Posts Tagged ‘golden hamster’

Homage to the Syrian hamster

golden hamster

Photo by Robert Maier.

It should be little surprise to readers of this blog that I have always been a bit into animals. My childhood dogs have featured heavily on this space, but the truth is I’ve had a wide variety of animals when I was a kid.

From grades 4-6, I was a hamster fanatic. At the time, it was very difficult for North American children to buy dwarf hamsters. The mainstay of the hamster world was the golden or Syrian hamster, and there were very few people breeding for docility in pet hamster strains. The goal was to produce as many different morphs as possible with very little regard to the temperament of the hamster.

As a result, many children from my generation have horror stories about biting hamsters.  Over my years of hamster keeping, I came to accept their bites as part of keeping them.

I got into hamsters rather on a lark. I was always reading the Barron’s pet guides, many of which were translations of German pet manuals, and the one on hamsters was written by Otto von Frisch.

hamster otto von frisch

This book created my hamster obsession.

The book was not just a pet care manual. It was full of anecdotes about pet hamsters, as well as discussions of scientific studies on their behavior.  It also talked a lot about the Central European ideas about hamster, for as I learned from that book, that there are hamsters native to Germany and Austria (the very large common hamster).  The species was well-known to farmers in the region as an agricultural pest and as a rather vicious creature that shouldn’t be messed with.  As someone who predominant ancestry is from that region, I was quite fascinated by these accounts.

And I knew I had to have a pet hamster.

After much pleading, I was given permission to get a hamster, provided I kept it at my grandparents’ house. My mother was an extreme murophobe, and I had to accept her conditions.

The first hamster I got was what was called a black-eyed cream. I named her Linda, because I was a child and thought that was a nice name.  And her variety may have been black-eyed cream, but her tendency to bite led to her receiving the moniker “the black-eyed bitch.”

I soon found that it was very easy to get hamsters. People were quite literally giving me new ones, including an old long-haired female that live for about two weeks then fell over dead from old age.

I longed, though, for a true “wild type” hamster.  I wanted one that was marked just as the wild ones are in Syria, with white cheek flashes and sabled golden coats.

I never was able to purchase such an animal. The closed I got was what was called a cinnamon hamster. She was marked just like a wild type, but she had no black hair at all on her pelt.

She had come from Walmart, where she had been kept in a cage with several banded hamsters. The banded ones were wild type in color, but they had a white band going through their mid-section. I had managed to get two females from that cage:  this cinnamon one and a banded one.

Two weeks later, the cinnamon hamster dropped pink babies all over her cage. Apparently, a male hamster had been kept with her, and she was just in the early days of her pregnancy when I got her.

In five days, their fur started to grow in. 9 were wild-type but banded, but one was wild type in full!

I didn’t understand my Mendel in those days.  The banded trait is dominant over the non-banded, and the wild-type markings are dominant over the cinnamon. Cinnamon bred to a banded wild-type would produce young that were banded wild-type, but if the wild-type were a carrier for a non-banded hamster, it is possible to get at least one in the litter that lacked a white band.

That’s what this hamster was, and I was instantly transfixed. I spent my summer that year handling hamster babies, knowing fully-well the stories of mother hamsters eating their young if they were stressed.

The young wild-type hamster was a male, and he became the tamest hamster I ever knew. I named him Houdini, after a children’s book I had read, but he really didn’t live up to his namesake. He escaped a few times– always because I left a latch on the cage a little loose– but he was easily recovered.

One time, he did escape and was gone for several days. I was certain that he had wandered out of the house and had eventually fallen prey to some nocturnal predator.

I had all but given up on him, so I sat with a heavy heart in my grandparents’ guest room watching Nature on PBS.  I heard some rumbling sounds in the wall.  I thought I was hearing things, but the rumbling sound grew louder and louder.

I then caught movement out of the corner of my eye. It was Houdini crawling along the side of the wall. He stopped and sniffed the air, and he scurried right up to me and let me pick him up.

My childhood mind said that Houdini came to me because he loved me. My adult mind now recognizes that Houdini recognized me as a source for food. He had spent several days wandering around the walls of my grandparents’ house and had become famished in his freedom. He caught my scent on his evening travels, and he came to me to figure out if I might have some food.

But a child’s mind saw Houdini as the Lassie of the hamsters. He’d come home out of the walls just because he loved me.

Despite that childhood flight of fancy, the hamsters taught me much. I learned what it was like to be around an animal that utterly has no use for humanity.  Dogs and horses are personable animals, but a hamster is solitary, remote, and mostly nocturnal (at least in captivity).

