for National Geographic News
Twenty years after the infamous catastrophe at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, scientists were cheered by the explosion of wildlife that seemed to be thriving in the 19-mile (30-kilometer) "exclusion zone" around the disaster site.
Healthy-looking deer, boar, lynx, and eagle owls were among the animals found throughout the zone, despite the blast that had showered radioactive material over huge swaths of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia (see a map of Europe).
But a new study shows that barn swallows living near Chernobyl, which is in Ukraine, suffer from many more birth defects and abnormalities than would ordinarily be expected.
In addition, the swallows are not living as long and are not breeding as successfully as their distant counterparts.
By studying birds rather than humans, the researchers have been able to separate the physiological effects of the radiation from sociological and psychological ones.
"Birds don't drink, birds don't smoke, and they don't suffer the same kind of stresses as humans" that can cause diseases such as cancers, said study co-author Tim Mousseau, a biology professor at the University of South Carolina and a National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration grantee.
(National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)
The findings therefore suggest that people living near the affected zone could still be at risk even though radiation levels have declined.
Anders Møller, from Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, led the team that has been monitoring the barn swallows since 1991 for signs of abnormalities such as deformed beaks, toes, and feathers and unusual coloring.
More than 7,700 birds have been examined, some from Chernobyl and others from control areas including Spain, Italy, and Denmark—far away from the explosion site.
The team's results, published online today in the journal Biology Letters, show that abnormalities are much higher in birds from the Chernobyl population.
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