What Happened When A Massive Colony Of Ants Took Over An Abandoned Nuclear Power Plant

When structures become abandoned, nature tends to reclaim what once was, to the point that over time it can disappear entirely. This is no different when it comes to nuclear power plants, which can be swallowed by the surrounding landscape and become home to the wildlife in the area. This is precisely what happened to a nuclear power plant in Poland. However, the creatures that took up residence there might surprise people. Take a look to see what happened when a colony of ants became trapped inside and the extreme lengths they went to survive.

Looking For Bats

Outside underground bunker
Pinterest/Dark Roasted Blend
Pinterest/Dark Roasted Blend

Back in 2013, a group of Polish scientists made a journey to an abandoned bunker where they assumed they were going to be able to observe a colony of bats that they were studying.

The bunker had been part of a now-abandoned nuclear power plant, and the team wasn’t entirely sure what they might find. The facility was now overgrown and home to a variety of different creatures.

Ants Everywhere

Ants on tree
Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

While the scientists may have been looking for bats, what they found was something entirely different. They discovered that the place was covered with ants. There were millions crawling all around the bunker.

While most people might not see this unusual, however, what made this particularly strange is that they had been trapped inside without any of the resources necessary to survive. Even ants need some basic resources in order to continue living.

They Couldn’t Find Their Way Out

Ventilation shaft
Pinterest/Lance Stafford
Pinterest/Lance Stafford

The team of scientists came to the conclusion that the ants must have become stuck in the power plant bunker by entering through a ventilation shaft and then were unable to find a way back out.

This left the massive colony enclosed inside of the concrete bunker, completely self-contained, with no way for them to have access to food and water. Unsure of how long the ants had been there, the team assumed that the colony was doomed and only had so long to live before they would die out.

Checking Back In

Black ants
Krystian Dobuszynski/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Krystian Dobuszynski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The team didn’t think much more of the ants, considering that there wasn’t much that they could do for them. Assuming they would eventually die out, they left the bunker and the ants that were trapped within it.

However, when the team returned to the same power plant two years later to check on the ants out of curiosity, they were astonished by what they found. Amazingly, the ant colony hadn’t died off yet, and their numbers showed no signs of dwindling.

The Opposite Had Happened

Pile of ants
Pinterest/Lance Stafford
Pinterest/Lance Stafford

Instead of the ants slowly dying out like the scientists had assumed that they would, it opposite had happened. The ants appeared to be thriving, and their numbers had at least doubled from their last visit to the power plant two years prior.

There were no clear signs of food or water, so the team was completely clueless how this phenomenon managed to take place.

Resourceful Creatures

Leafcutter Ants
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Regardless that the ants had access to virtually no food and water, it wasn’t utterly unbelievable that they were still alive. Ants are incredibly resilient and resourceful creatures, one of the reasons that they have been in existence for so long.

Some colonies have been found inside walls, under concrete, and even inside a car engine. But for these ants’ situation, this still all seemed like a bit of a stretch. On top of that, they had multiplied!

Adapt Or Die

Ants nest
Visual China Group via Getty Images
Visual China Group via Getty Images

This particular colony of ants had no choice and they either needed to adapt to their surroundings or die. Even though it might have seemed like an impossible task, these minuscule insects managed to find a way.

Programmed to do what they needed to do to survive, the ants did the unthinkable. When it comes to starvation, almost all creatures will go to extreme lengths to eat in order to survive.

Every Ant For Himself

Ants feeding
Timothy Seren/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Timothy Seren/ullstein bild via Getty Images

As it turns out, these trapped ants resorted to eating their own kind as a source of food. The colony began partaking in cannibalism on the bodies of their fellow ants. Some of the ants, both alive and dead, showed evidence of bite marks from other ants.

This would provide the answer to not only how the ants had survived for so long, but how the colony managed to double since the last time that the researchers encountered them.

Specific Wounds

Ants on a cup
Nurcholis Anhari Lubis/Getty Images
Nurcholis Anhari Lubis/Getty Images

Incredibly, the cannibalistic wounds that were found on the deceased ants all seemed to be around one specific area, the abdomen. While this may seem random, scientists have discovered an explanation for why this might be.

