In dozens of papers over the years Dr. Mousseau, his longtime collaborator, Anders Pape Moller of the National Center for Scientific Research in France, and colleagues have reported evidence of radiation’s toll: higher frequencies of tumors and physical abnormalities like deformed beaks among birds compared with those from uncontaminated areas, for example, and a decline in the populations of insects and spiders with increasing radiation intensity.
But their most recent findings, published last month, showed something new. Some bird species, they
reported in the journal Functional Ecology, appear to have adapted to the radioactive environment by producing higher levels of protective antioxidants, with correspondingly less genetic damage. For these birds, Dr. Mousseau said, chronic exposure to radiation appears to be a kind of “unnatural selection” driving evolutionary change.
Dr. Mousseau dismisses the idea that the zone is some kind of post-apocalyptic Eden. But the latest study has given him pause, he said, because it shows the kind of adaptations that may allow some creatures — chaffinches and great tits in this case, though not barn swallows or robins — to thrive in the zone. However, it remains to be seen whether these species are truly thriving, Dr. Mousseau said.
The findings also suggest that in some cases radiation levels might have an inverse effect — birds in areas with higher radiation exposure may show greater adaptation, and thus less genetic damage, than those in areas with lower radiation levels.
Dr. Mousseau has expanded his work to include similar studies in Japan — he’s made about 10 trips there. Already, he said, he is seeing some Chernobyl-like effects in the contaminated area around the Fukushima plant, but he needs to gather data for at least a few more years before he can be confident about the impact.
“If we find the same sort of dose response in both places,” he said, “that provides incredible strength to the hypothesis that it is indeed radiation that is leading to these negative impacts.”