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Hamster at day job. Photo: Sualk61 via Flickr, some rights reserved
Hamster at day job. Photo: Sualk61 via Flickr, some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Hamsters

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All the pet hamsters in the world derive from a small wild population collected in Syria in the 1930s. Martha Foley and Curt Stager talk about hamsters, in the wild and working the wheel.

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Hamsters are popular pets, and they used to exist in the wild. The hamsters most commonly kept as pets are from the Middle East and are called Golden or Syrian hamsters.

“Pretty much all of the ones you’ll find in any pet store anywhere in the world are all from one collected population in 1930 in Syria,” said Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College. “People have gone back to that area to try and find out if any are left. It turns out they’re agricultural pests and local people tend to kill them. There are a few left though.”

Hamsters were first turned into pets by a zoologist who was collecting a wide variety of animals. He heard about these rodents and accompanied some local villagers to the fields where the hamsters burrowed. They dug up an entire nest and found a mother and 11 babies.

“He collected them and thought they were cute, obviously they are. But unfortunately, as often happens, if you’ve ever had hamsters that bred in captivity, the mom can get stressed and she killed one of the babies. So he separated her out, kept the babies, and he and his wife raised them,” said Stager. A few of the hamsters escaped, but approximately a half dozen remained. All of today’s pet hamsters descend from this group.

According to Stager, a British biologist smuggled some hamsters into England in his coat pockets. He planned to use them as biomedical research animals. Since they are so inbred, they have some diseases that would otherwise be rare, including kinds of heart disease that people can also have.

Today, hamster owners provide their pets with cages that resemble the burrows the wild hamsters would have lived in. “Well, you think about it, you want your pets to be happy,” said Stager. “It’s hard to imagine them being wild animals, but if you do have a pet, it often helps, if you’re interested in their wellbeing, to try to give them a lifestyle as close to what they would have done in the wild.”

Stager says that he hadn’t realized that hamsters were burrowers like chipmunks. They enjoy digging deep into the ground, and can be stressed when they feel exposed in a cage. Stager said, “There have actually been peer-reviewed scientific studies of this: what do you until they feel comfortable? It turns out they need like a foot or a foot and a half of stuff for them to burrow down in.”

Hamsters are also very territorial and tend to fight and keep their distance from other hamsters. “So don’t feel like they’re lonesome and want to have another hamster buddy with them. Chances are they’re going to fight. ,” said Stager. “Also, they tend to come out in the wild at around sunset or sunrise since the owls aren’t quite out yet to get them. They don’t like bright sunlight. So I remember seeing my little hamster curled up, taking a nap during the day.”

Stager says that breaking a hamster’s biorhythm by waking it up often during the day, the hamster can become stressed. Signs that a hamster is stressed include excessive chewing on the bars of the cage or running constantly on a wheel. Stager said, “Basically, give them a lot of stuff to burrow into, give them diverse food, give them little interesting things to do in their cage and don’t crowd them.”

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