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Radioactive snakes may monitor Fukushima fallout

Radioactive snakes may monitor Fukushima fallout, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Susan D’Agostino | August 17, 2021 When a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami hit Japan a decade ago, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant experienced a catastrophic meltdown. Humans fled a wide area around the plant that today is known as the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, while animals and plants remained. Now, scientists have enlisted the help of snakes in the zone to make sense of the disaster’s impact on the environment. Their findings, reported in an Ichthyology and Herpetology paper, indicate that Fukushima’s native rat snakes, like canaries in a coal mine, may act as living monitors of radiation levels in the region.

“Because snakes don’t move that much, and they spend their time in one particular local area, the level of radiation and contaminants in the environment is reflected by the level of contaminants in the snake itself,” Hannah Gerke, a lead author on the study, said.

………… The scientists’ findings reinforced their 2020 study that found a high correlation between levels of radiocesium—a radioactive isotope of cesium—in the snakes and levels of radiation in their environment.

………. rat snakes have relatively small home ranges; they travel an average of 65 meters (approximately 213 feet) each day, according to the study. And they are susceptible to accumulating radionuclides—unstable atoms with excess nuclear energy—from disasters such as the one that took place in Fukushima. A rat snake that makes its home in a small but heavily contaminated area will tell a different story than a rat snake lives in a less contaminated locale.

In the decade since the nuclear disaster, most of the contaminants have settled in the soil. This means that animals such as birds that spend much of their time in trees have limited insight to offer about contaminants on the ground. But snakes, whose long bodies slither in and burrow under the soil, can help determine degrees of contamination.

Also, snakes live long, which means that the data they gather provides information about environmental contaminants over time……………..


The scientists identified more than 1,700 locations in the region that the snakes frequented. Rat snakes in Fukushima, it turns out, avoid evergreen broadleaf forests but spend time close to streams, roads, and grassland. They also frequent trees and buildings.

What did the snakes reveal? Some of the snakes’ radiation exposure in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone hails from contaminated prey they eat, but most—80 percent—comes from contact with contaminated soil, trees, and plants.

“Understanding how contaminants move throughout an ecosystem and how they move in different animals throughout the food web gives us a better picture of the impacts [of the nuclear disaster] to the ecosystem,” Gerke said………….. https://thebulletin.org/2021/08/radioactive-snakes-may-monitor-fukushima-fallout/

August 19, 2021 - Posted by | environment, Japan, radiation

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