On a haunting, contaminated landscape devoid of humans, animals are now thriving. So finds a new study on wildlife populations in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, late of the former Soviet Union and now part of Ukraine.

In 1986, Chernobyl was the site of of a nuclear reactor accident, the radiation from which caused the displacement of human life from an area of more than 1,000 square miles. Only animals were left to roam the the area.

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Today, a multi-university study finds, the exclusion zone has abundant roe deer, red deer, elk, and wild boar -- so many that the researchers say their numbers rival those of nature preserves in the region that are not contaminated.

Roe deer numbers are flourishing in the exclusion zone.Tatyana Deryabina

Wolves, they add, are seven times more populous than animals in those radiation-free areas.

"It's very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are much higher than they were before the accident," said Jim Smith, of the University of Portsmouth, in a press release.

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While earlier studies had shown sharp drops in wildlife thanks to radiation effects, the new data, culled from long-term census information and helicopter surveys, argues that mammals are back with a vengeance.

"These results demonstrate for the first time that, regardless of potential radiation effects on individual animals, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone supports an abundant mammal community after nearly three decades of chronic radiation exposure," the scientists wrote.

"This doesn't mean radiation is good for wildlife," Smith cautioned, "just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming, and forestry, are a lot worse."

The team's findings have been published in the journal Current Biology.