It’s been nearly 30 years since the catastrophe at Chernobyl, and as the cleanup grinds on, the far-reaching effects continue to be documented. Birds with smaller brains, increasing spiders, decreasing butterflies, all these and more have been reported from the areas surrounding Chernobyl. One group you don’t hear very much about are the decomposers — those bugs, microbes, fungi, and slime molds who nourish themselves by consuming the remains of dead organisms. Without these recyclers, carbon, nitrogen, and other elements essential to life would be locked in plant corpses.
The effects of radioactive contamination on the decay of plant material remains unknown… until now. Scientists examining the forests around Chernobyl have found that radioactive contamination has reduced the rate of litter mass loss. The dead leaves on the forest floor, along with the dead pine trees in the infamous Red Forest, don’t seem to be decaying — even a couple decades after the incident.
“Apart from a few ants, the dead tree trunks were largely unscathed when we first encountered them,” study researcher Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina tells Smithsonian. “It was striking, given that in the forests where I live, a fallen tree is mostly sawdust after a decade of lying on the ground.”