Alpha male timber wolf in winter

The Telegraph by Sarah Knapton

Wolves living near the Chernobyl nuclear plant have evolved to withstand cancer-causing radiation, scientists believe.

The Chernobyl wolves are exposed to about 11.28 millirem of radiation every day, which is more than six times the legal safety limit for the average human worker.

Evolutionary biologists from Princeton University have been studying blood samples from wolves inside and outside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) – a 1,000sqm area cleared of human activity after the disaster.

The team found that wolves living in the CEZ had altered immune systems, similar to cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment, as well as genetic changes which seem to protect against cancer.

The team is hoping that the study will eventually identify proactive mutations which could increase the odds of fighting cancer in humans.

The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26, 1986, with the explosion of reactor number four at the nuclear power plant causing an updraft of radioactivity which spread across Europe.

Two people died immediately and 29 within the coming days of acute radiation syndrome, while the United Nations estimated some 4,000 more died from the fallout.

Many women also aborted their babies for fear they would be affected by radiation poisoning.

However, in recent years, researchers have found that closing off surrounding land to humans has allowed wildlife to flourish, with the area now a haven for lynx, bison, brown bear, wolves, boar and deer as well as 60 rare plant species.

Wolves in the Chernobyl exclusion zone which researchers find is a haven for wildlife.

The exclusion zone currently represents the third-largest nature reserve in mainland Europe and is often considered an accidental experiment in rewilding.

Previous studies showed that exposure to radiation speeds up the genetic mutation rate among plants, with some species evolving new chemistry that makes them more resistant to radiation damage and protects their DNA.

Scientists have pointed out that in the past when early plants were evolving, levels of natural radiation on Earth were far higher than now, so species may be able to switch on dormant traits to survive.

However, it was unknown whether the same protective adaptations would be seen in larger animals.

The study was presented at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology’s annual meeting in Seattle.