Your Hamster May Have Surprising Origins

Mention hamsters and most people recall a fond childhood memory, often of an escaped pet that’s found with its cute little cheeks stuffed full of loot.

Mine involves Chipper, my dwarf Russian hamster, which was bitten by my cat and died a few days later—a lesson to my 11-year-old self to be more cautious. (Read more about hamsters as pets.)

A Syrian or golden hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) sitting in its subterranean food store of grains and corn.
Photograph by Heidi and Hans-Juergen Koch, Minden Pictures/Corbis

I hadn’t given hamsters much more thought until recently, when I was asked to research the origins of the popular Syrian hamster—also known as the golden or teddy bear hamster. Only then did I realize these furry pets haven’t always been spinning on wheels in children’s bedrooms.

In fact, there are 26 species of wild hamster that run free in parts of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, including Mesocricetus auratus, the Syrian hamster, which comes from the region surrounding Aleppo, Syria—the city currently under siege amid the Middle Eastern country’s ongoing war. (Related pictures: “Syrian Cultural Sites Damaged by Conflict.”)

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the burrowing mammal as vulnerable: It has a small range, possibly less than about 1,900 square miles (5,000 square kilometers).

The first mention of the Syrian hamster was in 1797, when physician Alexander Russell came across them in the wild and described the rodents (though didn’t give them a name) in a publication called The Natural History of Aleppo.

It would be another 40 years or so until George Robert Waterhouse, curator of the London Zoological Society, formally named the species the golden hamster, according to Peter Logsdail, a hamster expert and author of Hamster Lopaedia.

Waterhouse described an animal with soft fur and a silk-like gloss, with white feet and a tail and body colors of yellow and lead gray. Its “moustache”—what we’d call whiskers today—was black and white.

That pretty much covers what a modern golden hamster looks like, Logsdail told me, although nowadays there are all kinds of hues, from the chocolate tortoiseshell to the banded cinnamon. That’s why its preferred name these days is Syrian hamster, since a lot of them aren’t golden anymore.

Out of the Wild

So how did the Syrian hamster get to Western Europe and America? We can thank Israel Aharoni, a zoologist who led a 1930 expedition to look for golden hamsters in Aleppo. He enlisted local Sheikh El-Beled to dig up a wheat field, where they found—at a depth of 8 feet (2.4 meters)—a golden hamster and her 11 young.

Aharoni put the family in a box, thinking that the mom would look after them. Instead, “mum did what happens when she’s disturbed—she attacked one of the babies and chewed its head off,” Logsdail said.

So the mother was euthanized, leaving Aharoni to raise ten babies by hand. Not surprising to most kids, the babies gnawed their way out of the wooden box, and Aharoni got nine of them back.

Once they were ensconced at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, another five made a jailbreak—leaving Aharoni with just four hamsters, which bred very successfully (the Syrian hamster has the shortest gestation period of any hamster, just 16 days). (Also see “5 Jerboa Facts: Explaining Cute Jumping Rodent.”)

The offspring were then sent to different universities and institutions, including the London Zoo, in the mid-1930s and into the mid-1940s they had become pets in the U.K. and the U.S. In 1971, another litter of 12 were found in Aleppo and sent to the U.S. The rest, as they say, is hamster history.

Considering Syrian hamsters are already rare in the wild, scientists don’t know if any remain. But I hope they’re still there underground doing what hamsters do best: outwitting us humans.

Follow Christine Dell’Amore on Twitter and Google+.

Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.
  • Mohini Venkatesulu

    V. Cute! Usually children’s pet. Can an 80 yr old care & enjoy it? Easy to care?

  • Christine Dell’Amore

    Thanks for your comment Mohini. Yes an 80-year-old could certainly care for a hamster—I didn’t want to suggest that it’s only a pet for a kid. I hope you get one! Best, Christine

  • Rizka Chairunnisa

    Small but insteresting! Lovely mamals. I like the part when they found the syrian family in the ground. Thank you for the article!

