How The Animals Of Chernobyl Are Surviving And Thriving After The Disaster

You’ve watched the HBO series and all the surrounding YouTube docu-series about what went down at reactor 4 in 1986. You know all about the various conspiracies about government involvement and mismanagement. You know Jessie Buckley did a great job as Lyudmila Ignatenko.

But what you might not know is what Chernobyl looks like 30 years after the disaster. What remains long after humans evacuated the exclusion zone are the plants and animals who didn’t get the notice. Here’s what some of these creatures look like now and how the disaster has affected them.

Giant Catfish Hang Out In Cooling Pond – But They’re Not Mutants

giant catfish dude holding massive catfish
Photo Credit: Sportex Italia / Facebook

After videos surfaced of these massive fish began circulating, Dr. Timothy Mousseau, one of the lead biologists investing Chernobyl’s natural populations, was quick to debunk reports that these were irradiated mutants.

He states that normally mutations don’t lead to ‘large size’ catfish. He says that usually, mutations cause fish to “grow less, be less capable of catching food, and tend to not live as long.” So, despite its highly irradiated environment, the size of this monster is perfectly normal.

Wels Catfish Can Reach 200 Pounds In Normal Conditions

big catfish man dwarfed under big fish
Photo Credit: Sportex Italia / Facebook

According to Mousseau, the size of this catfish isn’t unusual at all. Really? Wels catfish, the kind in Chernobyl’s cooling pond, can reach up to 200 pounds in the wild. So these big guys are among friends with their massive 8-foot bodies.

Italian fisherman Dino Ferrari, featured in this photo, captured an 8.75 foot Wels catfish in the Po Delta back in 2015 that weighed 280 pounds. This fish wasn’t even the record breaker either. The record-setter weighs in at 297 pounds. Talk about a big fish to fry.

They’ve Gotten So Big Because Of Lack Of Human Interference

 catfish chernobyl swimming in cooling pond
Photo Credits: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Normally, with human habitat disruptions come smaller catfish sizes. But since humans evacuated, the catfish have been eating without being challenged. The cooling ponds are also naturally isolated from predators and are home to a lot of food for the catfish. It’s a natural buffet out here folks.

Catfish eat pretty much everything – fish, amphibians, worms, birds, and even small mammals. What’s also surprising is that they can live upwards of 50 years. So look forward to many more years of these friendly giants roaming the cooling ponds.

These catfish aren’t the only animals that look really different after the Chernobyl disaster…

The Debate Over Chernobyl’s Biodiversity

beaver chernobyl swimming in cooling ponds
Photo Credit: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Biologists and scientists alike have been investigating and debating over the years if Chernobyl is a haven or a frying pan for biodiversity. Some argue that because humans have since left the region, many animal species have flourished where previously they struggled.

On the other side of the issue are those who argue that the 1986 disaster eliminated any positive effects that the evacuation may have had. Mousseau believes that as much as up to 50% of biodiversity in the ‘hottest’ radioactive zones has been lost.

Despite Lower Density Species Still Persist

fox chernobyl looking at camera
Photo Credit: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Sergey Gaschak, who has worked in the region for years, says that it’s a ‘myth’ that new animals have begun to appear in the hottest zones. Instead of new animals coming along, what we have instead are ‘almost all the species we had before but in lower densities.’

While the environmental effects are being hotly debated (pun intended) many animals such as the fox shown here continue to live in the evacuated zone as usual. It’s an interesting task to peek into the lives of these creatures and see if they’ve changed dramatically.

The Eurasian Lynx Is Nearly Gone From Europe, But Not From The Exclusion Zone

lynx chernobyl lynx and cub
Photo Credit: obj_stranger / Reddit

The cat came back – but only here. For a century the Eurasian lynx was thought to be gone from most of Europe because of deforestation and habitat loss. But after the evacuation, scientists began picking up little tracks and traces that suggested that the animals were still here.

