When you look at your hamster scooting around in its ball, it may be hard to imagine that it could ever be related to a wild animal. The truth is that hamsters originated in the wild, long before they were domesticated and became the fun little balls of fur we know and love today.
Where do hamsters live?
There are 26 different species of hamster living in the wild around the world, although not always in huge numbers.
The Syrian hamster, which is often referred to as a teddy bear hamster, is probably the one most of us are familiar with. There aren’t a huge number of Syrian hamsters living in the wild today, but they are still there, along with their hamster cousins, who live in several locations across the world.
The wild hamsters of Syria
To protect them from the heat, Syrian hamsters have very deep burrows; sometimes they burrow as far as far as ten metres. It’s not just in your home that a Syrian hamster needs to be by itself; this happens in the wild too. Each hamster has its own burrow and territory, and they get very angry if another hamster tries to take over their ground. Wild Syrian hamsters are listed as “vulnerable” due to their reduced numbers.
The Campbells hamsters of Mongolia
In the semi-desert lands of Mongolia, Campbells hamsters are at their most active in the evenings, when they emerge from their burrow to look for food. Although the temperature in their habitat can reach as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, it drops dramatically at night, and these hardy creatures are well-covered with fur to protect them against the cold. Campbells hamsters often take over the burrows of other rodents, rather than having to do the hard work to create their own. Now that’s smart thinking!
The Chinese wild hamsters of the east
Chinese hamsters live further to the east of their cousins, where the temperature is more consistently warm and the landscape is rocky. This is why Chinese hamsters tend to have short tails, as they use their tails to provide grip when they have to climb.
Chinese hamsters don’t often live in burrows; they choose a hole that is located just under the ground. Of course, this means they don’t have the same protection as some other hamsters and for this reason Chinese hamsters are super quick runners!
How did hamsters become domesticated?
So, we know where hamsters live in the wild, but how did these wild hamsters lead to the wonderful furry friends we have all grown to love?
When hamsters were first taken from the wild, they weren’t intended to be pets; they were taken to be studied in laboratories…
The first capture of wild hamsters didn’t go entirely to plan. It happened in 1930 when a zoologist called Israel Aharoni travelled to Syria and found a Syrian, or Golden hamster, and her twelve babies.
These days, anyone who knows anything about hamsters, knows that you never handle babies while they are still in their mother’s care. But this was a long time ago, and not much was known about hamsters.
As soon as the mother and babies were disturbed the mother turned on one of the babies and killed it. The mother was then killed. Two of the babies managed to escape and return to the wild, and another five escaped when they arrived at the Hebrew Hospital in Jerusalem.
So, the original attempt at domesticating hamsters wasn’t entirely successful, but enough of the tiny creatures remained for more hamsters to be successfully bred.
Wild hamsters becoming pets
As the babies that were bred from the original captured hamsters were sent off around the world, people started to see how easy they were to breed and keep, and the trend for keeping them as pets began.
Hamsters first became popular as house guests in the 1930s and 1940s, and their popularity has only grown since.
Today, other breeds have joined the Syrian hamster in being domesticated, such as the popular Russian dwarf hamsters.
Although hamsters do still live in the wild, there are many more living as pets across the world. It’s taken over a century from the first discovery of hamsters by the human race for them to become an integral part of our lives, but now it would probably be pretty hard for you to imagine living without your hamster companion.