Experts ponder possible radiation mutations
By Seamus McAfee
For decades the Japanese have celebrated Godzilla, the ferocious monster who grew to enormous size from nuclear energy and repeatedly leveled Tokyo. But while that was fiction, the latest nuclear disaster to hit Japan may have actually spawned a real mutated animal – a rabbit without ears. And while a fluffy bunny certainly appears less threatening than Godzilla, its appearance has already sparked fears of the lasting impact last Aprils’ nuclear meltdown may have had on Japan’s animal and human population.
The public was first introduced to the earless rabbit in an amateur video posted online, and the clip has been viewed more than two million times since. Supposedly the animal was born sometime in April just 18 miles outside the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, which was heavily damaged in the March earthquake and tsunami. Some observers have theorized that the radiation that emanated from the facility during its nuclear meltdown may have infected rabbits and their offspring, among other animals. Rabbits have a gestation of about 30 days, so the rabbit’s appearance could be a result of radiation infecting the mother either before or after she was pregnant. According to RussiaToday, which covered the video, some Japanese have expressed concern that babies in the affected region may soon be born with mutations.
Skeptics, among them prominent scientists, believe that may be too much of a leap. It’s just a likely, they counter, that the rabbit is a coincidence or has no link to the Fukushima accident. F. Ward Whicker, professor emeritus at Colorado State University’s Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, says natural radiation or chemical substances in the surrounding environment may have caused the defect. Scientists also say there is little to learn about genetic risk from just one mutant rabbit, especially since none of the other rabbits in the video appear to have any defects. Historians also believe the likelihood of radiation causing a mass scale of mutation is unlikely, considering that the infamous atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki created much larger radiation levels and caused no birth defects.
Mutation among animals does sometimes occur in nature. While they don’t get any cool superpowers like Godzilla’s fire-breathing, animals are often born with extra or missing body parts, or with hidden genetic mutations that may even give them a evolutionary advantage such as resistance to disease. Genetic material can be changed by nuclear radiation, but is more often caused by natural substances or by errors in DNA copying or repair. A healthy earless rabbit who’d had no exposure to radiation was reported in Britain in 2008, and the trait is common enough to be a discussion topic among animal breeders. Veterinarians say rabbits can even lose their ears after birth due to other causes such as over-grooming by the mother rabbit.
Ominously, scientists admit that only time will prove if radiation has significantly affected human and animal DNA in parts of Japan struck by radiation. In the meantime, however, it seems that an army of nuclear rabbits is a much of a real-life threat to the country as Godzilla himself.
What do you say? Are you concerned about mutations to animals arising from the earthquake’s damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant? Let us know in a comment here or on Facebook.