Mention hamsters and most people recall a fond childhood memory, often of an escaped pet that’s found with its cute little cheeks stuffed full of loot.
Mine involves Chipper, my dwarf Russian hamster, which was bitten by my cat and died a few days later—a lesson to my 11-year-old self to be more cautious. (Read more about hamsters as pets.)
I hadn’t given hamsters much more thought until recently, when I was asked to research the origins of the popular Syrian hamster—also known as the golden or teddy bear hamster. Only then did I realize these furry pets haven’t always been spinning on wheels in children’s bedrooms.
In fact, there are 26 species of wild hamster that run free in parts of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, including Mesocricetus auratus, the Syrian hamster, which comes from the region surrounding Aleppo, Syria—the city currently under siege amid the Middle Eastern country’s ongoing war. (Related pictures: “Syrian Cultural Sites Damaged by Conflict.”)
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the burrowing mammal as vulnerable: It has a small range, possibly less than about 1,900 square miles (5,000 square kilometers).
The first mention of the Syrian hamster was in 1797, when physician Alexander Russell came across them in the wild and described the rodents (though didn’t give them a name) in a publication called The Natural History of Aleppo.
It would be another 40 years or so until George Robert Waterhouse, curator of the London Zoological Society, formally named the species the golden hamster, according to Peter Logsdail, a hamster expert and author of Hamster Lopaedia.
Waterhouse described an animal with soft fur and a silk-like gloss, with white feet and a tail and body colors of yellow and lead gray. Its “moustache”—what we’d call whiskers today—was black and white.
That pretty much covers what a modern golden hamster looks like, Logsdail told me, although nowadays there are all kinds of hues, from the chocolate tortoiseshell to the banded cinnamon. That’s why its preferred name these days is Syrian hamster, since a lot of them aren’t golden anymore.
Out of the Wild
So how did the Syrian hamster get to Western Europe and America? We can thank Israel Aharoni, a zoologist who led a 1930 expedition to look for golden hamsters in Aleppo. He enlisted local Sheikh El-Beled to dig up a wheat field, where they found—at a depth of 8 feet (2.4 meters)—a golden hamster and her 11 young.
Aharoni put the family in a box, thinking that the mom would look after them. Instead, “mum did what happens when she’s disturbed—she attacked one of the babies and chewed its head off,” Logsdail said.
So the mother was euthanized, leaving Aharoni to raise ten babies by hand. Not surprising to most kids, the babies gnawed their way out of the wooden box, and Aharoni got nine of them back.
Once they were ensconced at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, another five made a jailbreak—leaving Aharoni with just four hamsters, which bred very successfully (the Syrian hamster has the shortest gestation period of any hamster, just 16 days). (Also see “5 Jerboa Facts: Explaining Cute Jumping Rodent.”)
The offspring were then sent to different universities and institutions, including the London Zoo, in the mid-1930s and into the mid-1940s they had become pets in the U.K. and the U.S. In 1971, another litter of 12 were found in Aleppo and sent to the U.S. The rest, as they say, is hamster history.
Considering Syrian hamsters are already rare in the wild, scientists don’t know if any remain. But I hope they’re still there underground doing what hamsters do best: outwitting us humans.