The world they reveal is a world in which territory matters the most. The males have greasy scent glands on their hips that they rub along their tunnels to mark their realms.  The females have a musty odor, and when they are receptive to males– every four days if not bred–they get quite stinky indeed.

I got to where I could tell if a female hamster was receptive just by the intensity of the odor. This odor is an adaptation to a species with such hyper territorial behavior that they are forced to live pretty far from each other. The strong estrus odor of a female hamster is necessary to announce to the male that it is okay for him to enter her territory and mate with her. When she is not receptive, she will attack any hamster, male or female, that comes near. In this species the females are bigger and fatter than the males, and males that don’t heed the odors wind up with a dangerous situation indeed.

These captive hamsters– all derived from a single litter captured near Aleppo in the 1930s– opened my eyes to another world.

The solitary Syrian hamster lives and breeds well in captivity, but it is still mostly a wild animal. In the past few years, breeders have produced truly more docile strains of hamster, but I knew them in the raw.

In fact, I think that if I were ever to be a hamster keeper again, I would try to get a little more of the more rugged strain. I would not be buying a cute pet for the kids. I would be be buying an animal that I wish to appreciate as a wild being with its own instincts and drives and desires.  I would want to be the naturalist hamster lover again. I would keep them with the cool detachment of an adult who understands animal behavior and not the childhood anthropomorphism or “cynomorphism” that turned them into furry people or severely debased dogs.

The Syrian hamster will always mean a lot to me. They were terrible pets for the typical child, but they were the ideal subjects for a budding young naturalist who needed to know animals that weren’t dogs or horses.

They opened my mind to something else, and I will always appreciate them for their indifference and their solitary grumpiness and their general remoteness.


This is my contribution to Rodent Week.






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The wild type

When I was eleven years old, I went hamster crazy.

At that age, I was a connoisseur of books on pets and wildlife, and I owned countless Barron’s books on pets. I had ones on all the common breeds of dog, including one on golden retrievers.  I discovered that the dog book were all written by Americans or by people living in America or writing for an American audience, and often, the books would just have enough filler about that particular breed, which would be followed by chapters that were essentially the same in every single book. Breed did not matter.

However, there were a few exceptions to this rule. Some books were really detailed and had fascinating narratives about the dogs they kept.  They were really good. The book on dachshunds by Leni Fiedelmeier was unbelievably good. The author actually told stories about her dogs as a way illustrating the best way to care for them.

I noticed very quickly that the book was a translation from German. The dogs all had German names, and most of the dachshunds in the photographs in the book were wire-haired, which is the least common variety in North America.

So it was a good book.

I noticed that the only books from that series that were any good were those that were originally written in German. German-speaking pet owners were much more willing to get personal in their books. They were much more willing to help you understand the animal and appreciate it for what it was.

And that’s what brought me to hamsters.

The book on hamsters was by Otto von Frisch. I had no idea who that was, but years later, I learned that Otto was the son of the famous ethologist Karl von Frisch. He was a respected director at the Brunswick Natural History Museum, but he was a master naturalist. His descriptions of hamster behavior and natural history captured my imagination as nothing had before.

I knew that I had to have a golden hamster.

And not just any golden hamster.

Throughout the translation, every time the author mentioned the hamsters that possessed the original coat coloration, they were always referred to as “the wild type.”

That term captured my imagination, and I knew that I wanted to have a male golden hamster of the wild type.

When I went to the pet store to buy my first hamster, all that was available was a female black-eyed cream. She was  a nasty biter, and though I gave her the name of Linda, we always called her the Black-eyed Bitch.

I was given an ancient Teddy bear hamster soon after I got my first one, and then I bought a cinnamon and banded one. The banded one was wild-type, but only on her front and back.

It turned out that the cinnamon hamster was pregnant, and she gave birth a litter of ten. Nine of the babies were banded wild-types, which told me that the wild type was dominant, as were the bands. But one of the little ones was a true wild type without any banding at all.

I kept him, and he was my first male hamster. I came to prefer the males to the females. The males, although smaller, were pluckier and more confident. They matured more muscled up and svelte. I came to notice their scent glands on their hips, which they would rake along the sides of their enclosures. On a wild type male, these glands would stain their fur a bright yellow, almost like epaulets on their tawny sable forms.

They were tame in that they tolerated my presence and handling. As solitary animals, I doubt they ever gave me a passing glance. They were other beings, prisoners in our civilization that somehow adapted to our plastic “labyrinth” enclosures, water bottles, and exercise wheels.

