60-Second Science

Colorful Birds Feel Chernobyl Damage More

Antioxidants make for brightly colored plumage in some bird species. But it appears around Chernobyl that duller birds are at an advantage, because they can use the antioxidants to detox. Karen Hopkin reports.

In 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blanketed the surrounding area with radioactive fallout. Now scientists who’ve been tracking that disaster’s toll have added a new victim to their list: birds that live near the reactor.

The interesting thing is: not ALL the birds near Chernobyl have been decimated by radioactivity. Only those that are brightly colored, migrate long distances, or lay big eggs—all of which require antioxidant molecules.

The researchers examined birds from 57 species. They found that those with brighter plumage…such as orioles and blue tits…were harder hit by radiation than their drab neighbors…such as coal tits and chaffinches. The same was true for birds that tend to travel or like to lay large eggs.

That pattern suggests that antioxidant molecules play an important role in how birds handle radioactivity.  Because antioxidants can protect animals against nasty chemicals like those that spilled from the damaged reactor.  But brightly colored birds use up their antioxidants producing those flashy red, yellow and orange pigments.  So the Chernobyl meltdown made being bright a bust for birds.  While being dull is the thing to do.   

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