Wildlife flourishing in uninhabited areas around Fukushima

Eurekalert- monkeys

Macaque monkeys captured during the study. Courtesy UGA

Wildlife is flourishing in areas of Fukushima, Japan, almost 10 years after an quake triggered a tsunami that overwhelmed the Daiichi nuclear plant, leading to nuclear meltdowns, explosions, and the release of radioactive contamination.

"The [Chernobyl Exclusion Zone] is increasingly being seen as having huge conservation value-it now represents one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in Europe", Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom who specializes in Chernobyl and Fukushima, told Newsweek.

"Our results represent the first evidence that numerous species of wildlife are now abundant throughout the Fukushima Evacuation Zone, despite the presence of radiological contamination", James Beasley, a wildlife biologist from the University of Georgia, said in a statement.

It's been almost a full decade since the nuclear accident at Fukushima.

The post-disaster wildlife boom is reminiscent of Chernobyl, the site of another nuclear disaster that has since seen species such as wolves and other mammals flock to the area now largely deserted by humans.

Species that often conflict with humans - like wild boar - were "predominantly" seen on camera in evacuated areas, Beasley added.

"I think that radioactivity levels in significant parts of the exclusion zone are now safe for humans, but I'd like to see the zone remain as a protected area for wildlife".

Radiation released into the atmosphere forced some 154,000 residents to leave nearby communities and created a 20-kilometer (12.5-mile) evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant. Among the zones, one was completely off-limits for humans due to high levels of radiation contamination, one saw restricted access due to intermediate levels of contamination, and the last one was still open to human access and habitation due to low background levels of radiation.

The uninhabited zone served as the control zone for the research.

"For 120 days, cameras captured over 46,000 images of wild boar", reads a statement by the study's authors.

In contrast, about 13,000 images were taken in zones where humans were restricted due to contamination and 7,000 taken in zones inhabited by people.

According to researchers involved in the study at Chernobyl, such an increase in the wild animals' number at the nuclear exclusion zones explains that they thrive better in the absence of humans.

While the research monitors the radiological impact on wildlife populations as a whole, it does not give an assessment on the health of individual animals, scientists noted.

Most of the species were found to be following their usual behavior except wild boars and Japanese serows. Raccoons, for example, a nocturnal species, were more active during the night; pheasants, which are diurnal, were more active during the day. "To account for these factors, we incorporated habitat and landscape attributes such as elevation into our analysis", Beasley said.

Japanese serows that prefer to stay away from humans were found to be residing closer to human-inhabited rural areas. Researchers suspect this is an adjustment to avoid the uptick in boar populations in evacuated areas.

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