The catastrophic tsunami and resulting Fukushima nuclear disaster that struck Japan in March of 2011 left in its wake tremendous destruction -- including to local flora and fauna.
Researchers are examining field mice, red pine trees, a certain type of shellfish and other wild flora and fauna in and around the 20 kilometre (12 mile) no-go zone surrounding the plant, an Environment Ministry official said.
"The researchers are studying the impact of high radiation levels on wild animals and plants, examining the appearance, reproductive function and possible abnormalities in chromosomes," said the official. [...]
The study began in November and an initial report on the findings is expected in March, he said.
While scientists are studying wildlife, the effects of the disaster for many of the area's pets began right away -- they were abandoned and, if they are still alive, now face starvation and severe cold.
On March 12, the day after the quake and tsunami hit, 78,000 people were evacuated out of this area, believing they would return within a few days. As such, thousands of people left with their dogs tied up in the backyard, cats in their houses and livestock penned in barns.
Nearly a year later, animal carcasses litter the region.
Cows and pigs starved to death, their bones still in pens. Dogs dropped dead with disease. A cat skull sits on a neighborhood road.
This is perhaps an inevitable outcome to a nuclear emergency, but animal rights activists call it an outrage.
"It's shameful," says Yasunori Hoso with United Kennel Club Japan. "We kept asking the government to rescue these animals from the beginning of the disaster. There must have been a way to rescue the people and the animals at the same time following the nuclear disaster at Fukushima."
Reuters has more from Hoso:
"If left alone, tens of them will die every day. Unlike well-fed animals that can keep themselves warm with their own body fat, starving ones will just shrivel up and die," said Yasunori Hoso, who runs a shelter for about 350 dogs and cats rescued from the 20-km evacuation zone around the crippled nuclear plant.
"If we cannot go in to take them out, I hope the government will at least let us go there and leave food for them," he said.
Some lucky animals have been helped by people such as Naoto Matsumura, a resident within evacuation zone who has refused to leave.
CNN reports on Matsumura:
"I'm full of rage," says Matsumura. "That's why I'm still here. I refuse to leave and let go of this anger and grief. I weep when I see my hometown. The government and the people in Tokyo don't know what's really happening here."
His defiance began with a simple desire to feed the animals on his farm. The government evacuated 78,000 residents around the exploding plant without a plan to rescue pets and valuable livestock.
As Matsumura began to feed his own animals, the neighborhood's desperate cats and dogs started showing up. He started to feed them too and decided he couldn't leave them behind to die. When Matsumura ran out of food, he slipped out of the exclusion zone and bought dog and cat food and then snuck back into town.
Weeks turned into months and now nearly a year. Conditions are growing worse by the day, says Matsumura.
PBS reports on the findings related to Chernobyl by Timothy Mousseau, professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina who has studied animals exposed to radiation:
Mousseau's research has found significant genetic damage and breakages in chromosomes among animals exposed to radiation in and around Chernobyl. Developmental abnormalities, tumors, and species decline and extinction have also been attributed to radiation exposure in the area.
The area around Fukushima happens to share 14 species of birds also found around Chernobyl, including the barn swallow. Given the contamination levels reported by citizen groups, it's possible that we could also see "multigenerational effects" and fundamental changes in the ecosystem in Japan as a result of the disaster, he said. Research in the area by his team and others should provide a greater understanding of the effects of radiation exposure on birds and other wildlife.
"What Fukushima offers us as scientists is the opportunity to watch how these populations and communities change over time as a result of radioactive contaminants," Mousseau said. "In Chernobyl, everything was top secret. We don't really know how things began. Fukushima offers us the opportunity to follow these organisms from the beginning."
CNN has video from "the exclusion zone" looking at the animal rescue efforts. Warning: graphic images.