Researchers at the University of Georgia (United States) used snakes to monitor the radiation from Fukushima, after the accident at the nuclear plant in Japan, which occurred a decade ago. The team inserted small GPS trackers into nine snakes of the rat snake species to monitor their movements in the contamination zone, as they serve as bioindicators of the residue and are capable of signaling the health of the ecosystem.

Individuals are native and abundant in the region, with limited movement over short distances. Their close contact with contaminated soil can show the amount of varying levels of radionuclides in different environments, depending on the refuges they seek.

“Our results indicated that animal behavior has a major impact on radiation exposure and on the accumulation of contaminants. Studying how they use contaminated landscapes helps our understanding of the environmental impacts of major nuclear accidents such as Fukushima and Chernobyl,” said Hanna Gerke, coordinator of the work.

The article describing the research was published earlier this month in the scientific journal Ichthyology & Herpetology.

“Snakes are good indicators of environmental contamination because they spend a lot of time in and out of the ground. They have small shelters and are the main predators in most ecosystems. They are often relatively long-lived species,” said James Beasley, Gerke’s research advisor.

snake with GPS
GPS snake used by scientists to scan contaminated areas in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident region

The tracking devices were fixed with tape around the snakes. Scientists even used superglue to ensure that other transmitters remained attached to the tapes. Materials were removed from the animals at the end of the study.

Over a little over a month, the researchers tracked the snakes and noted that they passed through 1,718 locations about 15 kilometers from the plant — both underground and in tree and surface habitats. This coverage area was identified as satisfactory for revealing the levels of radiation in the ground.

Analysis of snake behavior revealed that more than half of them spent most of their time in nearby forests and on construction sites such as abandoned buildings, barns and sheds, indicating that the reptiles sought areas to protect themselves from soil contamination.

Scientists have identified that the risk of exposure to radioactive material is greatest in the winter months, when snakes seek shelter in underground, more contaminated areas.

For researchers, there is a need for more studies that seek to understand the potential health hazards of wildlife and the long-term effects of the Fukushima accident.

Article Ichthyology & Herpetology: doi.org/10.1643/h2019282