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Turtles Monitor Nuclear Activity Through Their Shells


Turtles and tortoises have an amazing ability to store a record of past exposure to radioactive contamination on their shells. This discovery could potentially be used for long-term monitoring of radioactive elements in nature.


Radionuclides from nuclear activities have spread widely and can remain in ecosystems for extended periods of time, posing a risk to the environment. The accumulation of radionuclides in organisms is a challenging task, as traditional methods such as tree rings can be unreliable due to diffusion of elements in wood.

The Research

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state conducted a study to investigate if the scales on turtle and tortoise shells, called scutes, could provide a more reliable record of radioactive exposure due to their unique growth patterns.

Scutes were collected from four museum specimen turtles from different species and locations that have been historically exposed to nuclear materials. The researchers analyzed these scutes for elevated levels of uranium radionuclides.

The results showed that the turtles from historic nuclear sites had small but elevated levels of uranium radionuclides in their shells. The study also found a correlation between the growth rings on a desert tortoise’s scutes and the timing of airborne releases of waste at a nuclear site in Tennessee.

Potential Applications

This research opens up new possibilities for studying the history of nuclear contamination in ecosystems using turtles and tortoises as living records. This technique could be applied to zoological collections in museums to assess the concentration of radionuclides in specimens collected before and after nuclear tests and accidents.

Furthermore, there is potential for non-invasive monitoring of living turtles and tortoises to understand the current state of radionuclide accumulation in our modern environment.


The ability of turtles and tortoises to store a record of past exposure to radioactive contamination on their shells provides a unique opportunity for long-term monitoring and research in the field of radioecology. This study opens up new avenues for understanding the impact of nuclear activities on ecosystems and exploring ways to mitigate their effects.

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