We know that our hamster is one of the 5 domesticated breeds out of the 26 hamster species throughout the world. If such is the case, where do hamsters live in the wild? Are there wild hamsters that are of the same breed as our pets?
And did you know that the first documented and domesticated hamster is actually not the Syrian hamster (1839) but the Chinese hamster (1773)?
This misinformation is due to the Syrian hamsters’ popularity as a domesticated pet all throughout the world because they could easily adapt even in laboratories.
Chinese hamsters, meanwhile, are difficult to breed outside China that in laboratories, they have to be regularly replaced with wild versions.
Hamster History Refresher
Among the Order Rodentia, the hamsters are the most elusive in terms of pinpointing their ancestry. Despite their wide coverage throughout continental Eurasia, there has been no confirmed trace of any common ancestor for these master burrowers.
In fact, it is because they are so good at burrowing and borrowing (yes, they do “borrow” and take over other rodents’ homes) that we humans have yet to find the oldest burrow ever created by these little round critters.
It is safe to say, though, that the first documented hammy, the Chinese striped hamster, was also documented along with another domesticated hamster – the Winter White dwarf of Siberia. Additionally, the Chinese hamsters were first used in the laboratory in 1919, but having it as a domesticated pet already started even before that.
Wild Hamster Locations
Despite the success of hamster domestication, there are still wild hammies in various countries and landscapes in continental Europe and Asia. Countries like Syria, Greece, Romania, Belgium, Northern China, Mongolia, France, and other parts of Europe from Belgium to Siberia are some areas where these little burrowers live.
A hamster’s natural habitat may vary in terms of rockiness depending on the hammy species, but one thing common among them is their avoidance of woodlands. Some hamsters live in rough marshes, while some in steep slopes where piles of snow may cover a large portion of their climate. There is even a hamster that lives near riverbanks.
A lot of hamsters, however, prefer desert or semi-desert fringes, dry arid zones, and sparse rocky areas – habitats with extreme hot and cold temperatures. There are also those that live near human settlements, often raiding farmlands, gardens, and even human buildings to the point that they are considered pests.
Personality Of Wild Hamsters
Hamsters are gentle as domestic pets. In the wild, they just go about their business – unless someone steps into their territory.
Hamsters are highly territorial and will fight to death for their habitat. Dwarf hamsters, however, can live in colonies with their littermates, but they still antagonize those of the opposite sex and will fight those who do not belong to their group.
Additionally, in the case of Russian or Robo hamsters, they are monogamous – whether as a pet or in the wild. If separated from their partners, the males especially show behaviors similar to human depression like inactivity, binge eating, and turning obese.
Owing to their gentle but defensive nature, hammies are known to get easily startled and will even bite. They generally dislike swimming. Excessive surprises, handling, and exposure to water (including swimming) will make them so stressed that they get sick and may even die.
Physical Attributes and Appearance
There are more species in the wild and the biggest of hamsters – the European – grow to the average size of 12 inches, while some a whopping 13 inches. The smallest, on the other hand, has a domestic cousin — the Roborovsky dwarf hamster which does not grow beyond 4 inches.
Wild versions of domesticated hamsters are no different from the homebody hammies in terms of appearance, except for the availability of some fur colors. The wild hamster, like its domesticated cousins, has earthy colors of yellow, gray, black, white, brown, and combination of these colors.
Unlike them, however, Fluffy’s wild cousins prefer protective coloration, which means that the more frequent colors are those that blend well within a particular locale.
An example of these is the Winter White hamster. Winter Whites, regardless in the wild, in the lab or at home, come in three colors – normal (agouti), pearl, and blue. These hammies change their color to white on shorter daylight – a characteristic of winter months – the snowy fur color; a protective coloration against predators in the wild since Winter Whites are more tolerant to cold.
As domesticated pets, however, exposure to interior house lamps may prevent your WW Fluffy from turning white. For other hamster breeds, there is not much difference in colors except for the availability of some hues. Domesticated hammies may have more colors available since these can be manipulated through breeding.
Fur coloration aside, wild hamsters are very much like their domesticated cousins – they have big cheek pockets, small bodies, short tails (except for Greater long-tailed hamster, which has no domestic counterpart), tiny ears, and the distinctive top and bottom incisors that seem to grow endlessly that identify them as hamsters.
They also have poor eyesight, which they make up for with a keen sense of smell. Hamsters have scent glands located near their backs and legs. These glands release hormones that aid them in territorial marking. Their ears are keen enough that they get to communicate in the ultrasonic range; yet as a consequence, they are susceptible to loud sounds and noise.
Ever wonder why your hamster sometimes waves its hands in the air? That is because it is sensing everything with its nose, touch, as well as its whiskers – which also add in its sense of touch. Hamsters are also highly flexible, but their bones are somewhat fragile.
Survival in the Wild
There are various predators in the wild – from owls to foxes to snakes. Add to these are the highly territorial fellow hamsters of a different species or clan, and an occasional but sudden foul weather. It is no wonder that your pet Fluffy which typically lives 2-4 years with us humans, have cousins that die too young – the wild hamsters that after all, just live only half their domestic cousin’s lifespans.
So how do hamsters survive in the wild?
Hammies are good burrowers. They are equipped with sharp upper and lower incisors as well as pointed hands and feet that are good for digging, climbing, and grasping. They also use these to defend themselves as well as for hunting.
Hamsters also can run far in one night; usually about 5-6 miles (9km). The tiny Robo hamster can even do better – it is known to be able to run about 105 miles (169 km) – that is 4 times the length a marathon runner would have to run!
