Dragonfly wings can track radiation doses after a nuclear mishap via New Scientist

Humble insects may be called as witnesses to the next nuclear accident. Shining UV light on their wings reveals how much radiation they have absorbed.

Staff at nuclear plants carry dosimeters, instruments that take real-time measurements of radioactive exposure, usually expressed in grays (Gy). Civilians in the surrounding areas probably won’t have these devices. In the event of an accidental release of radioactive material, this leaves a gap in the data on its dispersal and resulting radioactivity doses, making it hard to estimate health effects by location.

Part of the solution is to investigate how radiation alters materials in the body or in personal property – for example, nails or the glass of a mobile phone. And if no one is present close to a radiation leak, insects may do the job, says Nikolaos Kazakis of the Athena Research Centre in Xanthi, Greece.

“Insects are everywhere,” he says. Their short lives give them an advantage over phones: “They live only a few weeks, so you don’t have to make corrections for natural radiation when you want to measure the accidental dose.”


Kazakis acknowledges these drawbacks, but says neither is fatal. There is a place for instruments – or critters – that can record doses that will be literally off the scale for more sensitive instruments. As for sunlight being a spoiler, he says it is always possible to make measurements using insects that have stayed in dark places, trapped in an air duct or a basement or even behind furniture. And he has his eye on using a group of insects that keep their hind wings conveniently under cover: cockroaches.

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