My eleven-year-old mind could not comprehend that these animals were derived from a single litter captured in Syria in 1930.  I could not grasp the concept of how inbred these animals were. They were all derived from single litter– indeed a single male and single female from that litter– and that they had somehow survived that bottleneck and were available at virtually every pet shop for $5.00.

I did not anthropomorphize them. No, I did worse than that.  The animals I knew all around me were dogs, and I began to project upon them the essence of canines. I even tried to train them a few tricks, which they never learned.

If I owned a hamster now, I think I would have greater appreciation for them as hamsters. I would think of them hanging out in some of the most ancient fields of wheat, occasionally stealing a bit of the grain store for themselves or perhaps falling prey to those first domestic cats.

When I reread Frisch’s book on hamsters, I am able to appreciate this creature. It lived unknown to science until 1839, when a British zoologist first described a specimen of mid-sized hamster from what is now Syria. But they are creatures of the cultivated field, and they knew about our kind for thousands of years before we came to know them.

And yet they remain so distant.

As prisoners in a foreign land should be.


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This fell-looking beast is a Romanian hamster (Mesocricetus newtoni).  It’s a close relative of the golden hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) that we know so well from the pet trade. They are in the same genus, and they have been hybridized in captivity.

This species is found in southern Romania and Bulgaria and is found in uncultivated grassland. The golden or Syrian hamster is found almost exclusively in wheatfields in northern Syria and southern Turkey. It has even been suggested that the golden hamster has evolved to live in cultivated fields in much the same way domestic animals have evolved to live with us.

Of course, we really don’t know.  Golden hamsters are quite uncommon in the wild, and they were when they were first described to science in the 1930’s.

It may be that there is something with modern agricultural practices that makes these hamsters incompatible with agriculture.

So here we have two species evolving to live very different lives. One is a creature of the cultivated field, while the other is that of the wild grassland.

Strangely, we know next to nothing about the golden hamster in the wild, and it happens to be located in area that I would not recommend anyone visiting right now– for any reason. You might get carried away and lose your head!

But the Romanian species can be studied now. There were attempts to make it a model laboratory animal like its Syrian cousin, but it proved harder to breed. We might be able to get some insights about wild hamster behavior from this species, even though it’s not at all the same animal as the familiar pet.

The golden hamster, by contrast, was very easy to breed in captivity, even though it’s an unusually inbred population. With the exception of some strains that were founded by wild-caught individuals in the 1990’s, all of the golden hamsters available at pet shops are derived from three survivors of a litter captured at Aleppo in 1930.

These animals appear to be super-domesticated, but as someone who used to breed hamsters, I can tell you they aren’t that far removed from wild animals. They readily escape their enclosures, and I never had one that didn’t bite me at least once.

Because of the geopolitical issues in the golden hamster’s range, it is very unlikely that we’re going to get new hamster blood or garner more knowledge about their behavior in the wild– at least in the near future.

There are so many questions, but maybe through the study of the European cousin, we might get some answers.

And some more questions to ask.



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He can’t get it into the cheek pouch!

hamster vs  spaghetti noodle

Golden hamsters are not particularly bright animals.

They are one of the few truly solitary species we’ve been able to domesticate (somewhat).

When I was a child, it was almost impossible to find one that didn’t bite. I never owned one that didn’t try, no matter how tame it was normally.

Not only are they solitary, they are also nocturnal, so your entire way of being is utterly incompatible with its way of being.

They’ve bred some strains of golden hamster that are not as likely to bite, and they have also been selected for a cuter, more teddy bear-like appearance.

This is also the most inbred of all domestic animals. All of the ones available on the pet market are derived from a single female and her litter that were captured near Aleppo in the 1930’s.

A dog is an animal that is pretty close to a person.  They make you part of their world, and they definitely consider you to be a social partner.

A golden hamster merely comes to tolerate you.

I comes to tolerate being taken out of its cage at night and handled.

But they never come to love you.

They are a different being, existing in an entirely different universe of senses and emotions.

A dog comes to be “almost human.”

A hamster stays a hamster.

No matter if you name him Twinkles or Buttermilk and feed him high-priced hamster treats.




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Our mystery animal is a Turkish hamster (Mesocricetus brandti).

It is very closely related to the golden or Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus). If someone presented this animal to me, I would have a hard time distinguishing it from a paler than normal wild-type golden hamster. However, most wild-type golden hamsters are quite richly gold in color.

Wild-type golden or Syrian hamster. Note the rich gold coloring.

