LONDON-Wolf packs from Chernobyl’s toxic nuclear disaster zone could spread mutant radioactive genes across Europe, a new study has suggested. For the first time evidence has been found that grey wolves are leaving the 1,600 square mile (4,300 square km) Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ). After being abandoned in 1986 following a nuclear explosion, the ‘dead zone’ has become home to many wild animals including lynx, mouse, boars and horses. Researchers tracked the movements of grey wolves to determine whether the animals stayed confined to the CEZ. According to the latest findings, some of the younger predators ventured 186 miles (300km) beyond the boundaries of the exclusion zone, which researchers suggest could kickstart the spread of mutated genes to other animal populations. In 1986 an explosion at the Chernobyl power plant in the former Soviet Union town of Pripyat leaked radioactive material into the environment.
The explosion was caused by a fire in one of the nuclear reactors and the surrounding area was evacuated as a result.
While radiation levels in the region is still considered too high for humans to return, wildlife has moved back into the area and is flourishing.
According to research led by Michael Byrne from the University of Missouri at Columbia, grey wolves in the reserve have a population density up to seven times greater than surrounding areas.
This is not due to any mutant radioactive genes, but because there are no humans within the exclusion zone.
Dr Byrne told Live Science that ‘one area can hold only so many large predators’ and for the first time researchers have tracked a young wolf that has definitely left the contaminated zone.
Researchers tracked 14 grey wolves by fitting them with GPS collars.
Thirteen of the wolves were adults over the age of two years and they did not venture beyond the limits of the zone.
However a young male juvenile, which was between one and two years old, roamed 186 miles (300km) beyond the boundaries over a period of 21 days.
According to Dr Byrne, it is ‘the first proof of a wolf dispersing beyond the exclusion zone‘.
It is not known if these animals are bringing the mutations with them as they venture out of the protected area.
‘The dispersal of a young wolf is an important observation because it suggests that the CEZ may serve as a source for some wildlife populations outside of the CEZ’, researchers wrote in the paper published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.