Have you found yourself profoundly concerned about radioactive butterflies in recent months? It’s cool, I’m on it by way of GlobalPost.
I find it interesting that there’s been such a media flap over this. I suppose the symbolism of mutant insects flitting around vomiting smoke-stacks of nuclear hell stick in the craw of the public. On the record, I’m no anti-nuclear activist – but it’s interesting to contemplate the emotions and fears that these mutated animals evoke.
I attempted to dispel some of the confusion in this GlobalPost article, by calling up a certain Dr Joseph Rachlin of New York’s City College. Via his aggressively New York accent, I learned more about mutant butterflies than I had ever expected to learn. I thank him for that.
Mutant butterflies? What “radioactive” insects means for everyone else
Mutant butterflies are flitting around the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and the public is — understandably — looking for answers. GlobalPost reported yesterday that some butterflies near the site of the Japanese meltdown, according to a recent study, are exhibiting some bizarre characteristics,including smaller wings, irregularly developed eyes, and malformed antennae.
The study, published in Nature, also found that pale grass blue butterflies appear to be passing abnormalities to their offspring.
But how worried should we be about this new development, and the possible effects of low-dose nuclear radiation on humans? GlobalPost contacted City University of New York biology professor Dr. Joseph Rachlin to find out more.
What is a mutation, anyway?
“A mutation by definition is a change in genetic structure,” said Rachlin. The butterflies, according to the study authors, are exhibiting germ-line mutations, which are hereditary. That’s different from a somatic mutation, which only affects the body and can’t be passed on to offspring.
“A genetic mutation can be positive, it can be negative, or it can be neutral, in the sense that it’s affecting — or not affecting — deleteriously the survivalship of the butterfly population,” Rachlin said, adding that there are actually more neutral mutations than negative in nature.
“The concerns you’re looking at are manifested at the population level,” said Rachlin of the Fukushima butterflies. “We don’t really care about what happens to an individual organism — unless it’s human.”
If you’re interested in mutant insects – and who isn’t! – I can’t recommend the beautiful work of Swiss science artist Cornelia Hesse-Honegger strongly enough. She specializes in in painting and documenting insect mutations near nuclear sites, most famously at Chernobyl.
She was kind enough to respond to my e-mail vis a vis mutant butterflies lately. (Oh, the things I do for my craft. But isn’t it nice to be paid to research mutant butterflies!)
Q – Why do you think the public is so horrified by these mutations in insects – especially butterflies, which are often considered something of a symbolic species? Should they be? Are you?
Q – Do you feel the mutations you document are grounds for cutting down on nuclear power use worldwide? Why or why not?