, contaremos todos los preparativos de este trabajo, nuestra actividad en el campo y el laboratorio, y cómo es trabajar en una zona contaminada por compuestos radioactivos como Chernobyl, desde este blog, desde nuestras cuentas en Twitter (@GOrizaola, @pabloburraco, usando la etiqueta #ChernobylFrogs18) y también desde Instagram (@gorizaola). Cualquier pregunta, duda o curiosidad, estaremos encantados de responderla desde cualquiera de estos medios. Esperemos que os interese!!!

Un resumen de nuestro trabajo se puede encontrar también en un artículo publicado el año pasado por América Valenzuela en El Independiente “El enigma de las ranas negras de Chernóbil” y en una entrevista reciente en el programa “Por fin no es lunes” de Onda Cero Radio.

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!!