Domestic golden hamsters come in several phases.  One really common phase is cinnamon, which is the wild-type coloration without any black hair mixed in. This phase also lacks the black pigment on the ears and on the skin and eyes of the wild-type golden and the Turkish hamster. However, one could mistake this phase for a Turkish hamster.

However, it gets more tricky when one is confronted with a golden hamster that is paler gold than a normal wild-type golden hamster.

I would have a hard time telling a Turkish hamster from some of these paler gold wild-type hamsters.

Now, the hamsters themselves don’t really have this problem.

In the wild they don’t share the exact same range.  Turkish hamsters are  relatively widespread through from Anatolia through Transcaucasia into Iran.

Golden hamsters, which are often called Syrian hamsters, are found only in northern Syria and a small portion of adjacent Turkey.

These two animals very strongly resemble one another, and they are fairly close relatives.

However, they do not interbreed.

Let me rephrase that.

In captive situations, the two species have bred, but no offspring have been produced.

Both species have been kept as laboratory animals, but only the golden hamster has been docile enough to be placed on the pet market.

The Turkish species is known for being quite prone to biting, and like the golden hamster, it is solitary.

Now, one should keep in mind that golden hamsters are not known for being particular docile animals. As a child, I kept many golden hamsters, and I can attest to how fractious they can be at times. The show and pet strains of hamster that are relatively common in the United Kingdom that are known for their docility were not available on the North American pet market at the time. So I essentially had wild hamsters for pets.

If Turkish hamsters are more likely to bite than “wild” golden hamsters, it’s probably a good thing that they aren’t available on the pet market.

It’s really quite a shame, for Turkish hamsters have a greater genetic base than golden hamsters. Because they are more widespread, there are more populations to select from. All golden hamsters on the pet market descend from a single litter that was collected near Aleppo in 1930. In Europe, there is a colony of golden hamsters that are more genetically diverse than this population.   This other colony was captured in Syria during two expeditions in the late 90’s. It’s not easy to get into Syria these days, so it’s not likely that any new golden hamster lines will be brought into the domestic population in the West.

But they have not contributed any genetic material to the pet market.

It’s kind of a shame that Turkish hamsters are so difficult to tame– and cannot interbreed with goldens.  The Turkish species would have a much more stable gene pool, and in theory, it could have provided some genetic material to the domestic Mesocricetus lines. The Algerian hedgehog and the four-toed hedgehog have been crossbred in captivity to produce the domestic African pygmy hedgehog, and something similar could have been done with Turkish and golden hamsters– if  only they were interfertile.

In this way, the two species of Mesocricetus hamsters are like the white-footed mouse and the deer mouse.  These two species of New World mouse are very similar, and I personally can tell them apart.  But they cannot interbreed, even though they are superificially similar and belong to the same genus.

If only Turkish hamsters were nicer.


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a. Wild-type golden hamster. b. Wild type hamster with that is heterozygous Wh. d. Homozygous Wh hamster-- anophthalmic or eyeless white. d. Heterozygous Wh and e/e hamster.

On Borderwars, there are many posts detailing the problems associated with breeding double merles and homozygous bobtails.

Of course, the problems with these sorts of lethal and deleterious semi-dominants are not confined to dogs.

Lots of other species have them.

My favorite case is a type of white that appears in golden or Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus).

There are four types of white in this species.  Three of them are of no consequence to the animals’ anatomy and physiology.  It is only the white hamsters that are white because of the Wh mutation that have problems.  Wh is inherited in a semidominant fashion. If a wild-type golden hamster is heterozygous for the Wh, it will have more white on its belly than it normally would.

And so long as the hamster is heterozygous Wh, it is of no consequence to the hamster.

But if one breeds two hamsters that are heterozygous Wh, you will produce 25 percent that are homozygous. Homozygous Wh hamsters will be solid white and have no eyes.

Hamsters in captivity really don’t need eyes.

I know that sounds shocking, but hamsters really don’t have to see things. If they can smell, they can find their way around.

But we have three other ways of producing white hamsters, so there really isn’t any good reason to produce them.

Unless we want to study them.

But the problem is that there are many hamsters that are white-bellied– that is they are wild type or some other color that are homozygous for Wh.

All wild-type golden hamsters have white bellies, so it can actually be hard to tell if a hamster is a true “white belly” or not.

And if you breed two of them together, you will get a theoretical 25% homozygous Wh– solid white with no eyes.




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Last night, I was asked how common this was in Syrian hamsters.

I answered that is was pretty effin’ common.

The females eat their babies for a lot of reasons. Generally, if she feels stressed for any reason, she may eat them. If she doesn’t have a good diet, she’ll eat them as a dietary supplement, which I think is what happened here. She didn’t eat her whole litter.

