Chernobyl dogs stun scientists who say 300 strays are descendants of blast pets

Scientists have been stunned to learn that 35 years on from the world’s worst nuclear disaster, dogs can be found living, breeding and surviving among the ruins of Chernobyl.

The animals are believed to be direct descendants of those abandoned in 1986.

Boffins from across the globe hope that studying these contaminated canines can teach humans new tricks about how to live in the harshest, most degraded environments on the planet.

READ MORE: US town living through 'our Chernobyl' after huge train wreck leads to toxic plume

The study, published on Friday (March 3) in the journal Science Advances, looked at 302 free-roaming mutant mutts living in an officially designated "exclusion zone" around the disaster site in Ukraine.

They identified populations whose differing levels of radiation exposure may have made them genetically distinct from one another and other dogs worldwide.

Elaine Ostrander of the National Human Genome Research Institute, one of the study's many authors, said that the group of scientists were trying to ask one key question: "How do you survive in a hostile environment like this for 15 generations?"

Fellow author Tim Mousseau, professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, said the polluted pups "provide an incredible tool to look at the impacts of this kind of a setting" on all mammals.

Chernobyl's environment is unbelievably brutal to all life. On April 26, 1986, an explosion and fire at the Ukraine power plant caused massive amounts of radioactive fallout to spew into the atmosphere.

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30 workers were killed in the immediate aftermath while the long-term death toll from radiation poisoning is estimated to eventually number in the thousands.

Researchers say most of the dogs they are studying appear to be descendants of pets that residents were forced to leave behind when they evacuated the area.

At first, Ostrander said, the study group thought the dogs might have intermingled so much over time that they'd be much the same. But through DNA tests, they were able to identify dogs living in areas of high, low and medium levels of radiation exposure.

"That was a huge milestone for us," said Ostrander. "And what's surprising is we can even identify families" – about 15 different ones.

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Now researchers can begin to look for alterations in the DNA and see how the radiation in the area affected them.

Researchers have already started on the follow-up research, which will mean more time with the dogs at the site about 60 miles from Kyiv.

Mousseau said he and his colleagues were there most recently last October and didn't see any war-related activity, adding that the team has grown close to some dogs, naming one Prancer because she excitedly prances around when she sees people.

"Even though they're wild, they still very much enjoy human interaction," he said, "Especially when there's food involved”.

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