Gashchak’s camera traps recently proved what they speculated – the Eurasian lynx was back and thriving in the region. They were able to capture multiple images of a mother and her cubs as well as 2 family groups. These radioactive lynx are living their best lives.

These Birds Have Deformed Beaks After The Disaster

bird beak differences birds chernobyl
Photo Credit: Anya Gupta / USHAP blog

Mousseau notes that small birds like barn swallows and Parus majors have pronounced mutations after the disaster. These birds are born with deformed beaks, with lesions on their faces, cataracts, and smaller brains.

The reason for these generational mutations is because these birds were able to keep reproducing after the disaster instead of becoming completely sterile. Did you see these little guys flying around in the HBO series? Probably not. Birds aren’t typically paid for acting jobs.

Birds aren’t the only ones looking and behaving differently. This 6-legged creature is also acting funny…

Dzungarian Horses Thriving In The Region

GettyImages-509964158 chernobyl horse standing in field
Photo Credit: Genya Savilov / AFP/ Getty Images

In an effort to see if the evacuated zone could be a good home to wildlife, in 1990, a group of Przewalski’s (Dzungarian) horses was introduced to the environment. Surprisingly, the animals did well in the region and now about a hundred of them graze the lands where people once lived.

This horse looks like it’s enjoying its new home away from people and habitat interference. Przewalski’s horses are the last surviving subspecies of wild horses. Apparently, this subspecies doesn’t come with a brush to wipe the snow off its back.

Horses Inside Of Belarussian Village Vorotets

horses farm chernobyl guy in a hazmat suit measures radiation
Photo Credit: Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images

Not everyone chose to evacuate the land inside the 30-km evacuation zone forever. Some chose to come back to family land and ways of life after initially leaving in 1986. Villages like the Belarussian Vorotets are home to many farmers who live and work inside the evacuation zone.

Here, farm horses enjoy their daily lives as a worker measures radiation in the area. They’re probably feeling a little underdressed. Or maybe they’re thinking they should try wearing white jumpsuits this season.

Web Comparisons Tell Us About Effects Of Radiation

chernobyl spider bad web
Photo Credit: @CatseyePest / Twitter

After noticing that some spiderwebs in Fukushima looked a little less like their Charlotte’s Web counterparts, Mousseau began photographing spiders in the evacuated Chernobyl region. Itsy Bitsy, get ready for your close-up.

Mousseau captured photos of spiderwebs in hot and cold radiation regions of the same species of spiders to see if there was a change in web pattern and spider behavior. He noticed there was ‘less structure to the webs in radioactive areas’ and that these webs can serve as a ‘biomarker’ for the amount of radiation in the region.

While spiders might be acting weird, other species do well. Check out this Chernobyl predator who has record-breaking population numbers…

Many Belarussian Farms Are Still Operational

farm chernobyl pigs running around
Photo Credit: Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images

The explosion at reactor 4 severely contaminated a quarter of Belarus’ territory and led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people who had to give up their livelihoods as a result. For those who live now in small villages that dot the exclusion zone, their way of life is precious and historic.

Ivan Ivanovich is an 82-year-old who lives with his wife on their farm in Opachychi Ukraine in the exclusion zone where they grow vegetables and raise livestock. He says his biggest challenge today is ‘figuring out what to do with a television’ his son bought him.

Bison Didn’t Say ‘Bye Son’ When Humans Left

 bison chernobyl worker feeding bison
Photo Credit: Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images

Game animals like bison, moose, and deer still roam the area – which leads to concerns about hunting and poaching. Since animals began to repopulate in the zone, poaching and hunting have dramatically increased. In response, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko decreed that the exclusion zone would be turned into a nature preserve.

Pictured here are bison being fed by a worker inside of the exclusion zone. They look very orderly and patient as they wait for him to pour out the feed and walk away. But don’t be fooled – they’re eager for illegal poaching to stop.

