Where Do Hamsters Come From? We look at the history and origins of the hamster as the world’s most popular small pet
When I was a child, hamsters were all pretty much the same. Cute cuddly, short-tailed rodents weighing about quarter of a pound, that would just about fit in one hand. They could also do amazing gymnastic tricks and even complete mazes like this little guy:
They were often called Golden Hamsters and were sold in pet shops in large numbers, along with dire warnings never to put two hamsters in the same cage lest they fight to the death!
As well as the traditional ‘golden’ variety shown above, these cute six inch teddy bears came in a number of different colors.
My favorite was a black-eyed fawn hamster called Rupert, he looked rather like this little fellow. Ruby eyed fawns were popular too
It wasn’t long before I was tempted to breed from two of my little friends, and had the delightful experience of watching a litter of babies grow.
Soon one entire wall of my bedroom was lined from floor to ceiling with hamster cages.
The room literally rattled from dusk till dawn with the sound of dozens of little wheels, each occupied by a busy little hamster heading nowhere.
How tolerant my parents must have been! And no wonder I learned to sleep so deeply!
Teddy Bear Hamsters
Nowadays the traditional hamsters of my childhood are usually referred to as Syrian rather than Golden Hamsters. Or sometimes as Teddy Bear Hamsters, and several other quite different varieties of hamster have joined them.
I have to admit, Teddy Bear is a brilliant name for these little creatures with their plump, cuddly bodies and big ears.
By the time I had children of my own, the smaller Russian Hamster had become the ‘must have’ small pet, and now my grand-daughter has her own hamster.
Many of these newer hamsters however, are quite tiny by comparison. Just like the world of dogs and cats, small seems to be the ‘in’ trend.
Today we are going to explore where all these different types of hamsters come from. Their origins and ancestry.
We’ll look at how hamsters have adapted to life as one of the world’s most popular children’s pets. And at how things have changed in the world of hamsters.
Where do hamsters come from originally
There are several different types of hamster that kept as pets, and each has a different story to tell.
We’re going to look at hamsters from three different regions
- Syrian Hamsters
- Russian Hamsters
- Chinese Hamsters
We’ll start with the Syrian hamster – also known as the Golden hamster – this is the little teddy bear that I used to keep as a child.
Where do Syrian Hamsters come from?
As the name suggests, this largest of our pet hamsters originally comes from Syria
It’s probable that all the pet Syrian hamsters in the world today descend from a single pair of hamsters bred in captivity in 1930 by Jewish biologist Israel Aharoni.
For reasons not well understood, perhaps to do with changing agricultural practices, Golden hamsters in the wild are increasingly rare.
The International Union For Conservation of Nature have them on their red list of threatened species
Where do hamsters come from in the wild
Aharoni captured his hamsters in the wild in a region close to the city of Aleppo in Syria and took them home to establish a breeding colony
His idea was that they might be useful for medical research. With a gestation period of just sixteen days, many hamsters can be bred and studied in a short space of time.
It is likely that our intrepid biologist had no idea that his baby hamsters would be the forefathers of such a popular children’s pet
You can read the full story of Aharoni’s adventures and attempts to hand rear his baby hamsters in the smithsonian mag
Wild hamster habitat
Hamsters in the wild are well adapted to life in hot dry regions
They often live in proximity to rural agricultural communities, making use of crops to collect grain and seeds in their pouches, and store it for use when food is scarce.
When temperatures fall very low, hamsters have the ability to hibernate or become torpid, enabling them to survive in harsh conditions.
Where do hamsters live in the wild
Like many other small rodents, hamsters take refuge from predators and the worst of the weather by burrowing underground.
Hamsters are powerful diggers and defend their burrows fiercely with their long sharp teeth
Origins of the Russian Hamster
Campbell’s Russian Dwarf Hamster was named after Charles Campbell who on a visit to Mongolia in 1902, collected the very first specimen caught in the wild
Like his golden cousins, Campbells Russian Dwarf Hamster is an expert underground excavator and lives in tunnels beneath the steps of central Asia.
Unlike the Golden Hamster, these tiny relatives are not endangered in the wild
The Djungarian or Winter White Russian Dwarf Hamster is very similar in origin but has adapted to the colder more northern regions with an ability to develop a temporarily white coat in response to cold weather
Reports of the Djungarian hamster are recorded in 1773 by german zoologist Peter Simon Pallas who led a scientific expedition to central Russia and mistakenly classified the tiny creature as a mouse
Origins of the Chinese Hamster
The habitat of the wild Chinese hamster is a little more rocky and warm than that of the similar Russian Hamsters
The Chinese Hamster has adapted to these conditions, where burrowing is tricky, by developing the ability to travel at amazing speed to evade predators
Together with a longer tail for balance and grip when travelling over the rocky surface.
Hamsters as pets
Children had been keeping mice and rats as pets for generations. But once hamsters became established as pets they rapidly overtook their long tailed rodent friends in popularity
The cuddly, teddy bear appearance of the Syrian hamster was probably part of the story.
With the lack of body smell (mice have a distinctive and quite strong body odor) being a bonus
Where do hamsters come from – a summary
Hamsters live naturally in the wild, though wild Syrian hamsters are becoming rare.
Your beautiful pet hamster is little changed from the wild hamsters to which he is related, though his life with you, free from predators, droughts, or natural disasters, will hopefully be more relaxing
Their rapid breeding cycle made the first captive hamsters popular as laboratory animals. And once children had discovered the delights of taming one of these pretty creatures, the hamsters’ popularity as a pet grew rapidly.
The fashion for different pets may come and go, but the appeal of the hamster is enduring. We think that the world will never tire of hamsters. How about you?
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