  • Linda Hornsby

    The recently established BallenIsles Wildlife Foundation is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization funded by donations and led by dedicated volunteer residents. Our mission is to preserve, protect, foster, and respect the wildlife within our community. We hope to accomplish this in large part by educating our 1500 plus residents about the wildlife with which we cohabitate.
    In addition to our recently created facebook page (www.facebook.com/BallenIslesWildlifeFoundation), we will be publishing a monthly newsletter beginning October 1, 2014.
    In our search for educational, informative, and fun articles we found your website on the internet.
    May we have your permission to reprint facts, articles or information cited on your website, in its entirety or excerpts from it, in our newsletter and/or on our Facebook page? Of course, we will cite your website as our source and attribute authorship appropriately.
    Thank you for your consideration.
    Linda Hornsby
    BallenIsles Wildlife Foundation

  • Valerie Van Campen

    The hamster is also a great pet for adults in small quarters. No walking, no yard clean up, and they can be trained to use a small litter box in the cage. When my husband was in the military, we made two successful cross country moves with a hamster cage in the back seat!

  • Alex Dunlop

    Hamsters are not happy pets. They naturally roam far every night and cage life is particularly stressful for them, which is why they can drop down dead from related heart attacks. An 80 yr old may be able to give a hamster more time and freedom than a child, but when the inevitable escape comes, good luck getting on all fours to fish under the kitchen cabinets.

  • Alexander

    There was also an expedition in 1988 by German scientists. They found al least three litters and put them in the laboratory with the conditions mostly resembling its natural habitat.

  • michael huh

    hamsters became poular by this guy named albert marsh, who started selling them and became rich off them.

  • michael huh

    hamsters became poular by this guy named albert marsh.

