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The golden hamster with which most people are familiar as a cute little pet is but one of about 14 species of hamsters, all of which are found in the wild. Although there are literally tens of thousands of golden hamsters kept as pets around the world, they are all descended from a single family of one female and 12 young that were dug up near Aleppo, Syria, in 1930.
Descriptions and Distributions
The largest hamster is the common (or black-bellied) hamster, which is about the size of a guinea pig. It is light brown above, black below, with white patches on the sides. It is found in a broad belt from Belgium to Lake Baikal in Siberia.
The smallest hamster is the dwarf hamster of Siberia, Manchuria and northern China. The head and body length is 2 to 4 inches and the tail is short. The upperparts are grayish or buff and the underparts white.
Between those two extremes are the seven species of gray hamsters, which are from 3 to 8 inches in length with tails up to 4 inches long. The fur is usually grayish in color but may be reddish, with white underparts. Gray hamsters range from Greece and Bulgaria in the Altai range on the borders of Mongolia.
The golden hamster is a light reddish brown above and white underneath. The tail is very short and the skin on the body loose. In the wild it ranges from the Caucasus and Asia Minor to Iran.
Most hamsters live in dry places, on steppes, among sand dunes and on the borders of deserts, although the common hamster may also found in cultivated country, among crops or in plowed fields. It is also lives along river banks and often swims, inflating its cheek pouches to provide extra bouyancy. Golden hamsters, however, cannot take moisture and may even die if exposed to damp conditions.
Habits and Behaviors
Common and golden hamsters are nocturnal, but will occasionally come out during the day. In the spring and summer gray hamsters can be seen both by day and night, but they become completely nocturnal in the winter. When not active, hamsters can be found in underground burrows. Common, golden, and gray hamsters have short shallow burrows for summer use and deeper ones for winter. The burrows are quite extensive with several entrances and several compartments for nesting, storing food and for latrines. Dwarf hamsters frequently share burrows with pikas, small relatives of rabbits and hares.
All hamsters are primarily vegetarian, with a majority of their diet coming from cereals; many kinds of fruits, roots, green leaves and other plant materials are also eaten. The common hamster will also eat frogs and insect larvae. A wild hamster will gather food out in the open, stuff it into its cheek pouches, and carry it back to its burrow to be eaten. And, as anyone who has ever had a pet hamster knows, an incredible amount of food can be stuffed into those pouches. One gray hamster in the wild was seen stuffing 42 soybeans into its pouches until its head was about 1/3 of the size of its body. The winter food stores can also be quite large, 100 pounds of seeds and potatoes being recorded from the burrow of a common hamster.
All species of hamsters are solitary, with males and females only coming together for mating. In captivity, golden hamsters have to be separated after mating or the female is likely to kill the male. In the wild, male gray hamsters visit the burrows of females and stay for about 10 days. The gestation period ranges from about 15 to 20 days. The 6-12 young are born naked and helpless but leave their mother immediately after being weaned, at about 3 to 4 weeks of age. A female may have up to 3 litters per year.
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This page was last updated on July 08, 2018.