As it turns out, ants share their resources with one another more so than most other creatures on planet Earth. The reasoning behind this might prove to be more gruesome than most people think.

Why The Abdomen?

Red ant
Schellhorn/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Schellhorn/ullstein bild via Getty Images

While most people might assume that the ants began eating each other for the simple reason to survive, it’s actually a lot darker than that.

Experts claim that the reason the ants were specifically taking bites out of the abdomens of the other ants was that they believed that the stomach contents of the other ants belonged to them as well. This is why it didn’t take long for this colony of ants to resort to cannibalism.

An Impressive Means Of Survival

Ants on a log
Marco Simonini/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Marco Simonini/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

No matter how gruesome it may seem, the scientists were undoubtedly impressed by the resilience of these insects. Not only was it resourceful, but it proved to be incredibly effective.

Ants are insects that are programmed to survive and thrive “even under conditions going far beyond the limits of the survival of the species.” For example, some ant colonies have even managed to survive floods by creating rafts made up entirely of their own bodies.

Providing The Ants With A Way Out

Wood bridge
Pinterest
Pinterest

After figuring out how exactly they had managed had to survive after all of that time, the researchers decided to help the cannibalistic insects out.

They constructed a bridge using a two-by-four that would act as a path for the ants to the outside if they should choose to follow it. Assuming this is all that they could do to help the colony without interfering with it, they left the bunker and waited a full year to return.

A Shocking Discovery

Close up of ant
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP via Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP via Getty Images

A year later, upon returning, the scientists were greeted by a completely empty bunker. Amazingly, the makeshift path that the researchers had left behind worked and the cannibalistic ants had all left the place where they had once been trapped.

Although the team was happy that their plan had worked, it also meant that now there was a large colony of cannibalistic ants roaming around the surrounding Polish forest.

Further Understanding

Ants in a maze
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP via Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP via Getty Images

The discovery and documentation of the colony of cannibalistic ants proved to be useful to fellow researchers, especially those who study the behaviors of ants and other insects.

They claimed that the findings “add a dimension to the great adaptive ability of ants to marginal habitats and suboptimal conditions, as the key to understanding their unquestionable eco-evolutionary success.” It helped to prove that ants are truly a remarkable species far more capable than many people believe.

The Ants Have A Predator

butterfly on a flower
Pinterest/Mental Floss Magazine
Pinterest/Mental Floss Magazine

While the thought of a hoard of cannibalistic ants might be unnerving to some people, they wouldn’t be able to take over the world. Mother Nature provided one insect with the ability to keep this population of ants under control.

This is known as the Alcon blue butterfly, an insect that can be found in the meadows of Europe. Although it interacts with its own kind, there’s another insect that it has a relationship with.

It Starts With A Plant

Priple marsh plant
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Alcon blue butterfly actually has a relationship with two different species of red ants known as Myrmica rubra and Myrmica ruginodis.

The connection between the butterfly and these two species of red ants begins with a rare plant known as a marsh gentian plant, on which the Alcon butterfly stops to lay its eggs. By the time the butterfly finishes laying its eggs, there will be several dozen larvae on the plant.

Tricking The Ants

Red ant on tree
Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Alcon blue butterfly is known as a “brood parasite,” meaning that they trick a different species into raising their young. Alcon blue butterflies do this with the two species of red ants.

Once the butterflies lay their eggs on the marsh gentian plant, the red ants storm the plant after the butterfly has left. David Nash from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, studied this process. He compared it to a phenomenon that also occurs between two species of birds.

Adopting The Larvae

Ants And Larvae
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Once the butterfly leaves the plants, the colony of red ants makes its move and begins to scour the area in search of the larvae. There’s a reason they’re attracted to this different species.

This is because the larvae are coated with a chemical that mimics the scent of the red ants, causing the ants to believe they are the same species. Tricked by the scent, the ants then tend to the larvae is if they were their own offspring.

Abandoning Their Own Young

Red ants and larvae
Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The ants even carry the butterfly larvae on their back to the hive, convinced they’re their own kind. Interestingly enough, the ants are so focused on taking care of the butterfly larvae that they start to forget about their own young!

