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What animals survive a nuke?

A nuclear explosion can have devastating effects on the environment and wildlife. The intense heat, blinding light, and radioactive fallout can kill animals both near the blast site and far away. However, some animals have adaptations that improve their chances of surviving a nuclear disaster. In this article, we will look at which animals are most likely to endure a nuke and why.

Animals near Ground Zero

Very few organisms would survive at or near ground zero of a nuclear blast. The explosion itself would incinerate anything within a certain radius. The tremendous winds produced by the blast would also flatten buildings, trees, and animals alike.

According to the ESA, the thermal radiation released by a nuclear bomb could give third-degree burns to animals up to 7 miles away from the point of detonation. And within a 1-mile radius, the intense flash of light could cause temporary or permanent blindness in animals looking at the blast.

However, life deep underground or far underwater could potentially survive a close-range nuclear hit. Seismic waves from the blast would impact underground/underwater ecosystems, but organisms accustomed to high pressures and seclusion have a higher chance of enduring this trauma. Some examples include:

  • Burrowing animals like moles, earthworms, and snakes
  • Insects and grubs in deep soil layers
  • Microbes thriving in the earth’s crust miles below the surface
  • Sea cucumbers, tubeworms, and bottom-dwelling fish in the deep ocean

These subterranean and abyssal creatures are adapted to dark, high-pressure environments and may avoid the harshest impacts faced by surface-level animals.

Animals in the Path of Fallout

Radioactive fallout carried by wind and rain can spread far past ground zero. The deadliest isotopes last only hours or days, but some persist for years or decades. Animals exposed to fallout face both acute radiation sickness and the long-term genetic risks of radiation exposure.

However, some animals have defenses that improve their radiation resilience:

Radio-resistant Animals

Certain species tolerate ionizing radiation better than others. Radio-resistant animals include:

  • Tardigrades – Tiny water bears can withstand massive doses 1,000x higher than lethal levels for humans.
  • Cockroaches – These household pests can continue reproducing normally after receiving radiation doses hundreds of times greater than mammals.
  • Scorpions – In lab tests, scorpions showed far less susceptibility to radiation than mammals like rats and guinea pigs.

These animals have efficient DNA repair mechanisms and mechanisms to reduce the formation of free radicals during radiation exposure.

Animals with Protective Coverings

Thick fur, feathers, scales, or shells can potentially shield animals from alpha and beta radiation associated with fallout. Animals like:

  • Furry mammals
  • Birds
  • Reptiles
  • Insects with heavy carapaces

Stand a better chance if they have dense coatings that absorb radiation before it penetrates to their skin and internal organs.

Migratory Birds

Birds that migrate or cover large home ranges may be able to move out of contaminated areas following a nuclear explosion. Their mobility gives them better odds than say a frog confined to a pond in a hot zone. However, birds are still susceptible to radiation effects, especially if they ingest radioactive particles while foraging.

Long-Term Animal Survival in Affected Areas

The prospects for long-term animal survival near a nuclear blast depend heavily on the scale of ecological damage. A single low-yield nuke may have limited habitat impact outside the immediate blast zone. But a strategic strike on a city center can start raging fires, trigger nuclear winter effects, and destroy local ecosystems.

Fires and Climate Effects

A nuclear explosion can ignite widespread fires that burn forests and kill animals for miles. Smoke and soot from urban firestorms can also enter the stratosphere and cause temporary global cooling by dimming sunlight. As climate patterns shift in response, ecosystem balance is disrupted and food chains collapse. Species relying on photosynthesis are especially at risk.

Animals like insects, worms, and subterranean mammals that don’t depend on the sun’s energy have better odds in a post-blast nuclear winter scenario.

Collapsed Habitats and Food Chains

The destruction of plant and animal habitats in a nuclear blast zone can reverberate through the entire ecosystem. Primary food sources disappear, top predators starve, and surviving animals struggle for scarce resources.

Scavenger species that can subsist on decaying matter are better positioned to adapt to the altered post-nuclear environment. Animals like:

  • Vultures
  • Crows
  • Coyotes
  • Raccoons

Could potentially thrive on the remains of perished wildlife. Meanwhile, apex predators like wolves that rely on healthy prey populations are much more vulnerable.

Genetic Mutations

Prolonged radiation exposure can increase the mutation rate in animals who survive the initial nuclear blast. This raises the risk of cancer and heritable genetic defects. However, mutations also provide the raw material for adaptation via natural selection.

Given enough generations in the radioactive environment, some animals could potentially evolve new traits that improve their radiation tolerance even further.


While no animal species is totally immune to the effects of nuclear explosions, some stand a better chance of survival than others. Creatures deep underground, underwater, or naturally radiation-resistant have the best odds of surviving near a blast zone. In wider contaminated areas, animals with protective coverings, mobility to escape, and flexible diets will fare better in the altered post-nuclear environment. However, even species that endure could face long-term consequences like increased mutation rates.