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Evolution typically takes place over thousands or even millions of years, but scientists studying wildlife in the wake of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl have discovered evolution occurring at a lightning-fast pace.
The accident in northern Ukraine released the largest amount of radiation into the environment in human history. An event like that is never good for cellular life of any kind. Radiation can damage DNA and lead to cancer, genetic mutations, and death. Interestingly, though, some animal species have managed to survive and even thrive in the aftermath of the disaster.
Notably, eastern tree frogs living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have adapted beautifully: in just 36 years, their skin color has begun to mutate from a bright green to black. The black skin, created by pigments known as melanins, helps protect them from radiation’s damaging energy.
Life goes on around Chernobyl:
- According to a 2022 study published in Evolutionary Applications, black skin in tree frogs may have been an adaptive response to protect them from tissue, cell, and DNA damage, thus increasing the frogs' chances of survival.
- The Chernobyl accident resulted in huge amounts of radioactive cesium-137 being deposited throughout most of Ukraine and parts of Europe. People were evacuated, and the area became Europe's largest wildlife preserve.
- The study authors, who had been researching wildlife in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, are no longer able to access the site due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.