- Eat and Run
You may wonder how these tiny bodies can manage running in dry lands like steppes and even mountainsides. For one, hamsters are nocturnal (some start as early as dusk but they can go on for the whole night), so the sun does not dehydrate them. Moreover, they have cheek pockets that they can fill with snacks as they move along.
They are also omnivores – meaning, they can eat both plant and animal material. They eat roots, seeds, grains, and fruits, as well as tiny animals like frogs, lizards, and various insects – and for the large hammies like the European hamster – baby ground-nesting birds.
In the worst case scenario – when there is barely any food, that is – hamsters get to eat their own poop. Sounds icky, but these little survivors make do with everything – even their own kind. This means that even after bloody duels for territory, hammies get to pick their enemy’s bones and flesh.
Cannibalism is not only their means of getting additional food – they also use this to protect their litter. Dead hammies and stillborns are eaten by mama fluffies to keep predators from tracking the rest of the litter, burrow or colony.
- Burrowers and Borrowers
Hammies also dig burrows an average of 0.7m in depth – some even complex enough with multiple steep entrances that have sealable openings to protect them during the cold season, circuitous paths, blind ends to act as toilet and misdirection against enemies, and storage bins and sleeping quarters.
These shelters protect them from all the harsh weather in their environment since the ground stabilizes the surface temperature and cools it on a hot daytime.
Others, on the other hand, like the Djungarian dwarfs borrow pika homes; while others like the Campbell dwarfs, take over other rodents’ nests. Chinese hamsters choose shallower holes owing to their rocky habitat but they make up for their simple shelters with their speed as well as their long tails, which helps them grip rocks and other tail-holds as they go climbing.
- Drunken Master
Because hamsters store their food and may be gone in a while, they sometimes end up with rotten seeds, grains, or fruits. Fortunately for these hardy rodents, they do have large livers which make them the hardcore drunken masters of the rodent world – the top of their list being the Syrian hammy.
Their ham-fu does not limit to just long runs, burrowing, and food mastery — hamsters are also good in ninjutsu with their protective coloration. Except for the black-bellied European hamster, the rest of them tend to have white undersides aside from the earthy top colors that blend well in the night.
The white underbelly reflects ground temperature at night which makes them even more difficult to spot especially for animals with heat sensors like snakes.
- Raising Pups
Hamsters have short lifespans, but this is made up for by their high fertility rate, short gestation period, expansive litters, and quick weaning. Although mostly seasonal breeders except for the Robo hamsters, their gestation period average 16-23 days depending on the breed and they can get pregnant once more once they give birth.
It is for this reason mama hammies are highly cranky during this period and will get easily stressed if a male is about, to the point that they will deliver stillborns if the stress is prolonged.
If the babies are successfully delivered, outsiders will also make mother does (female hamster) stressed that they hide puppies (the babies) in their cheek pouch and will cannibalize the poor little ones if the stress is prolonged.
Hamsters are also quick to get weaned. In three weeks, a litter may already be separated from their mothers. In the wild, this means they get to run off and fend for themselves, although they can already explore outside their nest as early as after a week.
Wild Hamster Trivia
Some wild hamsters are exceptions to some of the descriptions mentioned above. Here are some interesting facts regarding species of hamsters that live in the wild:
- European hamsters are so big that they can fight toe-to-toe with barn cats.
- European hamsters have cheek pouches large enough to fill 20-30 grams of food and can be filled with air which makes them good swimmers. In fact, they are the only hamster species that can tolerate water which is why they can live along riverbanks.
- French or European hamsters cannibalize their litter if given corn diet. Additionally, they exhibit symptoms of dementia, including running in circles and pounding on their feeders.
- Greater Long-tailed hamsters, also known as Korean hamsters, are the breed with the longest tail, notable loud screamers as they stand on their hind legs, and are known to be major pests in China since ancient times.
- Romanian hamsters, which are found in grasslands, steppes, and bushy slopes of Romania, Bulgaria, and Northern Russia, are noted to have the most pointed face among the hamster species. They have also been kept in labs, but have not yet been domesticated.
- Turkish hamsters, which are found in Turkey, Transcaucasia, Lebanon, and Israel, are great hibernators that they have been used in labs for research but have not also been domesticated.
They can hibernate for 5-6 months but can even extend up to 10 months and their hibernation cycle is 2-7 days followed by 1-2 days of activity; although they can continuously sleep for as long as 30 days.
- The Chinese striped hamster is often confused with the Chinese dwarf hamster because of their names. But they look differently. Striped hamsters are dwarf types and live in colonies. They can even share burrows with other colonies like the Robos and the Campbell’s. They get to live peacefully because they have variations in the type of food they eat.
- The gray dwarf hamster, which lives in grasslands, steppes, semi-deserts, cultivated areas, and gardens as well as buildings in many countries from the Middle East to Russia, does not hibernate.
- The Ciscaucasian or Georgian hamster, which lives in the northern slopes and steppes of Caucasus and Ciscaucasia, are so destructive to pastures, farmlands, and tree belts that they are sometimes trapped by locals for their fur.
- The Kam Dwarf Hamster, which is found in Western China grasslands, marshes, and steppes; as well as the Tibetan or Ladak dwarf, native to northern parts of Southen Asia, Southwestern China, Jammu, Kashmir, and Western Nepal; are both active day and night.
- The Ladak is probably the highest-living hamster as it makes its home and hunts at altitudes of 4km (13,000 ft) near the Himalayas. It is the one hamster that can survive in woodlands – its habitat includes coniferous and birch forests, steppes, shrublands, swampy grasslands, and meadows.
- The wild Syrian Hamster is under conservation due to its decreasing habitat. Its environment is slowly being turned into human settlements for the past decades.