An ant colony taking care of just a few of the butterfly larvae can result in the colony not having any offspring of their own. However, things change when the larvae evolve into butterflies.

The Butterfly Wins Out In The End

And and butterfly
YouTube/Michael1
YouTube/Michael1

The butterfly larvae, which eventually turn into caterpillars, spend around 23 months in the ant nest until they emerge from their pupas as butterflies. With all of the chemicals that fooled the ants gone, the ants come to the realization that they are intruders and begin immediately attacking the butterflies.

However, it’s no use. The butterflies are now covered in scales that protect them from the ants. They then fly away after having been successfully nurtured by the ants until maturity. It’s the ultimate con by Mother Nature.

How The Animals Of Chernobyl Are Surviving And Thriving After The Disaster

Chernobyl
Anatoli Kliashchuk/Sygma via Getty Images
Anatoli Kliashchuk/Sygma via Getty Images

You’ve watched the HBO series and all the surrounding YouTube docu-series about what went down at reactor 4 in 1986. You know all about the various conspiracies about government involvement and mismanagement. You know Jessie Buckley did a great job as Lyudmila Ignatenko.

But what you might not know is what Chernobyl looks like 30 years after the disaster. What remains long after humans evacuated the exclusion zone are the plants and animals who didn’t get the notice. Here’s what some of these creatures look like now and how the disaster has affected them.

Giant Catfish Hang Out In Cooling Pond – But They’re Not Mutants

man dwarfed under big fish
Sportex Italia / Facebook
Sportex Italia / Facebook

After videos surfaced of these massive fish began circulating, Dr. Timothy Mousseau, one of the lead biologists investing Chernobyl’s natural populations, was quick to debunk reports that these were irradiated mutants.

He states that normally mutations don’t lead to ‘large size’ catfish. He says that usually, mutations cause fish to “grow less, be less capable of catching food, and tend to not live as long.” So, despite its highly irradiated environment, the size of this monster is perfectly normal.

Wels Catfish Can Reach 200 Pounds In Normal Conditions

catfish chernobyl
Sean Gallup / Getty Images
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

According to Mousseau, the size of this catfish isn’t unusual at all. Really? Wels catfish, the kind in Chernobyl’s cooling pond, can reach up to 200 pounds in the wild. So these big guys are among friends with their massive 8-foot bodies.

Italian fisherman Dino Ferrari, featured in this photo, captured an 8.75 foot Wels catfish in the Po Delta back in 2015 that weighed 280 pounds. This fish wasn’t even the record breaker either. The record-setter weighs in at 297 pounds. Talk about a big fish to fry.

They’ve Gotten So Big Because Of Lack Of Human Interference

chernobyl swimming in cooling ponds
Sean Gallup / Getty Images
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Normally, with human habitat disruptions come smaller catfish sizes. But since humans evacuated, the catfish have been eating without being challenged. The cooling ponds are also naturally isolated from predators and are home to a lot of food for the catfish. It’s a natural buffet out here folks.

Catfish eat pretty much everything – fish, amphibians, worms, birds, and even small mammals. What’s also surprising is that they can live upwards of 50 years. So look forward to many more years of these friendly giants roaming the cooling ponds.

The Debate Over Chernobyl’s Biodiversity

chernobyl swimming in cooling ponds
Sean Gallup / Getty Images
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Biologists and scientists alike have been investigating and debating over the years if Chernobyl is a haven or a frying pan for biodiversity. Some argue that because humans have since left the region, many animal species have flourished where previously they struggled.

On the other side of the issue are those who argue that the 1986 disaster eliminated any positive effects that the evacuation may have had. Mousseau believes that as much as up to 50% of biodiversity in the ‘hottest’ radioactive zones has been lost.

Despite Lower Density Species Still Persist

chernobyl looking at camera
Sean Gallup / Getty Images
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Sergey Gaschak, who has worked in the region for years, says that it’s a ‘myth’ that new animals have begun to appear in the hottest zones. Instead of new animals coming along, what we have instead are ‘almost all the species we had before but in lower densities.’

