Hamsters are so well-known as pets today. You may be wondering ‘where do hamsters come from?’ Or ‘where do hamsters live outside of pet stores?’ Many people aren’t even aware that wild hamsters are also alive and well in many parts of the world! Let’s find out about hamsters’ natural habitat.
If you are curious to learn more about where your furry little pocket pet came from, or if you are trying to decide if a pet hamster is the right pet choice for you, learning more about hamsters can be a fun and fascinating journey to take!
Where do wild hamsters come from?
The truth is, hamsters became part of the pet trade only within the last century. Prior to around 1936, wild hamsters were the only type of hamsters that even existed.
The wild Syrian hamster or golden hamster is the pet species we know today. It made the arid desert its home for centuries before being imported to the United States in 1936.
These are fascinating creatures. For example, did you know that the hamster is related to the vole?
A short history of how wild hamsters became pets
So know you know a little about the hamster origin. But how did they get all the way from Syria to your house?! How do we associate pet shops as almost like hamsters’ natural habitat?
Perhaps we would have never known about hamsters as pets if it hadn’t been for a biologist named Israel Aharoni. He was working in Israel and attempting to locate certain animals for potential use in medical labs.
The golden hamster, known to him only as “Mr. Saddlebags (a local nickname),” was on his hit list of potential wild prospects.
In 1930, fortune smiled on the biologist and his team (although perhaps not so much on the hamster, as it turned out) when they discovered a nest of the small golden mammals. They took some of them back to the lab for study.
These hamsters proved incredibly resourceful. They ate one another and chewed their way out of their laboratory habitat.
Finally, they mated and produced more baby golden hamsters for study in the lab. Later, they did this in homes around the world.
Some mysteries remain
Interestingly, studies of hamsters’ natural habitat have continued to be rare. There are only a few such documented studies of wild hamsters. Researchers have more questions to answer than ‘where do hamsters come from?’
Not very much is known about how their species or their wild territories may have shifted or changed through the centuries.
Are there wild hamsters?
We may not know as much as we could about wild hamsters. However, what we do know is that hamsters have existed in the wild for a long time. Far longer than they have occupied space in our bedrooms and family living areas as pets.
These small, resourceful, and sometimes downright scrappy little mammals have actually evolved to survive and reproduce quite well. Even in a world where pretty much everything wants to eat them for dinner!
In fact, sadly, the biggest threat to hamsters today is actually not due to wild predators – but people.
Diminishing natural habitat (mostly due to farming and agriculture or to commercial and residential construction projects) has been compounded by an increasingly toxic natural environment.
Where do hamsters live
For some wild hamster species in some parts of the world, ongoing military conflict has reduced their natural living space to a point of genuine concern.
But when left to their own devices, hamsters in the wild get along just fine in spite of the natural ever-present threat of predation.
They dig a fascinatingly complex network of underground tunnels.They use these tunnels to safely forage for grasses and insects.
They also store food sources for consumption later, breed and raise their babies. As well as that, they rest and hide from predators, and seasonally hibernate through the winter months.
These underground tunnels also help provide a more stable, livable temperature for the hamsters. This helps them and their young escape from the extreme temperatures at ground level.
The burrows also give the hamsters a good head start in digging down deep into the soil to hibernate when the cold season arrives each year.
Wild hamster habitat
Not every wild hamster species is represented in the hamster pet trade today. So, finding an answer to the question ‘where do hamsters come from?’ means more than finding out the Syrian hamster comes from the Middle East!
Most notably, the European or common hamster is still one hundred percent wild. It exists in the wild only in small, specialized areas throughout Europe.
Each wild hamster species has evolved to seek out its own specialized diet. It also exhibits certain specialized skills to ensure its survival in the wild.
For example, the larger golden (Syrian) hamsters live a mostly solitary life both in the wild and in captivity. It only comes together with others of its kind to mate or to fight for the right to mate.
If you put two male pet Syrian hamsters together in a cage, you will see exactly the same thing you would see in a wild setting – fighting.
Chinese dwarf hamsters, like Syrian hamsters, will live alone both in the wild and in captivity.
Safety in Numbers
In contrast, many of the much smaller dwarf hamster species, like the Roborovski and the Russian hamster species, have evolved in the wild to live in small family groups.
There is safety from predators in numbers, after all.
And many (although not all, as the Chinese dwarf hamster showcases) of these species will also fare much better as pets when allowed to live in pairs or groups.
Syrian (golden) hamster
As we now know, the first known hamsters that became pets hailed from the Middle East in the region where Syria sits today.
Syrian hamsters are currently classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
They have a very small wild territory in a region of the world (Syrian/Turkey along the border).
The area is beset by ongoing conflict as well as habitat loss to other human activities. This has made their survival in the wild far from assured.
Dwarf (Campbell’s or Djungian) hamster
The wild dwarf hamster, makes the highly variable sandy, desert-like spaces of Mongolia their home.
In captivity, the wild dwarf hamster is represented by pet breeds such as the Campbell’s or Djungian hamster.
Siberian (winter white) hamster
The Siberian wild hamster, a wild Russian hamster, lives in – no surprise here – Siberia.
Like the Campbells hamster, the Syrian wild hamsters’ natural habitat can be quite extreme temperature-wise.
Temperatures routinely swing from 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.77 degrees Celsius) down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.44 degrees Celsius) and back up, even within a single day!
The Siberian hamster is also called the winter white because it has a unique ability to change its normally sandy-colored coat to a pure white in winter. This helps the hamster hide in plain sight from predators.
The Roborovski hamster, or Robo hamster, is also more commonly known as the desert hamster in the wild.
