If you have plans to buy or adopt a gerbil, you might have come across the black gerbil.
Black gerbils are extremely handsome and unique looking compared to their tan colored relatives.
But, are black gerbils really any different from other gerbil colors?
Do they make good pets or are there behavioral differences?
Here’s our complete guide to the black gerbil.
We’ll look at what exactly a black gerbil is, what its behavior is like, its care requirements, common health problems, and everything else you might need to know before adopting one.
What is a Black Gerbil?
A gerbil is a small species of rodent. They are larger than a mouse but smaller than a rat.
Originally, they were once known as desert rats.
There are actually many species of gerbil – over 100 in fact.
However, there is only one species that comes in a black coloration and is commonly kept as a pet – the Mongolian gerbil.
Mongolian gerbils started out in a semi-desert environment called the steppes of Mongolia, with short grasses but no trees or larger vegetation.
To survive in this environment, Mongolian gerbils developed unique habits and biological processes that allow them to survive.
For example, they developed long legs to run on the open grass, hard teeth to eat through tough seeds, and a unique water conservation technique that allows them to live in the dry environment.
In the wild, Mongolian gerbils do not come in black.
They only come in a tan color – perfect for remaining inconspicuous against bare ground and dry grasses.
In order to see how the black gerbil came to be, we must learn about the history of the Mongolian gerbil and how it was domesticated.
The History of the Black Gerbil
The gerbil was first discovered and mentioned in 1866 by Father Armand David.
Father David was a Catholic missionary who was also interested in zoology and botany.
When he was staying in Mongolia, he made a point to write down and describe the different animals and plants that he saw.
During his stay, he captured and sent the “yellow rats” to the French National Museum of Natural History along with a few other specimens of previously undocumented plants and animal.
A year later, a scientist gave the Mongolian gerbil its scientific name and officially made it its own species.
However, it was almost a hundred years later before the gerbil was brought to the United States and domesticated.
In 1954, a scientist named Dr. Victor Schwentker captured 20 breeding pairs of Mongolian gerbils and brought them to the U.S. for scientific research.
How Black Gerbils Got Their Color
At this point, gerbils were still only found in their usual tan color and were not yet kept as pets.
However, Dr. Schwentker’s decision to bring the gerbils back to America was the starting point of their domestication.
And as their popularity grew, sure enough a new community of gerbil enthusiasts began to cultivate new colors.
Gerbils breed prolifically – a breeding pair can easily produce fifty pups a year.
This means color changes which began as genetic anomalies – often in a single pup – could be quickly propagated by selective breeding.
These days breeders understand seven of the genes affecting gerbil color, and the magic combination of those genes which gives a black baby gerbil their inky coat.
This means it is possible to continue breeding litters of pups which will reliably comprise some or all black baby gerbils.
Black Gerbil Behavior
Like all Mongolian gerbils, black gerbils are social creatures.
In the wild, they live in small social groups of around 20 individuals.
These individuals will share food, a burrow, and sleep together.
In captivity, black gerbils must be purchased in at least a pair to have this same companionship.
They should not be kept alone, as this can lead to depression and eventual death.
However, only keep gerbils of the same sex unless you are planning on breeding them.
Unfamiliar gerbils must be introduced to each other slowly, as gerbils identify each other through scent.
Gerbils have been known to kill each other if housed together without being properly introduced.
While black gerbils can become comfortable with their human, predatory animals such as cats and dogs can cause them to become stressed.
Because of this, it is recommended that gerbils are kept in a separate room where other family pets are not allowed.
Black Gerbil Housing
Gerbils have powerful instinct to dig and burrow and require a tank that allows them to do this.
They are also enthusiastic chewers, so the tunnels and toys in their home should be made of wood or durable non-brittle plastics.
And see which toys are safe and pack a high fun factor right here.
Black Gerbil Health
Just like all animals, black gerbils are prone to a number of different health problems.
Some of these are genetic or easily prevented.
Gerbils rely on and use their teeth a lot.
Their teeth never stop growing, so the need to be constantly worn down by chewing.
