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The Evolution of Chernobyl Wolves to Cancer-Causing Radiation

April 26, 1986, was the

beginning of a tragedy that then went on to be called the Chernobyl disaster, which was the first ever nuclear accident humanity experienced. This disaster was the result of a flawed reactor design and inadequately trained employees. The accident started with the meltdown of reactor four which killed 30 operators in the first three months. Some of these operators were killed instantly by the explosion's impact and the radiation that followed, while others were hospitalized before passing away. Following the meltdown, 134 cases of acute radiation syndrome were diagnosed in the area, and no one off-site was affected by the radiation. Although, at the time, no effects of the radiation on people were detected in the surrounding areas, an important fraction of the later diagnosed thyroid cancer cases were seen in adults who were children at the time of the disaster. Scientists believe this was the result of radioactive fallout intake. Furthermore, large areas of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia were contaminated in multiple degrees with the release of 100,000 pounds of radioactive material as a result of the explosion. If the disaster hadn’t been immediately taken under control by the hundreds of firefighters and other personnel who risked their lives, the impacts of the released radiation would have been much worse and might have caused global chaos. Even though it has been 38 years since the incident, people who want to visit Chernobyl still need to fill out a lot of paperwork stating that they are aware of the effects radiation can have on their health, and some areas of it are still forbidden to enter because of the high levels of radiation.

Cara Love

Humans weren’t the only ones affected by the high levels of radiation and radioactive fallout. All other living organisms in the area, such as plants or animals, were also exposed to radiation and, as a result, developed mutations both for and against their survival. Cara Love, who is an evolutionary biologist and exotoxicologist at Princeton University, has been researching how wolves in Chernobyl evolved to survive against the radiation they were exposed to.

In 2024, Love and her peers went to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which is an area that is safe enough to visit but not live in, and took blood samples from wild wolves to analyze their responses to cancer-causing radiation. To find the same wolves again and understand the radiation level of the area they live in, scientists also placed GPS collars and radiation dosimeters on the wild wolves.

Scientists then discovered that these wolves were exposed to 11.28 millirem of

radiation every day, which is six times the legal safety amount for humans. After seeing the drastic difference in immunity against radiation between humans and Chernobyl wolves, scientists checked their gene expression and saw that their immune system appeared to be similar to that of a cancer patient going through radiation treatment. Love and her colleagues are working

together with cancer companies and biologists to interpret their data and understand if the discovery can have any implications for cancer treatment for humans. For now, Love stated that they were able to determine some specific regions of the wolf genome that were immune to increased cancer risk. Unique mutations in the genome also point to a type of natural selection favoring cancer-resistant traits; however, natural selection alone is not the only reason wolves are thriving since genetic mutations play a much larger role. Through a deeper understanding of these mutations, more specific genes may be targeted with radiation therapy to treat human cancer, which is primarily caused by genetic mutations like BRCA, which causes breast cancer.

Scientists believe Love’s research could be key to understanding how gene mutations or protective mutations can increase the probability of surviving cancer, and it is thought that Chernobyl dogs, which are the descendants of Chernobyl wolves, can also possess the same gene mutation that makes them resistant to cancer, but no research has been done on the subject yet. These discoveries are extremely important, as it has been found that canines fight off cancer more similarly to humans than lab rats do. Unfortunately, the research has come to a stop, first because of the COVID-19 pandemic and now because of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Works Cited

Archive, View Author, and Get author RSS feed. “Mutant Wolves in Chernobyl Developed Cancer-Resilient Abilities: Study.” The New York Post, 9 Feb. 2024.

Barber, Regina. “Why Wolves Are Thriving in This Radioactive Zone : Short Wave.” NPR, 5 Feb. 2024.

World Nuclear Association. “Chernobyl Accident 1986.”, World Nuclear Association, Apr. 2022.


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