The Evacuation Zone Has The Highest Density Of Wolves On Earth

wolves chernobyl hunting moose at night
Photo Credit: obj_stranger / Reddit

Wolves are the apex predator in their ecosystems, and in the exclusion zone, it’s not different. Reportedly, the region is home to up to 400 wolves, which is more than Yellowstone, and many believe is the highest density in the world. This is a dramatic increase from the 40-60 wolves believed to inhabit the area in the 1970s.

Recently, camera traps, courtesy of biologist Sergey Gashchak, set up in the area have captured up to 26 gray wolves. Wolf tracks can also be found all over the exclusion zone and surrounding areas. So Chernobyl wolves, howl you doing?

This big cat returned to Chernobyl in a big way after scientists thought it was mostly gone from Europe…

Raptors Roam The Empty Woods

eagle chernobyl chilling on grass
Photo Credit: obj_stranger / Reddit

Camera traps have also caught several species of raptors in the region. Big birds like eagles and hawks seem to be doing well in the exclusion zone. 231 of Belarus’ 334 birds species can also be found here.

Birdwatchers frequent the Palieski reserve in the Ukraine portion of the evacuation zone and the reserve claims to be Europe’s largest experiment in ‘rewilding.’ Queue Nelly Furtado ‘I’m Like A Bird’ but replace ‘I only fly away’ with ‘I only stay’.

Deer Me

deer chernobyl 2 deer looking at camera
Photo Credit: obj_stranger / Reddit

Roe-deer are thriving inside of the exclusion zone and that’s good news for all of us. A report has recently shown that the deer numbers are similar to those found in four uncontaminated nature reserves in the region. Helicopter survey data has even shown a rise in roe-deer from 1-10 years post-disaster.

This curious deer definitely knows that his close-up is being taken to be studied for scientific purposes. Go ahead dear, shown them your good side.

Moose And Elk Are Living Happily

moose chernobyl moose wandering through chernobyl woods
Photo Credit: obj_stranger / Reddit

Like their roe-deer cousins, populations of moose and elk in the exclusion zone have been reported as being similar to those in outside uncontaminated regions. This data is very a-moosing to scientists.

The reason for the increase in elk and deer isn’t very moose-terious. Chernobyl moose and elk populations increased in the early 1990s, at the same time that these species were declining in other former Soviet Union countries. When asked about this, the creature above requested he remains anony-moose.

Tree Rings Mark The Year Of The Disaster

tree rings chernobyl mark on 1986
Photo Credit: obj_stranger / Reddit

Like the animals on this list, the trees in the exclusion zone were also affected by the disaster. Trees form rings for every 4 seasons they’re alive and when there’s a disruption that year from an illness, injury, or pollution, they express it on their rings.

Here, tree rings inside the exclusion zone mark exactly 1986. The ‘Red Forest’ is a region of trees that took the brunt of the nuclear explosion. Reportedly, the trees turned red from all the radiation they absorbed and their leaves are so radioactive they have yet to decay.

Brown Bears Have Returned To Chernobyl After A Century

bear chernobyl wandering through woods
Photo Credit: obj_stranger / Reddit

After being vacant from the region for more than a century, the brown bear has been spotted in the exclusion zone thanks to Gashchak’s camera traps. Many think that though the bear has never been photographed there before, that this is evidence of a long-awaited return.

This photo just goes to show you that once the people are away, the bears will play. Or at least wander back into a region they may or may not have inhabited a hundred years ago. Maybe Yogi will come visit too.

Raccoon Dogs Are Real And They’re In Chernobyl

raccoons chernobyl scavenging
Photo Credit: obj_stranger / Reddit

What seems like a strange household mythological creature that will break into the garbage can if little boys and girls are naughty is actually a real thing. No, it’s not a mutant either. Raccoon dogs are related to foxes and are native to East Asia and Eastern Europe and they like Chernobyl.

The exclusion zone’s raccoon dogs are in numbers that are comparable to their non-radioactive-zone-living counterparts. Chernobyl has regular stray dogs too, but these are a little cooler to talk about.

These Bro Herons Are Frustrated And Here To Brawl

big birds chernobyl flock of birds they're flapping their wings
Photo Credit: obj_stranger / Reddit

Like their smaller bird cousins, cranes, herons, and other species of large birds have also been negatively affected by the radiation in the exclusion zone. Scientists like Mousseau have also reported that in some areas male bird populations are 40% sterile.

Mousseau also states that many bird species in the exclusion zone have developed smaller brains as a result of the radiation. Judging by the sexual frustration that these brawling birds outside the club at 3 am are taking out on each other, they must have those itsy-bitsy brains too.

There Are Dogs In Chernobyl, And Yes They’re Adorable

chernobyl puppies photo of them walking
Photo Credit: @FourPawsUK / Twitter

One of the unexpected consequences of the disaster is that it would leave hundreds of beloved family pets marooned within the exclusion zone with nowhere to go. But instead of falling apart without their owners, these dogs thrived.

Now, after decades of breeding, the descendants of the first abandoned dogs have formed a canine community by reactor 4 where they live and play like every other man’s best friend. Are you crying? Look at those sweet faces again – are you crying now?

Now Over 300 Stray Dogs Live In The Area

dogs on the street chernobyl lying down
Photo Credit: @sbrichards / Twitter

While other dogs were introduced to the area or wandered in on migratory paths, these dogs were native to the area and stayed at first waiting for their families to return. The descendants of these first dogs stayed in the zone because their ancestors had.

While the majority of dogs are healthy, few live past the age of 6. This short life-expectancy isn’t due to the radiation in the region, but the harsh Ukrainian winters they face. Winter is coming and these domesticated dogs sometimes aren’t completely ready.

These Dogs Are Getting Their Chance To Find Forever Homes

volunteer helping chernobyl dogs feeding them and making them happy
Photo Credit: @FourPawsUK / Twitter

We all know how rough it is being a stray dog – we’ve all see All Dogs Go To Heaven at least 6 times when we were kids. But the strays of the exclusion zone and the abandoned Pripyat, Ukraine don’t have to be without homes for long.

A program called Clear Futures Fund has been established, and with the help of Four Paws UK and other organizations, they aim to rehabilitate the dogs, get them the medical care they need, and find them forever homes in North America.

The Adoptable Dogs Aren’t Radioactive

dogs of chernobyl waiting outside a caf for their lunch
Photo Credit: @MSteeleKS / Twitter

Contrary to popular belief and the small science-fiction voice in our heads, these dogs aren’t radioactive mutants. They’re not even radioactive. CFF helps treat cancer in these descendant dogs, but any animals with server birth defects or illnesses have long since passed away.

Rarely are there any dogs that are covered in radioactive fur. On the off chance that there is, a shave or a soapy bath can remediate the problem. So if you see any dogs with funky haircuts at the shelter you might be looking at one cool customer.

Yes You Can Adopt Them, And You Can Adopt More Than One

puppies playing together chernobyl adorable siblings reunited
Photo Credit: @thatchernobylpup / Instagram

We all know what it’s like wanting to adopt a dog but not wanting to take it away from its family. It can be a hard decision to split up a mother dog from her puppies or even two siblings.

Luckily, you can keep the tight-knit pack bonds these dogs have formed on the streets together by adopting more than one at the same time. Instagram user @thatchernobylpup shows how happy a reunion can be between two hounds from the same litter.

These Strays Are Helping Scientists Learn More About The Exclusion Zone

vet at chernobyl working with animals puppy
Photo Credit: itss_britneyy_ / Reddit

For the strays that can’t be adopted for whatever reason, the scientists and veterinarians working in the exclusion zone are helping the animals and using them to measure radiation levels and behavior patterns. It’s a win-win for both parties. Turns out that it’s true you need friends in a dog-eat-dog world.

Pictured is Anna Sovtus, a Ukrainian vet who works with the organizations that are helping the dogs. Many released dogs are being given collars with GPS and radiation sensors. You’re looking great and doing great little guy.

