Radioactive Rat Snakes Could Help Monitor Fukushima Fallout

This story was originally published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Ten years ago, Japan was hit by a devastating tsunami and a huge earthquake. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant suffered a complete meltdown. The Fukushima Exclusion zone, which is now home to humans and animals, was created when people fled the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Scientists have now enlisted the assistance of snakes living in the area to understand the effects of the disasters on the environment. The findings were published in an Ichthyology and Herpetology article. They found that Fukushimas native rats, similar to canaries in a coalmine, could act as living monitors for radiation levels in the area.

Hannah Gerke, who was the lead author of the study, stated that snakes don't move very much and spend most of their time in one area. This means that the radiation and contaminants in the environment are reflected in the snake's level of contamination.

Bioindicators are animals, plants, and other life forms that provide insight into the health of the environment. Bioindicators of pollution include frogs with their permeable skin, limited detoxification abilities, and limited ability to detoxify. Bioindicators of atmospheric pollutants are lichens. They have no roots and only rely on the nutrients in the atmosphere. Gerkes' recent study shows that radioactive contamination may be detected in radioactive snakes. However, this does not mean that Fukushimas or its snakes have disappeared.

Everyone expects Fukushima will be a barren wasteland populated by mutated animals. Gerke stated that it was quite beautiful in real life. It was summer, when everything was green and lush. It is full of wildlife, but it is surprising that there are not many people.

Their 2020 study, which found a strong correlation between radiocesiuma radioactive Iotope Of Cesiumin snakes and radiation levels in their environment, was reinforced by the scientists' findings.

Why snakes, and not birds,? A bioindicator is not able to work with every animal found in Fukushimas. Because radiocesium emitted from the nuclear accident did not cover the entire area evenly, this is why it's difficult to use a bioindicator. According to the study, birds that travel long distances are more likely to be exposed to radioactive elements, leaving them unable provide information about the extent of contamination in smaller areas. Rat snakes, on average, travel 65 meters per day (approximately 213, feet) according to the study. And they are susceptible to accumulating radionuclidesunstable atoms with excess nuclear energyfrom disasters such as the one that took place in Fukushima. The story of a rat snake who makes its home in an area that is heavily contaminated will be different from one that lives in a more pristine location.

Most of the contaminants have settled in soil over the past decade. Animals such as birds, which spend a lot of time in trees, have little information about contamination on the ground. Snakes, with their long bodies that slither into and burrow beneath the soil, are able to help determine levels of contamination.

Snakes also live long so the data they collect can be used to identify environmental contaminants over time.

How did scientists get the help of snakes? About 15 miles north of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, lies the rugged Abukuma Highlands. The hills and valleys of this verdant area are home to abandoned villages and farms. In recent months, scientists have been searching for snakes in the area.