While the environmental effects are being hotly debated (pun intended) many animals such as the fox shown here continue to live in the evacuated zone as usual. It’s an interesting task to peek into the lives of these creatures and see if they’ve changed dramatically.

The Eurasian Lynx Is Nearly Gone From Europe, But Not From The Exclusion Zone

lynx chernobyl
obj_stranger / Reddit
obj_stranger / Reddit

The cat came back – but only here. For a century the Eurasian lynx was thought to be gone from most of Europe because of deforestation and habitat loss. But after the evacuation, scientists began picking up little tracks and traces that suggested that the animals were still here.

Gashchak’s camera traps recently proved what they speculated – the Eurasian lynx was back and thriving in the region. They were able to capture multiple images of a mother and her cubs as well as 2 family groups. These radioactive lynx are living their best lives.

These Birds Have Deformed Beaks After The Disaster

bird beak differences
Anya Gupta / USHAP blog
Anya Gupta / USHAP blog

Mousseau notes that small birds like barn swallows and Parus majors have pronounced mutations after the disaster. These birds are born with deformed beaks, with lesions on their faces, cataracts, and smaller brains.

The reason for these generational mutations is because these birds were able to keep reproducing after the disaster instead of becoming completely sterile. Did you see these little guys flying around in the HBO series? Probably not. Birds aren’t typically paid for acting jobs.

Dzungarian Horses Thriving In The Region

horses
Genya Savilov / AFP/ Getty Images
Genya Savilov / AFP/ Getty Images

In an effort to see if the evacuated zone could be a good home to wildlife, in 1990, a group of Przewalski’s (Dzungarian) horses was introduced to the environment. Surprisingly, the animals did well in the region and now about a hundred of them graze the lands where people once lived.

This horse looks like it’s enjoying its new home away from people and habitat interference. Przewalski’s horses are the last surviving subspecies of wild horses. Apparently, this subspecies doesn’t come with a brush to wipe the snow off its back.

Horses In Belarussian Village Vorotets

horses farm chernobyl guy in a hazmat suit measures radiation
Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images49/45
Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images49/45

Not everyone chose to evacuate the land inside the 30-km evacuation zone forever. Some chose to come back to family land and ways of life after initially leaving in 1986. Villages like the Belarussian Vorotets are home to many farmers who live and work inside the evacuation zone.

Here, farm horses enjoy their daily lives as a worker measures radiation in the area. They’re probably feeling a little underdressed. Or maybe they’re thinking they should try wearing white jumpsuits this season.

Web Comparisons Tell Us About Effects Of Radiation

chernobyl spider bad web
@CatseyePest / Twitter
@CatseyePest / Twitter

After noticing that some spiderwebs in Fukushima looked a little less like their Charlotte’s Web counterparts, Mousseau began photographing spiders in the evacuated Chernobyl region. Itsy Bitsy, get ready for your close-up.

Mousseau captured photos of spiderwebs in hot and cold radiation regions of the same species of spiders to see if there was a change in web pattern and spider behavior. He noticed there was ‘less structure to the webs in radioactive areas’ and that these webs can serve as a ‘biomarker’ for the amount of radiation in the region.

Many Belarussian Farms Are Still Operational

farm chernobyl pigs running around
Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images
Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images

The explosion at reactor 4 severely contaminated a quarter of Belarus’ territory and led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people who had to give up their livelihoods as a result. For those who live now in small villages that dot the exclusion zone, their way of life is precious and historic.

Ivan Ivanovich is an 82-year-old who lives with his wife on their farm in Opachychi Ukraine in the exclusion zone where they grow vegetables and raise livestock. He says his biggest challenge today is ‘figuring out what to do with a television’ his son bought him.

Bison Didn’t Say ‘Bye Son’ When Humans Left

bison chernobyl worker feeding bison
Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images
Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images

Game animals like bison, moose, and deer still roam the area – which leads to concerns about hunting and poaching. Since animals began to repopulate in the zone, poaching and hunting have dramatically increased. In response, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko decreed that the exclusion zone would be turned into a nature preserve.

