[Source: PLoS ONE, full text: (LINK). Abstract, edited.]
Elevated Mortality among Birds in Chernobyl as Judged from Skewed Age and Sex Ratios

by Anders Pape Møller, Andrea Bonisoli-Alquati, Geir Rudolfsen, Timothy A. Mousseau


Radiation has negative effects on survival of animals including humans, although the generality of this claim is poorly documented under low-dose field conditions. Because females may suffer disproportionately from the effects of radiation on survival due to differences in sex roles during reproduction, radiation-induced mortality may result in male-skewed adult sex ratios.

Methodology/Principal Finding

We estimated the effects of low-dose radiation on adult survival rates in birds by determining age ratios of adults captured in mist nets during the breeding season in relation to background radiation levels around Chernobyl and in nearby uncontaminated control areas. Age ratios were skewed towards yearlings, especially in the most contaminated areas, implying that adult survival rates were reduced in contaminated areas, and that populations in such areas could only be maintained through immigration from nearby uncontaminated areas. Differential mortality in females resulted in a strongly male-skewed sex ratio in the most contaminated areas. In addition, males sang disproportionately commonly in the most contaminated areas where the sex ratio was male skewed presumably because males had difficulty finding and acquiring mates when females were rare. The results were not caused by permanent emigration by females from the most contaminated areas because none of the recaptured birds had changed breeding site, and the proportion of individuals with morphological abnormalities did not differ significantly between the sexes for areas with normal and higher levels of contamination.


These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the adult survival rate of female birds is particularly susceptible to the effects of low-dose radiation, resulting in male skewed sex ratios at high levels of radiation. Such skewed age ratios towards yearlings in contaminated areas are consistent with the hypothesis that an area exceeding 30,000 km<SUP>2</SUP> in Chernobyl’s surroundings constitutes an ecological trap that causes dramatic excess mortality.