Wolves leaving radioactive area around Chernobyl raise mutant fears
Researchers study wolves in the area contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and what happens when they leave.
Scientists followed a mutant wolf out of the Chernobyl contaminated “exclusion zone” into the regular world just to see what would happen. No, that’s not the plot of the latest horror film but a study that recently came out.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place in 1986 near the town of Chernobyl in what was then the Soviet Union (now Ukraine). An exploded reactor ended up releasing 400 times more radioactive fallout than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (according to the IAEA). It was to this date the worst nuclear accident mankind has ever seen, resulting in the quarantining of an area 30 miles in diameter around the reactor. This has now grown to be about a 1,000 sq miles.
While there are no humans in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (or CEZ), the area has seen an expansion of wildlife, essentially acting as a preserve. And now some of that wildlife is leaving the area and traveling to other places. That’s what the scientists who outfitted a wolf with a tracker observed for the first time. Not only is some wildlife leaving, it might have mutated genes. Scientists are hoping to understand what would happen if these genes mixed in the pool with non-contaminated animals. Besides, creating radioactive zombie wolves, of course.
In an interview with Live Science, researcher Michael Byrne from the University of Missouri at Columbia explained why wildlife migration is significant to study:
"Instead of being an ecological black hole, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone might actually act as a source of wildlife to help other populations in the region," said Byrne. "And these findings might not just apply to wolves – it's reasonable to assume similar things are happening with other animals as well."
The data on the young wolf tracked with a GPS collar is actually from 2015, but the study analyzing the data is new. The original gray wolf traveled across Ukraine from the CEZ, venturing at least 229 miles (369 km) from the Zone. It is no longer being tracked, with researchers getting the last signal from its GPS a few months ago.
Check out this PBS-screened doc on the 'Radioactive wolves of Chernobyl":
It’s also reasonable to assume that much more traveling has taken place by the Chernobyl animals in the years since, although the roaming wolf was the only one of 14 that were tracked which left the CEZ.
What is the effect of having the wolf and other animals from Chernobyl mixing with animals from non-contaminated areas remains to be seen. Scientists have shown that species in the Exclusion Zone have mutation rates increases of up to 20 times.
This doesn’t necessarily mean some strange hybrid beasts are roaming that area. "No wolves there were glowing — they all have four legs, two eyes and one tail," Byrne confirmed.
A woman holds a disabled newly-born pig -- a victim of the radioactivity fall-out of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. Photo was taken on October 2nd, 1989(Photo credit: LARS GRANSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Mutations are not usually very dramatic in character and tend to keep happening even without exposure to radiation. In an interview with Mashable, Bridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University and a specialist in wolf genetics, explained:
"Not all mutations are bad," said vonHoldt. "Mutations are the bread and butter of diversity, and can enhance proteins, or gene expression patterns, etc.” But “they can also be harmful."
We just don’t know what could happen. Who is willing to roll that particular dice other than curious scientists?
Wolves in an abandoned village in Chernobyl area. Credit: Byshnev/iStock/Getty Images
What is especially interesting is that gray wolves have increased in population within the Zone much faster than other species. The Zone is 7 times more dense in the wolf population than the nature reserves outside it.
You can read the study published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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