Pictured here are bison being fed by a worker inside of the exclusion zone. They look very orderly and patient as they wait for him to pour out the feed and walk away. But don’t be fooled – they’re eager for illegal poaching to stop.

The Evacuation Zone Has The Highest Density Of Wolves On Earth

wolves chernobyl hunting moose at night
obj_stranger / Reddit
obj_stranger / Reddit

Wolves are the apex predator in their ecosystems, and in the exclusion zone, it’s not different. Reportedly, the region is home to up to 400 wolves, which is more than Yellowstone, and many believe is the highest density in the world. This is a dramatic increase from the 40-60 wolves believed to inhabit the area in the 1970s.

Recently, camera traps, courtesy of biologist Sergey Gashchak, set up in the area have captured up to 26 gray wolves. Wolf tracks can also be found all over the exclusion zone and surrounding areas. So Chernobyl wolves, howl you doing?

Raptors Roam The Empty Woods

eagle chernobyl chilling on grass
obj_stranger / Reddit
obj_stranger / Reddit

Camera traps have also caught several species of raptors in the region. Big birds like eagles and hawks seem to be doing well in the exclusion zone. 231 of Belarus’ 334 birds species can also be found here.

Birdwatchers frequent the Palieski reserve in the Ukraine portion of the evacuation zone and the reserve claims to be Europe’s largest experiment in ‘rewilding.’ Queue Nelly Furtado ‘I’m Like A Bird’ but replace ‘I only fly away’ with ‘I only stay’.

Deer Me

deer chernobyl 2 deer looking at camera
obj_stranger / Reddit
obj_stranger / Reddit

Roe-deer are thriving inside of the exclusion zone and that’s good news for all of us. A report has recently shown that the deer numbers are similar to those found in four uncontaminated nature reserves in the region. Helicopter survey data has even shown a rise in roe-deer from 1-10 years post-disaster.

This curious deer definitely knows that his close-up is being taken to be studied for scientific purposes. Go ahead dear, shown them your good side.

Moose And Elk Are Living Happily

moose and elk
obj_stranger / Reddit
obj_stranger / Reddit

Like their roe-deer cousins, populations of moose and elk in the exclusion zone have been reported as being similar to those in outside uncontaminated regions. This data is very a-moosing to scientists.

The reason for the increase in elk and deer isn’t very moose-terious. Chernobyl moose and elk populations increased in the early 1990s, at the same time that these species were declining in other former Soviet Union countries. When asked about this, the creature above requested he remains anony-moose.

Tree Rings Mark The Year Of The Disaster

tree rings
obj_stranger / Reddit
obj_stranger / Reddit

Like the animals on this list, the trees in the exclusion zone were also affected by the disaster. Trees form rings for every 4 seasons they’re alive and when there’s a disruption that year from an illness, injury, or pollution, they express it on their rings.

Here, tree rings inside the exclusion zone mark exactly 1986. The ‘Red Forest’ is a region of trees that took the brunt of the nuclear explosion. Reportedly, the trees turned red from all the radiation they absorbed and their leaves are so radioactive they have yet to decay.

Brown Bears Have Returned To Chernobyl After A Century

bears
obj_stranger / Reddit
obj_stranger / Reddit

After being vacant from the region for more than a century, the brown bear has been spotted in the exclusion zone thanks to Gashchak’s camera traps. Many think that though the bear has never been photographed there before, that this is evidence of a long-awaited return.

This photo just goes to show you that once the people are away, the bears will play. Or at least wander back into a region they may or may not have inhabited a hundred years ago. Maybe Yogi will come visit too.

Raccoon Dogs Are Real And They’re In Chernobyl

raccoon
obj_stranger / Reddit
obj_stranger / Reddit

What seems like a strange household mythological creature that will break into the garbage can if little boys and girls are naughty is actually a real thing. No, it’s not a mutant either. Raccoon dogs are related to foxes and are native to East Asia and Eastern Europe and they like Chernobyl.

The exclusion zone’s raccoon dogs are in numbers that are comparable to their non-radioactive-zone-living counterparts. Chernobyl has regular stray dogs too, but these are a little cooler to talk about.