The war in Ukraine threatens a fascinating piece of natural science

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THE TASTES 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine was a human tragedy. But it was also a biological opportunity. Since 2000, Timothy Mousseau from the University of South Carolina and Anders Moller from the Ecology, Systematics and Evolution Laboratory in Orsay near Paris have been running the Chernobyl Research Initiative Lab together with a dozen Ukrainian colleagues. They have studied how animals and plants have adapted to their radioactive environment in what is now a nature reserve by default.

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Over the years they have published more than 120 articles. They started by studying the genetics of barn swallows (pictured) living at different distances from the reactor. They discovered that mutations made bird body sizes more variable in areas of high radiation. They then showed that colorful bird populations have declined more than less colorful ones, supporting a long-standing claim that bright colors are used as a honest signal of good health (something birds in such a hostile place are unlikely to enjoy). They have even found evidence that birds around Chernobyl have evolved radiation tolerance, showing that the animals living there have higher population densities than their peers under similar circumstances near the Fukushima facility in Japan. This melted away just 11 years ago instead of 36, leaving locals with less time to adjust.

All this work was stopped after the invasion of Ukraine. Casualties include a six-year camera trap experiment mapping mammalian distribution and abundance, a project to monitor the effects of radiation on the microbiome of wild dogs, a study of rodent genomics, physiology, reproduction and ecology, and a collaboration with NASAthe US Space Agency to understand how plants adapt to chronic radiation exposure – something that could be important if plants are ever grown on board spacecraft or on celestial bodies with little or no radiation-intercepting atmosphere.

There is also a risk that the study center will be permanently damaged. dr Mousseau suspects that the noise of battle in the area has already caused wildlife to flee in the opposite direction. He saw something similar during noisy clean-ups at Fukushima – although the animals eventually returned.

However, Fukushima was not riddled with landmines, which he says may have happened as Russian troops moved through the area. If true, it would be a hazard to wildlife and biologists alike.

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Read more about our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis

This article appeared in the Science & Technology section of the print edition under the heading “A Victim of War.”

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