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Radiation Dogs

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    Chernobyl is home to more than 300 dogs. (CTK via AP Images)
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    Scientists study the dogs’ DNA. (Pixabay)
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    More than 35 years after the nuclear disaster, the dogs of Chernobyl roam among decaying, abandoned buildings around the closed plant. (Timothy Mousseau via AP)
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    A 1986 photo of the Chernobyl nuclear plant shows damage from the explosion and fire on April 26, 1986. (AP/Volodymyr Repik)
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    A dog in the Chernobyl area of Ukraine (Jordan Lapier via AP)
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Ukraine’s Chernobyl region stands frozen in time. Little has changed since 1986, when thousands evacuated after an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Decades-old writing remains on school chalkboards. Crumbling buildings surround overgrown streets.

But these streets aren’t empty. Over 300 furry, four-legged denizens call Chernobyl home. Experts say these dogs of Chernobyl can teach us important lessons for survival.

On April 26, 1986, a safety test led to a historic disaster. The number four reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went into meltdown. Radioactive fallout poisoned the atmosphere for miles around. Entire cities evacuated. It is estimated that thousands died from radiation exposure.

Radiation isn’t always harmful. It occurs when unstable elements, called isotopes, give off energy to stabilize themselves. Even peanut butter contains low levels of radioactive elements! But at high levels, certain types of radiation (such as the nuclear radiation used in power plants) can cause radiation poisoning. Tiny particles released by nuclear radiation can penetrate skin and alter DNA, leading to sickness and death.

To this day, the area surrounding Chernobyl remains unsafe for human living. An exclusion zone of roughly 1,000 square miles bars the public from entering.

Researchers say the dogs in Chernobyl today are likely descendants of pet dogs left behind by evacuees. Somehow, they survived—perhaps even thrived—through the radiation. Some even live in the ruins of the power plant itself.

By studying these dogs’ DNA, scientists hope to discover what useful traits helped them survive the radiation.

“We can compare them and we can say: OK, what’s different, what’s changed, what’s mutated . . . at the DNA level?” says geneticist Elaine Ostrander.

This research could reveal important information—not just for canine survival, but for human survival. It could give us tips for enduring high-radiation environments such as outer space.

Scientists originally expected the dogs to have grown similar over time. But they found something unexpected. Just by looking at doggy DNA, they could tell which pups lived in areas of higher radiation exposure.

Over time, the scientists have grown close to the dogs. They named one Prancer, because she prances excitedly whenever she sees people.

“Even though they’re wild, they still very much enjoy human interaction,” says biology professor Tim Mousseau. “Especially when there’s food involved.”

The Chernobyl disaster was devastating. But in the fallout, science study can reveal mechanisms God created to help His creatures survive. To this day, scientists learn new and exciting things just by studying God’s creation.

Why? Even in tragedy, God gives us the ability to learn, adapt, and grow. In fact, adaptability is one of the scientific traits He mercifully designed into His creatures and His creation.