These Dogs Are Smart Enough To Beg From Soldiers At Checkpoints

chernobyl dogs begging for food
Photo Credit: Blightsaber / Imgur

It would’ve been a hard transition for the first family dogs left behind to get used to hunting and scavenging food in the newly evacuated area. Their descendants have a system all figured out though – queue the puppy dog eyes and beg from soldiers and workers near zone checkpoints.

These lovable furry residents aren’t afraid to walk up to visitors and workers and beg a little. Reportedly, they often gather around people eating borsch at Cafe Desyatka. Who knew borsch was a Chernobyl stray dog favorite?

The Mushrooms These Boars Are Eating Are Making Them Radioactive

wild boar in the forest snow on the ground
Photo Credit: Marisa04 / Pixabay

Unlike Chernobyl’s non-radioactive dogs, the wild boars that roam the area are fairly radioactive. This is because of their diet of mainly mushrooms that grow in the highly radioactive Red Forest.

Mushrooms absorb a lot of the radiation from the explosion, so a diet completely based on the things isn’t exactly safe. These boars apparently only read about the health benefits of mushrooms and neglected to see if those also apply to radioactive ones. The protein and fiber benefits might be undercut by the radioactive elements.

This Little Radioactive Piggy Went To The Czech Republic

wild boar looking right at camera
Photo Credit: @todo_caza / Instagram

The problem with these radioactive pigs isn’t with their diet but with their wandering feet. Or hooves in this case. These wild boars have been spotted in as far as Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Germany.

In Germany, a report came in that 1 out of every 3 boars hunters killed were radioactive. Since radioactive boars aren’t safe to eat on a daily basis, these pigs popping up all over has been an issue for small communities that depend on boars as a food source. These little piggies should have stayed home.

This Cow’s Milk Doesn’t Help Build Strong Bones

chernobyl dairy farm guy feeding in suit
Photo Credit: @thetombigwood / Twitter

One of the most radioactive elements released into the environment after the explosion was the radioactive isotope cesium-137. Exposure to cesium-137 dramatically increases the amount of radiation in the body and can cause burns, radiation poisoning, cancer, and death.

Cesium-137 found its way into the surrounding vegetation which found its way into, you guessed it, cows and cows’ milk. In 2018, a study reported that cows’ milk in affected Ukrainian villages had 12 times the safe amount for children. So maybe when you go to Ukraine, don’t ask the server if they “got milk?”

It’s Not Only The Animals That Are Looking And Acting Differently

new safe confinement chernobyl
Photo Credit: @Onorio_Ferraro / Twitter

After cleanup efforts began for the site of the explosion in 1986, a “sarcophagus” was erected to try and contain the radiation still being emitted by reactor 4. The sarcophagus sealed away 30 tons of radioactive dust and 16 tons of uranium and plutonium.

Instead of lasting the 20 years it was supposed to, the sarcophagus had decayed beyond repair by 1996. In 2016, the “New Safe Confinement” replaced it and it looks like a giant soccer indoor soccer dome. Just don’t play in it.

Inside The New Safe Confinement Is The Sarcophagus

chernobyl sarcophagus inside new safe confinement
Photo Credit: Pyotr Sivkov / TASS / Getty Images

The sarcophagus is sheltered by the New Safe Confinement and is only visible from the inside of the structure. Since it was too damaged to be repaired and likely too dangerous to be removed, the New Safe Confinement was built overtop of it.

Here, scientists and experts visit the dome to learn more about radiation and its effects and the mechanics behind the New Safe Confinement itself. Even though standing next to tons of radioactive elements is probably the last thing they want to do.

This Car Will Forever Be Parked

chernobyl car decaying old car
Photo Credit: Genya Savilov / AFP / Getty Images

When people had to evacuate Pripyat, they were suddenly rushed onto buses by soldiers and had to leave many of their possessions behind. The vehicles they used every single day now sit scattered around the exclusion zone collecting rust and being homes for stray animals.

This car appears to have been raided for parts at some point – the motor and wheels are missing. It’s good that they’re potentially being used by someone again, but what’s the market like for radioactive car parts? Maybe glow-in-the-dark wheels are good for visibility.

