Mutant butterflies a result of Fukushima nuclear disaster, researchers say
This image from a study on Fukushima's impact on butterflies shows wings mutated by the radiation.
August 14th, 2012
10:35 AM ET

Mutant butterflies a result of Fukushima nuclear disaster, researchers say

In the first sign that the Fukushima nuclear disaster may be changing life around it, scientists say they've found mutant butterflies.

Some of the butterflies had abnormalities in their legs, antennae, and abdomens, and dents in their eyes, according to the study published in Scientific Reports, an online journal from the team behind Nature. Researchers also found that some affected butterflies had broken or wrinkled wings, changes in wing size, color pattern changes, and spots disappearing or increasing on the butterflies.

The study began two months after an earthquake and tsunami devastated swaths of northeastern Japan in March 2011, triggering a nuclear disaster. The Fukushima Daiichi plant spewed radiation and displaced tens of thousands of residents from the surrounding area in the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

In May 2011, researchers collected more than 100 pale grass blue butterflies in and around the Fukushima prefecture and found that 12% of them had abnormalities or mutations. When those butterflies mated, the rate of mutations in the offspring rose to 18%, according to the study, which added that some died before reaching adulthood. When the offspring mated with healthy butterflies that weren't affected by the nuclear crisis, the abnormality rate rose to 34%, indicating that the mutations were being passed on through genes to offspring at high rates even when one of the parent butterflies was healthy.

The scientists wanted to find out how things stood after a longer amount of time and again collected more than 200 butterflies last September. Twenty-eight percent of the butterflies showed abnormalities, but the rate of mutated offspring jumped to 52%, according to researchers. The study indicated that second-generation butterflies, the ones collected in September, likely saw higher numbers of mutations because they were exposed to the radiation either as larvae or earlier than adult butterflies first collected.

To make sure that the nuclear disaster was in fact the cause of the mutations, researchers collected butterflies that had not been affected by radiation and gave them low-dose exposures of radiation and found similar results.

"We conclude that artificial radionuclides from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant caused physiological and genetic damage to this species," the study said.

The results of the study bring up concerns about the larger impact of the Fukushima disaster and the impact it will have on the ecosystem in Japan and nearby areas, as well as what we can learn for future nuclear disasters.

"Our results are consistent with the previous field studies that showed that butterfly populations are highly sensitive to artificial radionuclide contamination in Chernobyl and Fukushima," the study said. "Together, the present study indicates that the pale grass blue butterfly is probably one of the best indicator species for radionuclide contamination in Japan."

One of the researchers, Joji Otaki, an associate professor at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, told reporters that while butterflies may be the best indicator, the study should also lead to more research on what else may be affected by the radiation.

"Sensitivity (to irradiation) varies between species, so research should be conducted on other animals," Otaki told the Japan Times.

Otaki said while there is still plenty of research to be done on radiation, there shouldn't be large-scale concern about this kind of mutation in humans.

"Humans are totally different from butterflies and they should be far more resistant" to radiation, he told the newspaper.

Read more:

Inside Fukushima's meltdown zone

What Fukushima did to the ocean

Gallery: Then and now

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Filed under: 2011 tsunami • Animals • Insects • Japan
soundoff (316 Responses)
  1. Josh

    I am no scientist, so my idea about this won´t count for much. But as it is known, Chaos Theory quite often opperates with the Term "Butterfly Effect". It is also clear to see that, as stated, different species are differently vulnerable towards radiation, but do we really want to try? Some of the commentators here seem to make fun of it, maybe, like me, they unaware of the radiation impact of Oil and Gas-Production. Something that isn´t very often mentioned in public. Sure such is not to be found on the english wikipedia(Petroleum), as well as Ashland Inc.´s sale of radiating conveying tubes to farmers, kindergartens and schools isn´t mentioned. No way 1100 microsivert/h count for anything(Martha,KY). Actually one can swap the place where he/she lives, but there is only so much space to move on planet earth. When you are rubbing shoulders with your neighbour it´s getting narrow.

    August 14, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Simple Genetics

    The original genetic code in creation is unable to repair the severe radiation damage.

    Also these butterflies will be unable to reproduce.
    Mutations are of no benefit to the species so they quickly die out.

    And before y'all waffle on about the lie of evolution, remember evolution is an unprovable and faulty theory.
    If any other branch of science approached their discipline with such an outrageous and lying theory they
    would quickly be out of a job.

    August 14, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • mendrys

      Simple Genetics: Before you attempt to speak to anything regarding evolution you should actually learn something about it from someone who knows what they are talking about, not those who would use a book written centuries before the invention of modern science to speak to something relating to modern science. The Catholic church has learned its lessen and so should you. None of your assertions regarding evolution are true. Evolution never said that all mutations are beneficial, only a very small percentage of them may lead to a beneficial trait. Also, evolutionary theory has made numerous predictions that have been experimentally validated.