The Robo hamster lives in a similar territory to the Siberian hamster, although this hamster’s territory extends into parts of northern China as well.
The wild European hamster exists only in the wild as a protected species.
Interestingly, this wild hamster species has a distinctive black underbelly which has given it the nickname of “black-bellied hamster.”
In appearance, the wild European hamster looks most like the pet Syrian (golden) hamster.
However, it can reach 13 inches long. The European hamster is closer size-wise to the guinea pig than to any pet domestic hamster.
It is also called the “common hamster.” But, unfortunately, its protected status suggests that it is far from common in the wild today.
This hamster’s wild territory includes parts of:
- the Ukraine,
- and the Czech Republic.
Reports indicate all populations are steadily declining at alarming rates.
This decline is not currently reflected in the European hamster’s IUCN status as “of least concern.”
However, several local activist and conservation groups have sounded the alarm in their respective regions. They have even called for ongoing protection for this vulnerable species.
Where can you find wild hamsters?
Wild hamsters, unlike their domesticated pet cousins, are afraid of people. They will spend up to 95 percent of the average day hiding.
Hamsters are also largely nocturnal. They spend most of the day resting and move about more at night when predation is less likely.
The majority of hamsters live in extreme climates in the wild, some of which can get quite cold in winter. These hamsters will hibernate deep down in the earth until the cold season ends.
So, you can answer the question ‘where do hamsters live in the wild?’ However, you may still be hard-pressed to find hamsters in the wild, even though they are undoubtedly there!
You might have to venture out into the deserts and sandy dune areas where most wild hamsters cohabitate, preferably with night vision goggles. Otherwise, they are an elusive animal!
They may be a resource to discover more about viewing some wild hamsters’ natural habitat.
Wild hamsters diet
Wild hamsters are typically omnivores, like people. Thus, they can eat vegetation, grains and meat protein, depending on what food sources are available.
The diet of wild hamsters even within a particular species may look different from day to day, depending on what food is available.
The importance of getting a varied omnivorous diet cannot be understated. As this shocking article illustrates, when access to an appropriately varied food supply is restricted, wild hamsters can react in unusual and disturbing ways.
Common foods for wild hamsters today include seeds, grains, grasses, nuts, cracked corn, vegetables, fruits, insects, frogs, lizards, worms and other similar small protein sources.
Each of these food sources is important, although they may eat some foods only at certain times each year when they become available.
Wild hamsters behavior
If you have kept pet hamsters for longer than five minutes or have observed them at the pet store, you have likely noticed they tend to be skittish.
Everything startles a pet hamster, from loud noises to sudden movements to shadows to drafts. Sometimes, they are startled by seemingly nothing at all.
In the wild hamsters are classified as a prey animal.
This basically means they are a staple food source for many larger animals a few steps up on the food chain. So hamsters have evolved to be wary – on “high alert” mode all the time.
Even pet hamsters that have never seen a wild predator (or even a curious house cat) exhibit these anxious behaviors.
In the wild, hamsters are not at all socialized to people. They will run away if at all possible or simply stay underground and out of sight until nightfall, when it is safer to move about without being seen.
In fact, some have been known to be highly aggressive.
Wild hamsters predators
These animals have a jaw-dropping array of predators in their natural wild environments.
It seems that just about everything likes to eat them, from snakes to birds to wild cats, wolves, jackals, foxes and other predatory mammals. Owls, weasels, jackals and even storks have also been known to make a meal of these mouse-like little mammals as opportunity knocks.
Even pet cats, feral cats and feral dogs will eat hamsters. And even humans are not above dining on hamsters from time to time.
You probably wouldn’t dream of dining on your pet hamster sidekick. Still, there are some parts of the world where hamsters are considered a necessary menu staple, if not precisely a dietary delicacy.
As you can see, learning more about wild hams can help you better understand the needs of your pet hamster in captivity.
These hamsters are resourceful, resilient, hardy little mammals. They have to survive some pretty tough daily challenges just to stay alive, let alone to reproduce and carry on the species!
The answer to ‘where do hamsters live in the wild?’ is lots of places! Lots of places that are as hidden as possible from pesky predators!
We hope you are now able to field any questions like ‘where do hamsters come from?’
Finding a pet hamster
It’s probably pretty clear now that you aren’t likely to find a hamster in the wild. They’re much better at hide and seek than us.
If you want to know more about the different kinds of hamster, this article might be of use to you. We take a more in depth look at some of the more common species.
Do you have a favorite wild or pet hamster species? Please drop us a comment – we love to hear about pet hamsters from our readers!
This article has been extensively revised in 2019.
Resources and Further Reading
- Bradford, A. (2014). Hamster Facts: Diet, Habits & Types of Hamsters. Live Science.
- Illsley, C.L. (2017). Where do Hamsters Live in the Wild? World Atlas.
- Wynne-Edwards, K. et al (2018). Hamsters in the Wild. The British Hamster Association.
- Davis, B. (2017). What animals commonly eat hamsters in the wild? Sciencing.
- Zielinski, S. (2017). Wild hamsters raised on corn eat their young alive. Science News for Students.
- Gatterman, R. et al (2001). Notes on the current distribution and the ecology of wild golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus). Journal of Zoology, 254(3).
- Potočnik, J. (2018). About the European Common Hamster. Rise Foundation.
- La Haye, M.J.J. et al 2002). Strong decline of gene diversity in local populations of the highly endangered Common hamster (Cricetus cricetus) in the western part of its European range. Conservation Genetics, 13(2).
- Dunn, R. (2011) The Untold Story of the Hamster, a.k.a Mr. Saddlebags. The Smithsonian.