The Inside Of the Fire Station Doesn’t Look Up To Fire Code

chernobyl fire department inside look
Photo Credit: Pavlo Gonchar / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

After the explosion, many Soviet Union firefighters arrived to fight the blaze that burned for a week. This devastating fire caused huge damage to the area but also the brave people who arrived to fight the blaze as many contracted and died from cancer afterward.

Now the empty Pripyat fire station sits abandoned as it falls into further decay. Despite the toll the years have taken on it, this building stands as a reminder of all the heroes who fought to contain the blaze at reactor 4.

This Hotel Isn’t 5 Stars Anymore

chernobyl hotel looking overgrown
Photo Credit: Pavlo Gonchar / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

At most 5-star hotels you’re greeted the minute you roll your car into the drive, your bags are taken up to your room, and you can relax and kick back with the mini-bar while you see what channels they get. That’s not exactly the case here.

The only visitors this hotel gets are the squirrels and the birds and they probably don’t tip the valet service either. Hopefully, there are no foolhardy tourists who want to try and stay in this place. Though if haunted hotels are a huge market then abandoned radioactive ones probably will do well.

Rusted Soviet Union Crest On The Roof Of A Residential Building

residential building chernobyl soviet crest
Photo Credit: STR / NurPhoto / Getty Images

The Soviet Union State lasted from 1922-1991 in Russia and it’s strangely poetic that its final years would follow shortly after Pripyat was evacuated and abandoned.

The rusted crest still sits atop a residential building in Pripyat as a reminder of the world at the time reactor 4 was functioning. These little emblems left behind speak of the people that lived, played, and worked in the surrounding area. There’s not a whole lot of signage remaining in Chernobyl, but the ones left behind tell very unique stories.

Pripyat Isn’t Quite Abandoned Anymore

chernobyl tourist abandoned bus
Photo Credit: STR / NurPhoto / Getty Images

After HBO’s Chernobyl aired, a tourism boom fell over the exclusion zone. Reportedly, tour agencies have had a 40% increase in bookings since the miniseries aired May 2019.

While this isn’t shocking for anyone since disaster tourism is a huge business, it’s interesting that the miniseries was the trigger for the boom when the Chernobyl incident has been well-known for decades. Maybe people just want to imagine they’re talking to Jessie Buckley or Stellan Skarsgård while they walk through the abandoned streets.

Underneath The Chernobyl Plant It Looks Calm And Pristine

in the chernobyl tunnels underneath reactor
Photo Credit: Genya Savilova / AFP / Getty Images

In a shocking contrast to the overgrown and rusted exterior of Pripyat, the underground bunkers at the Chernobyl plant are in relatively pristine condition. Tourists can walk through these shelters and imagine what it was like to be an official dealing with the aftermath of the explosion.

These were where some of the first instrumental meetings after the disaster were held to determine the next steps. If you’re a fan of the Fallout video games series, wandering through these halls would feel like an eerie real-life version of the game.

You Can Check Your Shoes But It’s Not Like With The TSA

geiger counter tourist checks her shoes
Photo Credit: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a Geiger counter set up in the underground tunnel so tourists can check the amount of radiation on their shoes after wandering all day through the exclusion zone. Just like with the dogs, a little bit of radiation isn’t a big deal – as long as you’re not repeatedly exposing yourself to it.

This would be a fun device to have in your home. It would be quite the party trick to invite guests over and have them figure out how much radiation they have on them. Maybe skip the mushrooms if you want a low score.

This Abandoned Hospital Room Tells Stories

hospital chernobyl abandoned
Photo Credit: Genya Savilov / AFP / Getty Images

It’s common knowledge that any abandoned hospital is creepy. But when you take into account that this one was at the heart of a horrible disaster it makes the place even sadder and scarier. This hospital in Pripyat is where the first Chernobyl victims were treated before the city was evacuated.

It’s hard to look at these photos without seeing the trauma behind them. For the people living in Pripyat, this was their home and it was painful to leave it behind.