Quirks & Quarks

A wolf was spotted leaving Chernobyl's 'exclusion zone'

The abandoned villages around the doomed Chernobyl Nuclear Plant have turned into a 'wildlife reserve.'
Two young male grey wolves in Bristol, England. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

It's a wildlife preserve unlike anywhere else on the planet. About 4,300 square kilometers of untamed wilderness, chock full of thriving populations of animal species that are going extinct everywhere else. Not only are humans not allowed to live here, but most wouldn't want to live here either.

Because, this is Chernobyl.

After the lethal 1986 nuclear explosion that left lingering impacts on thousands due to radioactive fallout, authorities created an exclusion zone around the reactor, forcing humans to flee, leaving everything behind. Soon, wildlife moved in to take advantage of the human-free landscape. Animals like moose, bears, and wolves now populate this massive area. And now, for the first time, researchers have spotted a wolf leaving this radioactive zone, and traveling over 300 kilometers away into neighbouring territories.

An abandoned ferris wheel stands on a public space overgrown with trees in the former city center of Pripyat, Ukraine. The city lies in the inner exclusion zone around Chernobyl where hot spots of persistently high levels of radiation make the area uninhabitable for thousands of years to come. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

"It's kind of eerie. You go through and there's all these abandoned villages that are within the zone," says .Mike Byrne, a wildlife ecologist from University of Missouri. "If aliens came down right now and sucked all the humans off of Earth, what it might look like in 30 years, it's kind of like that. It's got this post apocalyptic feel to it."

Byrne went to Chernobyl in part to test newly-designed GPS collars with radioactive dosimeters installed. Considering that wolf populations in Chernobyl's exclusion zone are seven times more dense than in surrounding areas, it wasn't difficult to track them down.

Mike Byrne fitting a tranquilized wolf with a GPS collar in Chernobyl. (Mike Byrne/Cara Love/Sarah Webster)

"Some people before me had helped develop these to see if we could use them to understand free ranging wildlife, and the size of areas that they are actually exposed to. And then to study how the wolves move around the zone, how they move in relation to the radiation, and learn what we can, because these wolves haven't really been studied before in this matter."

The immediate observations were that radiation didn't affect where the animals went within the zone. Animals of all species took advantage of the lush, undisturbed habitat, all throughout the contaminated area. But soon the researchers watched as a juvenile wolf left the exclusion zone, travelling 370 kilometers over the next 21 days.

"Only so many animals can fit into one area and eventually resources become limited. And so some portion of the population has got to move out to make its own way in the world," he says. "What's cool about this is we finally saw it. So this is the kind of our first direct observation that that can happen."

General view of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant taken from the ghost city of Prypyat (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

 Byrne says there's no reason to fear this wandering wolf.

"You're not going to see glowing wolves on the landscape. If you went and you hugged one of these wolves you wouldn't die of radiation poisoning."

Dr. Mike Byrne standing next to a sign warning about contamination and Bison in Chernobyl (Mike Byrne)

Wolves aren't the only animals thriving amongst the radiation.

"I probably thought what a lot of people who don't know much about it think that it's kind of a wasteland. But I was primed for it and then when I got there I was pleasantly surprised that I saw as much wildlife as I did."

A photo taken on January 22, 2016 shows wild Przewalski's horses on a snow covered field in the Chernobyl exclusions zone. (GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Byrne lists the animals he saw during his time in the exclusion zone including red deer, moose, black grouse, snakes, owls, raccoon dogs, foxes, pine martens, and badgers. There are also some non-native species, like bison and Przewalski's horses, which were introduced by the government to see if their populations could take root.

"It's an interesting dichotomy of this human tragedy, and it really is a human tragedy, a lot of people were displaced. But you know in the face of that, nature is reclaiming it. And nature is doing really well."


  • An earlier version of this story reported that the nuclear explosion left thousands dead. In fact, that is the projected death toll as a result of the lasting effects of the radiation exposure.