Which Animals Did Nuclear Scientists Pick to Represent the Entire World?

In the 1940s, scientists came up with a “Standard Man” or “Reference Man” to help explain what different radiation exposures would do to a human. That was expanded to the Reference Woman and Reference Child. Now there is a small group of Reference Animals. Learn what made the cut.

The advent of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power made it necessary to understand what radiation would do to a human being. What level of exposure would cause injury and death? What would cause sterility or genetic mutation? What, for that matter, was the standard amount of radiation that a person could expect to pick up in their lifetime, without any human-made radiation involved? Scientists needed a model to go forward, and to communicate their findings to others, and they that found in the Reference Man. The Reference Man was a normal, healthy adult male of average height and weight. Scientists used this average ideal to understand what happens to humans when they undergo radiation.


Over the next few decades scientists learned, or perhaps just managed to clearly demonstrate to everyone else, that this model was inaccurate. The average man couldn’t represent the effects of radiation on a population. Even if a woman and a man were the same height and weight, radiation wouldn’t have exactly the same effect on both. Different models sprang up. We got the Reference Woman and the Reference Child, but also models that allowed scientists to study the effects of radiation on people of different ages and weights.

In the early 2000s, scientists decided to expand their models of radiation exposure to the non-human world. This presented them with an interesting problem—studying and communicating the effects of radiation on every animal and plant in the world was impossible. Which organisms should be the Reference Organisms for the world?

In the end, they chose 12 models—the deer, the rat, the duck, the frog, the trout, the flatfish, the bee, the crab, the earthworm, the pine tree, the grass, and the brown seaweed. The organisms were chosen because they are common, crucial, and because a relatively large amount is already known about how they respond to radiation. These have to do a great deal more work than mere reference humans. Their size, life expectancy, gestation period, and fertility have to stand for all animals even vaguely like them. They are, roughly, a nuclear ark of animals that we hope to preserve from radioactive annihilation.

You can read the full report on how each of the Reference Organisms responds to different levels of radiation here. Sometimes it’s a scary read. At other times, it’s funny. For some reason the authors feel the need to explain that duck eggs are “elliptical” and that pine cones are “ovoid.” (“Ovoid” means egg-shaped. How would a person who needs to be told that a duck egg is elliptical know what an ovoid shape is?) If you’re interested in very recent nuclear artifacts, it’s good reading.


Top Image: NASA/ Douglas H Wheelock

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