The reaction of the young owners is priceless.

“Family friendly pet”— LOL

Syrian hamsters are the most bizarre mammals we keep as pets. They aren’t social. Many are bad– very bad– about biting.

But they are so cute.

Which is why we keep them.


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Not for the puritanical. For educational purposes only:


Yes. My male hamsters all did this!

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I had hamster called the Black-eyed Bitch, because she was a black-eyed cream- -just like the hamster in the photo above.

And she would bite, even when she was “tamed” she would bite.

Golden hamsters bite. I’ve never known one not to try it.

But I’m being told that there are hamster strains now that have been rigorously selected for benign temperament.

I could have used those back when I decided to become a hamster farmer.

It was one of those childhood flights of fancy.


I break with convention here and still call Mesocricetus auratus “the golden hamster.”  The trend is to call them Syrian hamsters.

However, the scientific name actually means “Golden mid-sized hamster.”

So I’m going to call them golden hamsters, even if the vast majority of captive hamsters in that species come in lots of different colors.

The wild-type coloration lovely golden brown:


I know lots about the behavior of this species.

One thing that always fascinated me was the little scent glands on the hips of a male hamster.

Right above the hips there are these little glands that produce a secretion that he rubs against his cage (or, in the wild, his burrow) to leave a scent.

On a wild-type hamster, he actually bleaches out the fur that grows above those glands.

If he smells a female hamster in season, he goes into marking with those glands big time.

Hamsters communicate by scent. That’s because they live solitary lives in the wild, and their home ranges tend to be quite large for such a small species. If a male and female meet and she’s not in season, they will fight. The female is usually much larger than the male, and she can kill him.

So when the female hamster comes in season, she  produces an odor that even humans can detect. (I know I can.)

When the male hamster smells that odor, he will travel several miles to meet her.

Using such  strong chemical communication is quite useful for this unusually solitary species.

The signal acts as a kind of green light for the male. Otherwise, he’d be risking a lot to come into a female’s range when she’s not receptive.

Captive hamster breeders don’t have to recognize the smell. Just putting your hand on the female is enough to make her assume the position.

And because the female cycles every four days, it is easy to figure out when to put the female in the male’s cage.

The gestation period is only 16 days– the shortest of all placental mammals.

The females tend to have rather large litters, and it’s also not unusual for a female to eat a few of her babies. Even ensuring that the female has enough protein in her normal diet isn’t enough to stop all cannibalism.

These animals are very different from dogs. If they weren’t so cute, I seriously doubt that anyone would have considered them as children’s pets.

They were originally domesticated from a single litter that was captured near Aleppo. A zoologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem named Israel Aharoni captured this litter in 1930. It is from this litter that all domestic hamsters in the US descend.

They were bred to be laboratory animals.

That’s all they were meant to be.

A colony was established in Britain in the 1930’s.  These all were then put in the hands of private breeders, who began producing them as pets.

A cute hamster is something that can be easily be marketed to children.

However, keep in mind that these animals are nocturnal. I have seen a few that have been conditioned to be diurnal. You can actually buy them at Harrods.

However, as nocturnal animals, you really don’t get much opportunity to interact with them.

And they really don’t have social behavior.

I don’t believe for a second that a hamster can actually bond to you.

They may associate your scent with food, and that’s about it.

I had one that escaped that actually came out from behind the wall to me. I thought this was very cool, but I now realize that it was only because I gave him hamster yogurt treats that he came calling from his hiding place.

Hamsters are bad about escaping. Very bad. You have to check the locks and hatches on their cages every time you put them back. Or they’ll flee captivity.

Good names for golden hamsters are Papillon (Henri Charrière) and Houdini. I had about four named Houdini.

I would hardly call them ideal children’s pets.

But they are an interesting animal to get to know.

I think they might be better marketed to busy adults who really want a much more independent animal.

They really don’t require that much care.

And because they are so emotionally different from us, they are kind of like sharing space with an alien life form– one with an entirely different set of instincts, drives, and perceptions.

I didn’t appreciate those differences when I had them as child.

I don’t think many children can.

But if you really want to be with an animal very different from humans, I can’t think of a better choice.

They are just different.

And that makes them fascinating.

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Music by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Lyrics by Friedrich Schiller

Lyrics in German and English!

Golden hamsters are from Syria.

Tegus are from South America.

They are not natural enemies in the wild.

The only thing that has me worried about this video is the hamster bit the tegu a few times. Those bites can cause an infection.

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