Radioactive Rat Snakes May Help Monitor The Fallout Of Fukushima
Radioactive rat snakes are being used to try and help monitor the fallout from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan struck just off the country’s eastern coast. The earthquake registered at 9.0-magnitude and subsequently triggered a tsunami to follow in its wake. The Fukushima nuclear power plant was struck by the tsunami, which caused radiation to leak from the plant, causing an exclusion zone to be identified by authorities, which has remained in place ever since.
Scientists have now started to use snakes who were occupying the zone, attaching dosimeters to the reptiles, which means they will be able to serve as ‘bioindicators’ of contamination levels around the old nuclear power plant.
The snakes will help establish the full extent of the impact the radiation has had on its surroundings.
Fukushima’s native rat snakes have been compared to canaries in a coal mine, due to now acting as living monitors of radiation levels in the area, according to findings reported in an Ichthyology and Herpetology paper.
One of the lead authors on the study, Hannah Gerke, noted how the snakes make good tools for testing levels of radiation due to how they ‘don’t move that much’ and ‘spent their time in one particular local area’, so the level of ‘radiation and contaminants in the environment is reflected by the level of contaminants in the snake itself’.
The snakes will now be known as ‘bioindicators’, who are animals, plants or other life forms whose health provides an insight into the environment’s health.
While the zone may still have traces of radioactive contamination, in real life Gerke says it is ‘quite beautiful’. She says how there is ‘wildlife everywhere’ and that everything was ‘lush and green’, just that there was a ‘surprising lack of people’, Wired reports.
There was a high correlation between levels of a radioactive isotope of cesium (radiocesium) in the snakes and levels of radiation in their environment, according to the scientists’ findings, which reinforced another study they conducted in 2020.
Rat snakes were chosen rather than another animal due to having relatively small home ranges, travelling an average of 65 metres each day, according to the study. The reptiles are also more susceptible to picking up unstable atoms with excess nuclear energy, called radionuclides.
Most of the contaminants have been sitting in the soil since the nuclear disaster, so snakes who slither over and burrow into it are useful in determining levels of contamination. Furthermore, snakes have a long life span and so they can provide information over a greater period of time.
Gerke said whenever the group saw a snake, they would jump out and catch it to take it back to the lab at Fukushima University.
If the snake qualified in terms of size, it would have a piece of tape wrapped round its body with a GPS tracking device and radiation measuring tool (dosimeter) glued on. The snakes were then returned to their natural habitat.
In their findings, the scientists identified more than 1,700 locations in the contaminated region that the snakes often went to. While the rat snakes tend to avoid forests, they found that they like streams, grassland, trees, buildings and roads.
The snakes who spent more time nearer the ground ended up having higher contamination levels than those who went in abandoned buildings or in trees. Furthermore, if certain snakes spent more time on the ground than others, Gerke suggested they could be more vulnerable to negative side effects of the radiation, if such an effect was possible on a snake.
While snakes may prove to be effective bioindicators of local environmental contamination in nuclear disaster zones, the scientists still have many questions around clarifying the link between radiation exposure, radiation accumulation and habitat use. The end goal to be able to understand potential health effects of chronic radiation exposure in other animals or even humans.
While Gerke notes that there is a ‘lot more research that needs to be done’, she states her respect for the rat snakes involved in the project. Gerke herself grew up in Florida with a pet rat snake, and while she thinks they should be appreciated not just if they benefit humans in some way, she hopes the findings have offered a new way for people to appreciate the reptiles.
Snakes are not only important components of biodiversity, but also now act as potential bioindicators, helping provide important information about the natural environments they inhabit.
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CreditsWIRED and 1 other
American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists