Researchers have made a shocking discovery in the abandoned Chernobyl Exclusion Zone — it's now home to endangered wild horses.
Scientists at the University of Georgia were able to capture the rare Przewalski's horse on film at abandoned barns. Motion-sensor cameras took more than 11,000 images of the endangered mammal during the course of a year.
“Our results indicate Przewalski’s horses routinely use abandoned structures in the CEZ,” said one of the study's authors, James Beasley, in a statement. “As a result, these structures can serve as important focal points for research and management to obtain key demographic information such as age, sex ratio, population size and genetic structure.”
Fifteen years ago, 36 Przewalski’s horses (named after Polish-born explorer Nikołaj Przewalski, who first discovered them) were introduced to the border of Belarus and Ukraine to increase the biodiversity in the CEZ. By 2008, the number of horses nearly doubled, surprising experts, although the figures are still considered too low to sustain a population.
“When the size of a population is reduced, it has lost a lot of natural variation,” said the lead investigator, Peter Schlichting, in the statement. “The goal of conservation programs is to maintain as much diversity as possible and prevent inbreeding, ensuring a population can withstand changes in the environment and survive long term.”
The last surviving subspecies of wild horse, according to National Geographic, Przewalski's horse has been classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The horses were seen 35 times at nine of the 10 monitored structures during the winter months, as they took shelter, slept and bred. They were also spotted 149 times at all eight monitored structures during the summer, taking cover from insects.
Researchers also discovered a number of other species in the CEZ during the summer, including brown hare, red deer, moose, wild boar, red fox and raccoon dogs. Also spotted were Eurasian lynx, wolves and several avian and bat species.
A 2018 study expressed concern that gray wolves from the radioactive CEZ were starting to venture out into other areas and could cause genetic mutations if they bred with other gray wolves.
Schlichting said that future studies are needed to understand the rare horse better, including the exact number and certain behavioral patterns in an effort to preserve and aid the species' growth.
“Video footage could be a useful tool to track individuals during visits and be used in conjunction with cameras to fill in those gaps,” Schlichting noted.
The study has been published in the journal Mammal Research.