Chernobyl Horses: How Do They Survive?

In the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where radiation reaches extremely dangerous levels, one of the few populations of Przewalski horses in the world thrives.
Chernobyl's Horses: How Do They Survive?

The Chernobyl disaster caused the evacuation of the city and its surroundings. After the explosion, it was estimated that the entire area would remain an uninhabitable desert for thousands of years. However, after the disappearance of humans, wildlife has flourished again and Chernobyl’s horses are living proof of that.

Despite high levels of radiation, Chernobyl has become a haven for its lush biodiversity. Animal species that are disappearing from other places because of human pressure have colonized this location and have large populations.

This is the case with Przewalski’s horses, which were introduced to Chernobyl 12 years after the explosion. These horses have been on the brink of extinction, so their growing populations in the Exclusion Zone provide a unique opportunity for their conservation. If you want to learn more about them, read on.

Characteristics of Chernobyl Horses

Until a few years ago, Przewalski’s horses were believed to be the only remaining wild horse species in the world. However, recent studies published in the journal Science have found that they are ferocious descendants of horses domesticated by the Botai, one of the first cultures that domesticated these animals.

Currently, these horses are classified in the subspecies Equus ferus przewalskii . While they’re not really pure wild horses, they’re the closest thing there is to them. As such, they retain many of the characteristics that ancient wild ancestors displayed.

Przewalski’s horses are smaller, shorter and more muscular than typical domestic specimens. Its general appearance is robust and somewhat plump and the coat color is brown or orange over most of the body, becoming darker on the head.

The muzzle and belly of these horses are white. The legs, tail and mane, which runs from neck to head, are black. During winter, these mammals develop thick fur, while in summer they are shorter.

A Chernobyl horse looks into the camera.

Przewalski’s Horse Ecology

These horses usually live in herds, which usually consist of an adult male, several females and their offspring. When the youngsters reach 2 or 3 years of age, they leave the herd. Young females often join other established herds.

Males, on the other hand, form new herds with other males that are young or males too old to defend female groups. When they are about 5 years old, males try to form their own herds, stealing them from other males or attracting dispersing females.

Its natural extension has been almost completely destroyed by human use. Therefore, they are currently only found in parts of China, Mongolia and, of course, around Chernobyl in Ukraine and Belarus.

In relation to their habitats, these horses are usually found in pastures, steppes or semi-desert areas. It is important the presence of herbaceous vegetation or scrub for their food. Chernobyl horses often use abandoned human structures as a refuge to protect themselves from the cold or parasites.

How did Chernobyl’s horses survive?

Radiation levels in Chernobyl have decreased since the explosion. Even so, they are still incredibly dangerous to all multicellular living beings, including humans.

Today, the specific effects of radiation on animals in this area are not fully known. However, it was observed that these horses have a higher mutation rate, more deformities and defects, shorter life expectancy and a series of other problems that threaten their health.

Furthermore, there appears to be less abundance of some animals in areas with a greater amount of radiation. Invertebrate species seem to suffer especially from these effects.

On the other hand, it is possible that animals are developing physiological or behavioral adaptations to resist radiation, although this is still being investigated.

Despite all this, it is clear that Chernobyl’s animals are thriving like few other places on the planet. This seems especially true for large mammal species, which are less and less abundant in the rest of the world.

This strange situation seems to indicate that the pressure exerted by human beings on the environment is even more serious than the explosion of a nuclear reactor. Despite such harmful radiation, wild animals are able to thrive as long as humans and their influence fade away.

A panoramic view of Chernobyl.

Chernobyl today serves as an unusual haven for wildlife. Faced with this unexpected opportunity, it is important to protect the area and not resume human activity. This will allow the conservation of their species and guarantee the health of people.

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