The hamster has become one of the popular pets of modern times. Just why is really not hard to understand. It is small and easy to keep, does not require expensive nor uncommon food, and its endearing behaviour soon wins over those people who would look upon the little chap “as just another rodent”. The many colours now to be seen are all varieties of the Syrian or Golden hamster. There are in fact many different kinds of hamster, some of which are close relatives of the Golden while others are not.
The Various Hamsters
All animals are classified by zoologists into species. A species is a group of animals which interbreed freely, have the same general characteristics, feed on the same food and live in the same surroundings. Some species may occur widely (as evidently true for the European hamster) or be restricted to a small area (as seems to be the case for the Golden hamster).
There are a number of species of hamster (probably 20 or more) and only those which are of special interest will be briefly described. Some of these occasionally find their way into pet shops, specially those which deal in the more exotic animals. All of the hamsters are interesting little creatures although only one has captured the affections of pet lovers. All of the species are burrowing rodents inhabiting different regions of Europe and Asia.
The Common or European hamster may well be the largest of the various species. It is about the size of a rat but with a short tail. Fur colour is grey-brown on the back, with white marks on the cheeks and chest. The belly fur is black. It has distendable cheek pouches which are used to carry food back to its burrow. It is common in Central Europe and parts of Russia. The animal is an agricultural pest in Europe, eating large quantities of grain and destroying crops. It is rarely bred in captivity, being too big and vicious.
The Chinese hamster is one of the smaller forms. In size, it is about three to four inches long, with a short tail. Colour is light grey-brown on the back, with an obvious dark stripe down the spine, and white fur on the stomach. There are the usual cheek pouches for collecting food. It occurs in China and Mongolia. This species is occasionally sold in pet shops but has never become popular because it is a little too “mouse-like” in colour and size.
The Migratory hamster is another small hamster, scarcely any larger than the Chinese and rather similar. The colour is much the same but lacking the spinal stripe. It is found in Southern Russia and Asia Minor. The species is bred in captivity but has failed to catch on.
The Djungarian hamster has recently been bred in captivity, is docile and shows signs of adapting to a domestic life. This species is small, about two to four inches long. The colour is dark grey on the back, with a darker stripe along the spine, and a white belly. The tail is short. It has pouches but these do not appear to be used as freely as other hamsters. It is found in Siberia, Manchuria and Northern areas of China.
The Korean Grey hamster is one of the larger species. It is about eight inches in length and has a larger tail than most. The colour is mousey-grey, with a light belly. It has large cheek pouches and occurs in China and Korea. It is doubtful if this hamster is bred in captivity but is worth mentioning because of stories on its remarkable feats of hoarding “Granaries” have been located several feet under the ground and containing a bushel or more of grain. During periods of famine, Chinese peasants have survived by digging up the grain.
The hamster of the pet shop is the Syrian or Golden hamster. It is one of the medium sized species, being about five to six inches in length when fully grown. The tail is short. The coat colour is reddish-brown on the back, with two white streaks on the cheeks and shoulders, separated by a black bar. The belly is greyish-white with a greyish band across the chest. There are two well-formed cheek pouches which are used to gather up food and nesting material. The animal occurs in Syria and is thought to be uncommon in the natural state, although this opinion may be due to the fact that it sleeps during the day, only emerging at dusk to hunt for food.
The Rumanian hamster is a medium size animal, about six inches in length, with a stubby tail. The colour is dark brownish-grey on the back. The stomach is greyish-white except for a blackish chest band. It is found in Rumania and Bulgaria. This species is similar to the Golden hamster and some authorities have considered that the two are identical. The difference in coat colour was thought to be due to the Rumanian hamster living in the Balkans and the Golden hamster in Syria. However, recent studies have revealed that the two are clearly distinct. It is being bred in captivity and appears to be doing well.