Scientists are studying the dogs living around the Chernobyl disaster site in Ukraine.
“They are primarily the descendants of the animals that were left behind at the time of the evacuation during the accident in 1986,” said Timothy Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina.
He has been doing research in the Chernobyl area since 1999.
“We’ve been studying the plants and the animals and birds mostly,” he said.
The nuclear accident led to the evacuation of the site and the entire city of Pripyat nearby. Not a lot of research has been done on the impacts of long-term, low-level radioactive exposure in the decades after.
The zone was mostly left as a ghost town, except for efforts to contain the disaster site, until recent years.
“In the early 2010s, they started to allow some tourism, and by 2019 there were 110,000 tourists a year visiting the Chernobyl zone,” Mousseau said. One of the features of the tour was to visit the dogs.
“Pretty soon, this became a component of the tour to visit the dogs and feed the dogs, so the dog population understandably exploded as a result of this input of resources and food,” he said.
Mousseau estimates that in 2017, 800 to 900 dogs were living near the site and in the surrounding area.
That number has decreased as veterinarians and volunteers have visited the area to conduct wellness clinics and surgeries to prevent more puppies.
“Now, we think that the total numbers around the power plant are between 100 and 200, and in Chernobyl town itself, something in that order as well,” he said. The population has declined due to normal mortality.
With the help of the U.S.-based Clean Futures Fund+, which brought in vet techs and veterinarians, Mousseau was able to piggyback off of their work from 2017 to 2019 to collect data.
“We got samples from most of the animals that were treated,” he said. “A significant portion of the DNA that’s there is derived from German Shepherd lineage, which was a very popular breed at the time.”
Determining the ancestry was the first objective of the study.
Now, scientists are focused on sequencing the entire genomes of these dogs.
Mousseau said, “We hope to be able to really get at this question of, ‘Are there changes in the DNA that are related to this exposure?'"
The first study released in early March identified these dogs as “genetically distinct” from other dogs.
“Hopefully, we will uncover some of the mysteries of how the genome responds in a way that will provide clues as to how to deal with, say, cancer, and other kinds of diseases that result from increased mutation rates of various sorts,” Mousseau said.