In captivity this does not always happen as it should, and the teeth will occasionally grow too long and become a hindrance.
Provide your gerbil with plenty of opportunities to gnaw and wear down their teeth. If the teeth appear too long, a vet can trim them back down to a proper size.
Plaque can also build up on a gerbil’s teeth and cause lesions.
If this is a problem for your gerbil, your vet will be able to help you with suggestions for keeping their teeth clean.
Gerbils are relatively small and easily injured if dropped.
When kept as pets, gerbils are often held many feet above the ground.
However, in the wild, this is not a natural position, which means that gerbils are not adapted to handle long falls.
The steppes that gerbils originate from are very flat, while our houses often contain furniture and steps.
You should only handle your gerbil while seated on the ground, and they should be watched very carefully when out of their cage.
Gerbils are also prone to losing their tail when improperly handled or placed in an unfit environment.
Whilst the stub usually heals quite easily, it’s still a trauma best avoided – never pick up your gerbil by their tail.
This is one of the most common disorders in gerbils.
Between 10% and 20% of all pet gerbils will experience this condition at some point in their life.
Seizures appear to be a very common way for gerbils to deal with stress.
Improper handling and a new environment can both prompt the seizures in gerbils.
Luckily gerbils only very rarely die from this condition.
Plus, many tend to outgrow it with age, with seizures usually dying down after six months of age.
In severe cases, these seizures can be treated with medication. However, this is almost always not necessary.
Like other small rodents, gerbils tend to be neglected, especially when purchased for children.
Gerbils can live up to five years, and need daily care.
If your black baby gerbil is destined to be a child’s pet, make sure an adult will take ultimate responsibility for their welfare.
Tumors appear to be particularly common in female gerbils around the age of two.
Not all of these tumors are malignant or require removal.
However, many that grow large will need to be operated on.
Because of a gerbil’s small size, this is often difficult.
Keeping up with your gerbil’s regular check-ups will ensure that tumors are caught early.
Tyzzer’s disease is an extremely serious and deadly disease in gerbils.
It is caused by a strain of bacteria called Clostridium piliforme and produces symptoms including lethargy, poor appetite, diarrhea, and ruffled fur.
Once a gerbil shows symptoms, sadly the disease is nearly always fatal.
However you can still take steps to protect your other gerbils by isolating the affected gerbil immediately and deep cleaning the remaining gerbils’ habitat.
A black gerbil is a particular coloration of the Mongolian gerbil.
Black gerbil coloring was developed in domestic gerbils and is not found in the wild.
Black gerbils behave just like other Mongolian gerbil pets and are prone to the same health problems.
Whether or not you get a specifically black gerbil depends on your tastes and what gerbils are available to buy or adopt in your area.
But you’re sure to never be short of admiring comments if your do bring one home!
Do You Have a Black Gerbil?
Does your gerbil go with everything?
Do you know if his brothers and sisters were black too, or was he the proverbial black sheep of the litter?
Do you think black gerbils have different personalities?
Tell us about them in the comments box!
References and Further Reading
Howse, Christopher. “Introducing Père David, the bold priest who brought us gerbils.” Catholic Herald. 2013.
Guiming Wang, Wei Liu. “Population Ecology of Wild Mongolian Gerbils Meriones unguiculatus.” Journal of Mammalogy. 2009.
Moskow, Bernard. “Spontaneous periodontal disease in the Mongolian gerbil.” Journal of Periodontal Research. 1968.
Bertorelli. “The Mongolian gerbil in experimental epilepsy.” The Italian Journal of Neurological Sciences. 1995.
Loskota. “The Gerbil as a Model for the Study of the Epilepsies.” Epilpsia. 1974.
Bartoszyk, Gerd. “The genetic animal model of reflex epilepsy in the mongolian gerbil: Differential efficacy of new anticonvulsive drugs and prototype antiepileptics.” Pharmacological Research Communications. 1987.
Greenacre, Cheryl. “Spontaneous tumors of small mammals.” University of Tennessee. 2004.