  • H McCluskey

    I have loved hamsters my whole life. I am 58. I have easily spent over $1,000 of veterinary quality books and books to help me understand the words in these books just to understand my little friends more. I honestly think they are somewhat sad in cages. I believe they get along well with dogs and cats, similar to parrots that are raised with the dogs and cats. They can get a bluff in on very young dogs and cats which keeps the dogs and cats from being too rough with them. They easily run around the home with a smarter dog like a poodle, schnauzer, or border collie. Dogs bark at them a lot as young dogs, but if caged, either dog or hamster. The hamster will go right up to the dog and sniff their nose and if dog tries to claw it, nip it and yes sometimes draw a drop of blood. But this is essential for them to later have this bluff I spoke of earlier. At 2 years of age and up, the dog should be able to play supervised in a large area such as living room carpet with the hamster. Hamsters love variety, and don’t fear risk the same way rats do. They are braver, and won’t freeze or have a heart attack if challenged with something new. They don’t need baths if you keep their cage clean, and clearly defined areas for them to store food, and go to toilet. I use 3 connected plastic tubs used for clothing storage. Then I buy a bird cage, and cut the sides off to size for windows and air at top on lid. I connect them with simple plumbers pipe and some glue on one cage; and flange so you can disconnect them for cleaning on other, or specialized glue for plastics. Also, never use aluminum foil in cages, they will nibble it and die. If you have an old PC power supply consider mounting fans in the cages for keeping them cool. Hamster take cold much better than heat. The deeper you can give them in their bedding, the better. They absolutely love their home re arranged weekly, plus daily play periods with yourself or your pets (trained from birth for being friends with each other). Anyone that feels small brained animals don’t have an understanding of death, are silly. Of course its not similar to how we humans feel about it, but they are definitely aware, and understand what happened. They usually won’t run away from home or hide for long. They enjoy being mischievous, but eventually their tummy brings them home, if you leave cage easy to get to and find, in at most a week you will see your friend in his cage acting like nothing happened. Sadly homes have so many dangerous things to a hamster from chemicals to ways they can escape the home, and never find their way back in. Hamsters in nature can run 4 miles in a day, And, make their little cave like living quarters from 8 to 23 feet deep. Syrians, or Golden hamsters tend to be extremely violent to their mating partners after they mate. They are one-night-stand type animals. Although, while most people say never ever cage two Syrians together. I have had pairs get along okay, if they had big cages, and were buddies from birth, or brothers/sisters. But once kids arrive, all bets are off. Hamsters have amazing language they use. It is possible to make a little listening device from devices used to hear bats or similar high pitched animals in the wild. I hear you can build a cheap one from radio shack parts, but I never tried. They can wake a dog, to alert him of danger. In the days of WW2, schnauzers were paired with german shepherds since schnauzers sleep more lightly, and will react to a intruder more quickly. Can you imagine having a hamster wake a schnauzer, wake a shepherd? Sorta fun idea to consider isn’t it. They are not as social as rats, and some people feel not as smart since they run on a treadmill, and rats get bored with it. Myself, I simply feel hamsters enjoy running more than rats do. Anyway, those 2 foot by 18 inch cages, 1 foot tall, and connecting 3 of them make wonderful homes, and infinitely easier to clean than the cages with colored tubing and little habitat looking areas. I never found my hamsters enjoyed those as much as plenty of flat area, full of toys. Remember, hamsters love hand over hand exercise, like soldiers do in training. So be sure to mount a latter horizontally, made from bird cage parts. a running wheel, at least 2 water gravity bottles in case one fails or goes empty and you don’t notice. make spots they select as their bathrooms, your daily cleaning job to clear out and replace the bedding their. And, 2 inches of quality absorbent paper material used for this. And, feed them plenty every day for a while. Then, let them go a week or so without, and force them to eat a bit of their storage. You might lose a hamster or two finding a hamster able to befriend your dog, but they do get along if hamster can get his bluff in. If you ever decide to feed them wet foods like carrots and broccoli or similar food, clean it out daily after about 24 hours, it can make a giant mess if they start to store it with their seeds. I personally feel sticking to dry food is the best thing, unless you might have a special place to feed them wet foods so they don’t try and store them in their little grain spot, but that is even difficult since their cheeks can hide things and you wont even notice. If they have another pet in your home that’s their friend when they die, be sure to double baggie it, and let dog or cat see, so they grasp what happened, or they will spend forever looking for their friend. They still will look for a day or two, but not nearly as long as if you show them and give them chance to sniff and realize what occurred. For them, like children, it is often their first encounter with death. Play with them daily, please don’t just cage and ignore them, and keep eye on children, they sometimes can be unwittingly cruel without thinking. Teaching opportunity. I can’t add to the amazing first article above about their introduction to discovery by humans. We owe a great deal to hamsters. They have suffered and done a lot in laboratories to further research for human cures to diseases. So given a chance we should give them plenty of love.

  • nicole yancey

    omg i loooooooooooooooove hamsters so cute and fluffy i have a syrian hamster named anabella woulde’nt give for anythingever!

  • Robin lattimore

    I am a lover of hamsters and have done so since I was at junior school. I have 7 of them now which are 2 Syrians, 3 Russian dwarf and 2 Roborovskis.. I think hamsters have a fascinating history thank god they found that mother and her 11 pups. I am sad that they put the mother to sleep when they could have easily kept her seperated. They make excellent pets and they are very cute. A pity that they have only a short life for such an adoring creature. The only other creature that I like better are dogs but Hammy comes a very near second.

  • nicole yancey

    I hope that the wild hamsters outwit us so that there are allways in the wild it is to sad to think that the only syrian hamsters would be in captiveity

  • Betty O’Doyle

    I love hamsters. they are so peaceful. so serene. they give me a purpose in life. I hope that when I am reincarnated I become a hamster on my grandchildrens desk. I would love to cuddle in my grandchildrens palms from time to time.

  • Shnizzie

    hamsters are the shinizzle dinkle

  • Leslie Estok

    Do not ever feed them almonds

  • F H Huber

    I used to let my hamster roam in one of those hamster balls. Eventually I had it trained to chase the cats and the cats trained to run from it… and I could let it out without the ball and watch it chase the cats.

  • joshua

    i love hamster

  • Olivia

    I have a Russian hamster at home just to mention I am an 8 year old .I am a huge fan of hamsters!

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