Mutant Butterflies Found Near Fukushima

Radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster might have increased the rate of mutation in one species susceptible to environmental changes

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Scientific Reports

No matter how you cut it, finding mutant butterflies is hard to spin as a positive result. But the knowledge gained from the pale grass blue butterfly, a.k.a. Zizeeria maha, could potentially help down the road as the country recovers from one of the world’s worst nuclear power disasters.

(MORE: Is Post-Fukushima Japan Safe for Tourists?)

According to a study published by Scientific Reports, researchers started looking at butterflies near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant two months after the March 2011 tsunami damaged the reactors, causing a potential radiation leak. Of the initial 100 butterflies studied, 12% had mutations. But as the butterflies mated, the rate of mutation in successive generations increased to 34%, showing that the mutating genes were easily passed along to offspring.

(PHOTOS: New Photos from Inside Fukushima)

The problems were widespread, with abnormalities found including broken or wrinkled wings, changes in wing size, problems with legs, antennae, abdomen and eyes and even shifts in color pattern. Intrigued by the initial findings, researchers took a look at 200 butterflies in September and found that the mutation rate was increasing in the latest generation of butterflies — the ones that were likely larvae around the time of the disaster — with more than half of new butterflies showing some kind of mutation.

The news is obviously troublesome for the entire region, raising concerns about the harmful long-term effects of the Fukushima disaster — the largest since Chernobyl in 1986 — but it also underscores the important role of early-warning signs stemming from radiation leaks.

(MORE: Do I Dare Eat a Peach? After Fukushima, Japanese Farmers Struggle with Food Safety)

But butterflies can be particularly susceptible to radiation; not all animals will suffer a similar fate, which is exactly why researchers want more tests done on different species. “Sensitivity [to irradiation] varies between species, so research should be conducted on other animals,” Joji Otaki, an associate professor at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, told the Japan Times.

Fortunately for humans, they generally fare better than butterflies when it comes to handling radiation. Hopefully much better.

PHOTOS: Japan One Year Later

17 comments
John Tucker
John Tucker

What happened to objectivity at Time? This study is a disaster. Its an unacceptably small sample - one of the regions with a "20 percent mutation rate" consisted of five butterflies collected one with "deformities" . On occasion its own data finds no correlation between dose and mutation rates and the "control" studies are inconclusive at best.   It failes to adequately explore alternate arguments.

Do your homework.

tinupatil
tinupatil

The Nature Reports article looks attractive, but I think people've made a mountain out of a mole hill. The mutations were easily passed on to the next generation, but it was because the mating was manipulated. The mutations are deleterious, not making the creatures stronger or larger. If left to their devices in nature, there's a good chance they'd not be able to attract females and hence fail at propagating. In other words, they'd die out. Regardless, I suppose the fact that the exist is troubling. Its true that humans can deal with 'mutating' influences slightly better, thanks to proof reading mechanisms for our DNA.

Bella_Fantasia
Bella_Fantasia

The Mothra comments are appreciated,  really funny.  But I love butterflies, animals and most people.  Who managed to convince us it was sensible, reasonable and a really good idea to use highly toxic fuels and what amounts to a hydrogen bomb to boil water?

tinupatil
tinupatil

 There you go. I've been wondering about that since I was a kid. All that insane power... just to boil some water; future humans are going to look at us and know we were blithering idiots.

NEWS2VIEW
NEWS2VIEW

Genetic modification of crops and organisms by design or disaster have a way of amplifying through successive generations, diminishing biodiversity at the peril of the food chain. Epigenetic changes can be passed on for generations. We need to back off aging and expensive nuclear power and GMOs until scientific understanding of the epigenetic realm helps us to truly have a means of identifying, testing and predicting consequences before we tip the wrong Domino in the chain of life.

tinupatil
tinupatil

 True, however we all came from a single cell a long time ago, life has a way of generating diversity. I think in the long run we'll all be okay.

SynicInSF
SynicInSF

Well, butterflys show defects more readily than humans. With humans it shows up as cancers and shortened lifespans. Not counting the thyroid failures which are getting commoner. And I think thyroid carcinomas are increasing.  as the Chernobyl children are age.

SmallSpeakHouse
SmallSpeakHouse

I wonder how many species have been affected? Three-eyed fish anyone? lol

emcourtney
emcourtney

Mothra!

almchrl
almchrl

Just as long as they stay 'butterfly net' size - no problem

rex_montana
rex_montana

We are witnessing the decline of Western civilization with this "clever" rudeness. Fukushima? No,  how about Fukutime?

 

NEWS2VIEW
NEWS2VIEW

His point still stands. Nuclear power plants long past their 30-year shelf life are operating in the US, even as the fallout from Japan has been found in tuna off the California coast as of last summer (not to mention radioactive elements in rain water). It's a small world after all.