Feb 082014

Every wonder when and where different breeds of hamsters came from? Although you may not think so, hamsters actually have a long history. Read below to learn more about hamster history.

Hamster history






Syrian Hamster Discovery

It all began in Aleppo, Syria.  Sometime in the late 1700s the Syrian hamster was documented in a book titled “Natural History of Aleppo” by Alexander Russell and revised by his half-brother Patrick after Alexander’s death.

Credit for the naming of the species, however, goes to George Waterhouse in 1839. At a meeting of the London Zoological Society, he presented the “new” species. As history would have it, his presentation was based on an elderly female hamster from Aleppo, Syria.
Syrian hamster discoverer George Waterhouse

Waterhouse named the species Cricetus auratus. He used the word “auratus” because in Latin it means “gold” or “golden”. That was probably the coloring of the hamster he found in the wild.  So you could say the first hamster known was the Golden Hamster.

The next major event in hamster history was around 1930 when zoologist and Professor at the University of Jerusalem, Israel Aharoni, found a mother and litter of hamsters in the Syrian Desert. Many of these died or escaped. But the remaining hamsters were given to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where they were successfully bred as Golden Hamsters.

They were a bit bigger than the ones Waterhouse found, so they were named Mesocricetus auratus, although they were probably the same species.

The common name, hamster, comes from the German word hamstern, which means to hoard or to hide. As you know, hamsters love to stuff and hide food inside their cheeks.

Importation to the US and Europe

Because Golden Hamsters proved so easy to breed and take care of, they were sent to labs in the United Kingdom in 1931 and seven years later, in 1938, to the United States.

There, the animals became popular as pets, and by the 1950s this rodent had become a craze. Britain, Germany and the Netherlands were the first countries to sell these rodents as pets, but as hamster history shows, they also became a hit with kids in the United States.

All the variants today most likely came from the one litter that was discovered and bred in Syria. The only exception would be those that travelers brought to the US.

Roborovski Hamster History

The dwarf hamster known as the Roborovski hamster comes from the semi-arid areas in Mongolia and Northern China.
Roborovski hamster history

This type hamster was named after its discoverer, Lt. Vsevolod Roborovski who, in 1894, reported seeing them during an expedition to China. Years later, in 1903, they were scientifically studied by zoologist Konstantin A. Satunin.

Time passed again, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that Roborovskis were imported to the UK. Unfortunately, they did not breed well in captivity. Other European countries, the Netherlands in particular, were more successful breeding Roborovskis. They finally began to be available as pets in the 1990s, reaching the shores of the U.S. in 1998.
Since then, the dwarf Roborovskis have become a very popular breed.

Campbell’s Dwarf Hamster History

The Campbells Dwarf Russian Hamster, like the Roborovski, was named after the person who first discovered it, Thomas Campbell. He discovered the breed in 1905 and it was named Phodopus Campbellis in his honor.

The Campbells was imported into the UK by the London Zoological Society in 1963, where it was successfully bred. However, it didn’t become widely available as a pet until the early 1980s.

Djungarian / Winter White Dwarf Hamster History

The Djungarian hamster, also known as the Siberian or Winter White hamster, was originally found in Siberia and Eastern Kazakhstan.  Interestingly enough, it has a long history, having first been found in 1773.  It was at first thought to be part of the mouse family.

However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that they were bred and studied by scientist Klaus Hofmann in a German laboratory. In the 1970s they began showing up in the UK pet market, then moved on to the U.S. market in the 1980s.

Chinese Hamster History

As you would suspect, the Chinese hamster originally came from Northeastern China. They were first domesticated and used as a lab animal around 1919. This type hamster entered the U.S. around 1948 for breeding in research labs. By the mid-50s, they were being successfully bred at Harvard University.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Chinese hamster became more popular as a pet.

Scientific Research

The hamster is widely used in scientific labs because they breed quickly, have a relatively short life cycle, are not susceptible to diseases, and handling them is easy. Because their cardiovascular system is similar to humans, scientists often use them for cardiovascular research.

As you can see, hamsters have a long history, first as scientific curiosities, then as lab animals, and finally, as the loveable pet we know today.


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