Hamsters are definitely among the most popular pocket pets. Children commonly own one as a first pet, but hamsters require gentle and specific care. You shouldn’t handle them too much and instead, spend time watching their activity in their habitat.
But have you ever wondered where hamsters come from? Most species of hamsters originated in the meadows and forests of Asia, the Middle East, and Southeast Europe. Today, our domesticated hamsters are bred just about everywhere, but there are still a number of wild hamsters in different parts of the world.
If you’re interested in learning more about wild hamsters, we give you the details about their natural habitats and how these little critters survive in nature.
Where Do Wild Hamsters Live?
There are about 24 species of hamsters 1, and they can be as small as 2 inches and as big as 12.5 inches. Out of these 24, five species are commonly kept as domesticated pets.
The first wild hamsters were discovered in Asia, Europe, and northern China in countries like Belgium, Syria, Greece, and Romania, and they can still be found in those areas.
For the most part, hamsters live in dry and warm regions, which include sand dunes, sparse rocky areas, the edges of deserts, and mountainous steppes (arid, grassy plains).
Hamsters dig burrows, which enable them to stay cool during hot weather, and they are also nocturnal.
Since hamsters sleep during the day, their eyesight isn’t the greatest, so they rely on their excellent sense of smell to navigate.
Hamsters have a scent gland on their backs, and they leave a trail when exploring by rubbing their backs on objects; this way, they can find their way back. Their whiskers also help them to navigate through touch.
What Hamsters Eat in the Wild
Wild hamsters subsist primarily on seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and other plant matter. They are omnivorous, so they also eat insects, lizards, and frogs. Larger prey is for larger hamsters.
A Short History of the Domestication of Hamsters
In 1930, archaeologist Israel Aharoni found a nest of Syrian hamsters in Aleppo, Syria. The mother and her pups were taken to a lab in Israel and were interbred, and the young hamsters were exported to other parts of the world as part of the pet trade. That’s how it all began!
The Differences Between Wild and Domestic Hamsters
Wild hamsters tend to be larger than domesticated ones and are unsurprisingly more aggressive. It’s fairly common for Syrian hamsters that have been captured to eat their offspring.
Wild hamsters tend to have light gray or brown fur on their backs, which acts as camouflage for protection against predators. They also have pale fur on their abdomen, which reflects the surface temperature and keeps them from becoming too hot or too cold.
Certain behaviors of wild hamsters can still be seen in our domesticated pets. For example, the Djungarian Hamster tends to steal other animals’ burrows rather than make their own.
Carrying food in their cheek pouches also comes directly from their ancestors. Wild hamsters fill their cheek pouches to bring food back to their burrows for storage. This helps them in times when food might be scarce.
Status of Wild Hamsters
Most wild hamster species are low in number in their natural habitats, particularly the Golden Hamster (otherwise known as the Syrian and European Hamster).
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Golden Hamster is endangered, and the population is decreasing. This is primarily due to habitat loss and the hunting and killing of these animals.
The Common Hamster, also known as the European Hamster, is critically endangered, and the population is also decreasing. This is due to hunting, loss of habitat, climate change, and pollution. It’s believed that they are no longer found in 75% of their European habitat.
Domesticated Hamster Species
Five species make up our domesticated hamsters. While they have a few things in common, they are fairly different from one another.
Roborovski Dwarf Hamster
This is the smallest of the domesticated hamsters, as they grow an average of about 2 inches. It’s best not to handle them too much because of their tiny size, and they are best kept in an aquarium with a mesh lid.
They are social animals and can do well in a same-sex group. Besides being super cute, they are quite active and enjoy many toys. They tend to be sandy in color and have little white spots above their eyes, giving them adorable little eyebrows.
These hamsters can grow up to 5 inches, and if raised by hand from a young age, they are friendly and can be comfortably handled. But if they aren’t used to being held, they can be timid and potentially nippy.
They are longer and thinner than the other species and have brown agouti fur with a dark stripe running down their back and a white belly. They can be kept in same-sex groups.
Winter White Russian Dwarf Hamster
This species can grow to 3.5 to 4 inches long and is generally rounder than the other species. Their name is due to the fact that their fur turns white in the winter. They are quite docile and aren’t known to be bitey.
They can do fine in a same-sex group but can also turn territorial and might need to be separated when they mature.
Campbell’s Dwarf Russian Hamster
This small hamster grows to be about 4 inches and can live in same-sex groups. They are friendly but are known to bite if they are frightened or feel threatened.
They have grayish-brown fur with a dark stripe running down their back and a white belly. They are fast little hamsters that can be quite friendly and might even wake up for short periods of time during the day.
Syrian/Golden Hamsters are the most well-known and popular hamsters kept as pets. They grow 5 to 9 inches long, and while they can come in several different colors, they are most commonly golden brown and white.
They are the best for handling because they are slower movers than the other species and are quite docile. But they can’t be housed with other hamsters, as they are incredibly territorial.
Wild hamsters are only found in specific locations inthe Middle East, Asia, and Southeast Europe, and their numbers have dwindled.
However, observing wild hamsters gives us a better idea of why our hamsters do a few of the things that they do.