Amidst the nuclear fascination and testing of the Cold War, a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, experienced a series of detonations in 1986, spreading radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and causing severe ecological damage. It came to be known as the Chernobyl disaster and devastated the surrounding regions. People and animals were exposed to this radiation, which sometimes caused mutations that made animals look almost otherworldly.
Despite people evacuating the affected zones, animals stayed behind. And while these animals are highly radioactive, most of them saw their populations thrive. The animals that live in Chernobyl are the only occupants of the once-thriving city and range from birds and eagles to wolves and bison. The radioactive Chernobyl animals do pose some threat to humans, however, and scientists are beginning to study them to truly understand how animals can adapt to living in a nuclear zone.
Endangered white-tailed eagles are seemingly thriving in Ukraine. For the birds, this means being subject to varying deformities ranging from tumors to disproportionate beaks to decreased rates of fertility. Even still, the Chernobyl exclusion zone is said to contain 249 species of radioactive birds, with the mighty eagles making a serious comeback for the first time in over a century.
On any given blustery winter day, beyond the limits and eyes of humanity, eagles build nests in abandoned watch towers, adding an air of formidability to the atmosphere.
Radioactive particles have covered the Red Forest of Chernobyl for more than three decades, and new webs of radioactive material are being built all the time. As radioactive spiders build their webs to catch their prey, they add to the dangerous environment of the forest.
These webs are not like normal spider webs - in fact, they are woven in abstract ways that suggest genetic mutation is at hand. They're also highly radioactive themselves, making them a danger for any non-radioactive animal to touch.
The area around Chernobyl was a bustling agricultural center before the meltdown. When people left, they took their farm animals too. But new generations born from these radioactive animals showed extreme genetic mutations and deformities. In 1989, farmers reported birth defects in their animals; one cow even had a mutated cleft lip.
As the years wore on, cows continued to graze on contaminated feed and internally develop less physically apparent complications. Despite looking relatively normal, cows near the zone produce toxic milk not fit for consumption.
In the wake of the notorious Chernobyl event, pet cats were abandoned and eventually gave rise to a rash of feral descendants. Feral cats roam in and out of the exclusion zone, snacking on radioactive rodents and insects.
Over 100 stray cats live in the exclusion zone, and efforts are underway for many of them to be adopted.