Mutant Butterflies Are Flitting Around Fukushima

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 14 2012 10:00 AM

No Big Deal, But Mutant Butterflies Are Flitting Around Fukushima

Fukushima reactor
The Fukushima meltdown hasn't had the effects on wildlife that Chernobyl did, but scientists are beginning to find evidence of mutations.

Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/AFP/GettyImages

Of all the horrors of Japan's earthquake and tsunami, the radiation released from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was not the worst. Three reactors melted down, but better engineering and stronger containment meant that the resulting radiation levels were significantly less severe than those of Chernobyl.

That doesn't mean the local wildlife—or, necessarily, the local humans—came through unscathed, though. Earlier this year, bluefin tuna turned up off the coast of California sporting elevated levels of cesium. Not a huge deal: Tuna already contain natural levels of radiation much larger than the amount they contracted from Japanese waters.

Advertisement

Now, somewhat more disturbingly, researchers have found "severe abnormalities" in butterflies collected from Fukushima last year. In a new paper published in Nature's online journal Scientific Reports, a Japanese research team reports that adult pale grass blue butterflies have shown mutations to their wings, legs, and antennae at rates far higher than those of the normal population.

What's alarming—though not entirely unexpected—is that the relatively mild mutations found in the butterflies initially collected at the scene seem to be getting worse in their offspring. That's true for offspring bred offsite as well as second-generation butterflies found at Fukushima, indicating that the radiation has caused lasting genetic damage to the species. 

How much the Fukushima radiation will affect human health remains unclear. No one died as a direct result of radiation at the site, and only about 100 workers have been identified as having incurred levels of radiation high enough to significantly increase their cancer risk. Still, the mutant butterflies aren't a particularly encouraging sign.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

Moneybox

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.

Music

A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Music
Sept. 14 2014 11:44 PM A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?