      August 14, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • lee s

      what are you babbling about? look up the definition of theory genius.

      August 14, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Observant Historian

      Evolution is a scientific fact, in exactly the same way that gravity is a fact. The "theory" of evolution seeks to explain the fact and how it works, in exactly the same way as the Theory of Gravity. You clearly don't even know what the word "theory" means, and you simply parrot a misunderstanding common among creationists, despite the fact that this has been explained to them repeatedly. I guarantee, from what you said, that you know nothing about evolution, and accept the the scientifically-ignorant and often deliberately dishonest nonsense found in every creationist tome. If you are going to comment on something, it would be helpful if you at least know the basic facts. If you're going to vote, I'd set the bar even higher.

      August 14, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Maki

      You have no clue what evolution is about. Species change over time to adapt to their environment and that also means changing their appearance. Radiation has damaged these animals and insects. Some of the animals in Chernobyl have changed.

      This doesn't mean a cat will be able to breed with a dog, nor chimpanzees, we have now, turning human, or tomatoes turning into pumpkins. It's a process that takes years. It's not magic and doesn't happen over night.

      August 14, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Not so simple

      Actually, you don't know enough about genetics to comment on this. Mutations are abundant in our species and others, and the subjects can usually reproduce (unless the mutation renders them sterile). Please either strive to learn something about it or stop talking about it as if you know. Your disregard for the *science* of evolution is ridiculous.

      August 14, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  3. YeahItsMe72

    Mothra lives

    August 14, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Awwwww

    These mutations in the 12% of these butterflies with likely result in the demise of 12% of this species. It's very unlikely that these mutations will last more than a few more years before all affected butterflies die and fail to produce offspring. As far as we know, there's no endangered animals affected by mutations, so it is very likely that once the mutations run their course, the population of each affected specie will return to normal/expected figures. Also, as the author included in the article, most mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles will be unaffected by this. Smaller insects and equivalent fauna are most likely the only ones affected. (Considering flora is worthy of an entirely different article.)

    August 14, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tom Woolford

    That's what happens when radation interacts with DNA. It forces unwanted mutations. This shouldn't be a surprise.

    August 14, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. peckbag

    Umm... Didn't Mitt Romney grow up near a nuclear power plant?

    August 14, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mark

    This sounds like a setup to an old Godzilla movie. There was a mutant moth villain, what about a mutant butterfly??

    August 14, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. mendrys

    Funny how many people see this as a slant piece written by anti-nuclear activists when it ends with: "Otaki said while there is still plenty of research to be done on radiation, there shouldn't be large-scale concern about this kind of mutation in humans.

    "Humans are totally different from butterflies and they should be far more resistant" to radiation, he told the newspaper."

    August 14, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Snozzlehead

    After smoking all the weed in his possession, one student decided to run for a Senate seat in Chicago. He won with help from other weed smokers.
    Being ambitious, he got the help of more weed smokers added some criminals, add some other lowlifes and said , what the hell, lets try for the top job. Guess what, he made it. Now he wants to change the world.
    Let him do it, after all, we have nothing to lose. We have wars everywhere, thieves on every street, jobless millions, falling home values, unaffordable medical costs, gas prices so high you will soon have to sell your car for a single gallon.
    I want him to win. You see, I have a sick sense of humor, I will laugh myself into eternity looking at the faces of all the stupid idiots who voted for Obama and then lived to regret it. Hahahahahahah

    August 14, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      You need mental help.

      August 14, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Alex

    One word...MOTHRA. And, I don't think I'm alone on this one.

    August 14, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joes

      YES YES.... god those old movies are FINALLY coming to REAL LIFE bahahha

      August 14, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • vowelmovement


      August 14, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
  11. tigrr

    Check the swamps for godzilla and buds.

    August 14, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. The Northern Hemisphere is Fuqd

    HAHAHA cancer for everyone, don't forget that General electric was the maker of the reactors (the mach1) that will kill you, your children and everyone you love, but not the wealthy... They are moving down to the Asia pacific when it is safer, because of the windstream.

    August 14, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomus

      You didn't see the picture "On The Beach". Get your cyanide capsules while they are cheap.

      August 14, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Hope

    Poor People...

    I see a lot of those windmills going toward
    Colorado. Maybe they got it right...

    Turbo Power?

    August 14, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Tanker

    In five years:

    Giant Mutant Butterfly Week on the Discovery Channel....

    August 14, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
  15. gman

    I would only be worried if they were flesh-eating mutant buterflies

    August 14, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomus

      They get really big, learn karate, then kick human butt.

      August 14, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
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