When we consider the hamster, the small rodent often found in pet stores, there are so many places our minds may take us. Adorable images of whiskered fluffballs with cheeks full of food, running happily on a wheel, burrowing joyfully in some litter shavings, flash before us. Hamsters make fantastic pets, but where do they live when they aren't in our homes and hamster cages?
What is a hamster?
Hamsters are small rodents native to parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. They are related to voles, lemmings and mice, but unlike our common house pets, wild hamsters are more aggressive. Some wild hamsters, like the black-bellied hamster that lives in parts of Europe, can't be tamed and are much larger than the hamster's we keep in our homes. These small rodents are easily distinguished because they don't have long tails or big ears. Hamsters, with their short stubby legs, tiny ears and short tails aren't easily confused with their mousey cousins.
Where do hamsters live?
Pet hamsters generally are related to the Syrian golden hamster, but they are far removed from their wild ancestors. In fact, only 5 species of hamsters are pets. While pet hamsters live in cages, hamsters in the wild burrow deep underground. Syrian and Mongolian hamsters sometimes will burrow up to ten feet or more in order to avoid high desert temperatures. Since hamsters don't have sweat glands, it is important that they can keep cool. Some hamsters, like those who come from more northern regions such as the European hamsters in France, Austria or Russia, will have long fur to keep them warm in winter. If it gets too cold, hamsters will hibernate, only waking periodically to eat.
Wild hamsters are also very territorial and will fight any who come into their claimed space and burrows. Some hamsters, like the Campbell hamsters that live in parts of China and Mongolia, will actually steal other rodent's burrows so that they don't have to dig their own. Hamsters are also fairly meticulous. A hamster community in China will have a network of burrows with specific areas for storing food, sleeping or waste.
What do wild hamsters look like?
Wild hamsters generally have more markings than their pet cousins in order to better blend into the terrain around them. Hamsters from desert regions may be pale yellow or golden, or reddish brown with stripes which reflects the rocky deserts of Asia and the Middle East. European or Russian wild hamsters are thinner and smaller than house pets and might have longer fur. Chinese hamsters are smaller and look a little bit like mice with their longer tails and grey-brown fur. All hamsters have small ears, whiskers and short legs. Hamsters have poor vision so depend heavily on their hearing, sense of smell, and whiskers to know the world around them.
How long do wild hamsters live?
Like many small rodents, hamsters don't have very good eyesight and rely mostly on their ears and whiskers to get around. Hamsters in the wild typically have relatively short life spans, living only a year or two on average. Since they are often food for larger animals like foxes, birds of prey, cats and other predators, Hamsters have learned to be quick and burrow deeply underground. In captivity, a hamster's life span isn't much longer. Pet hamsters might live up to three years, but are considered elderly when they are about a year and a half.
What do wild hamsters like to eat?
They enjoy eating grains, seeds, nuts and fruit, and most hamsters have big puffy cheeks to collect as much food as possible before scurrying back home to eat at their leisure. In fact, it is possible that the word "hamster" comes from the German word "hamstern" which means hoard—a pretty apt description of how this tiny furry creature eats! Hamsters are nocturnal, which means they are most active at night and will use that time to forage for food.