What Radioactive Animals Teach Us About Nuclear Fallout

17:26 minutes

black and white photograph of a man measuring a large turtle on a beach
A U.S. Atomic Energy Commission photograph from July 26, 1957 showing an individual using a Geiger counter to examine a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) for potential radioactivity in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, likely from Enewetak Atoll. Credit: Public Domain

When you hear the words “radioactive wildlife,” your brain probably jumps to Chernobyl’s wolves, which—despite the odds—are still thriving at the site of the nuclear disaster. Or maybe you’ve heard of the rat snakes in Fukushima that pick up radioactive contamination as they slither around.

Well, it’s time to add two more to that list of radioactive critters: turtles and wild boar. They’re the subjects of two new studies that looked at radioactivity in wildlife and mapped out where it came from. 

Ira talks with Dr. Cyler Conrad, archaeologist at Pacific Northwest National Lab in Richland, Washington who worked on the turtle study, and Dr. Georg Steinhauser, professor of applied radiochemistry at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria, who studied boar. They chat about the two studies, how wildlife can clue us into radioactive contamination, and what we can learn from critters in nuclear fallout zones.

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About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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