Hamsters: Celebrating The Odd History of These Adorable Idiots

A hamster with wood chippings on its head
A hamster.

Hamsters are bizzare little animals, but make for excellent pets due to their inquisitive and enthusiastic (plus, very cute) behaviour. We’re currently hamster-less, but still love the little dudes in all their idiotic and bumbling little glory. Let us celebrate this!

Hamsters

The hamster. This rodent species is a subfamily of Cricetinae.

There are 26 species pelting about crazily in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East – that includes seven genuses. Whatever, the little dudes are most commonly though of as cute pets, with the Syrian hamster the most famous of the lot.

Their personality traits include the aforementioned inquisitiveness. Yet they’re also solitary animals and generally prefer spending time alone.

But they do show signs of casual affection and sociability – it’s just this is mainly as they’ll come to view you, their owner, as an exceptional product of food dispension.

It’s really important to stress that hamsters value time alone, as if you keep two adults in a cage together they’ll invariably fight each other to the death.

So whilst the dwarf hamsters above look like they’re having a whale (or should that be… hamster?) of a time, it’s because they’re infants and not quite ready to shred each other limb from limb.

As a hamster owner, your time with them will largely consist of creeping around their cage trying not to wake them up (as they’re crepuscular – awake mostly during twilight hours, mostly) and trying to keep the stupid little gits from injuring themselves.

As from the very moment a hamster wakes up, it’s a danger to itself: dangling upside down from the cage roof (with the solution to getting down being just to let go), overfilling its cheeks with food or bedding, and overdoing it on the wheel.

Before we continue, if you’re after keeping one of these little dudes here’s our Pet Hamsters Guide to check out.

Hamster History

All of which leads us to the odd history of Syrian hamsters. Our source here is Hamsterlopadeia by Chris Logsdail, 2003, plus this National Geographic feature.

Syrian hamsters were spotted in 1797 by Alexander Russell, a doctor, who offered a description of them. They went unnamed for decades after.

The hamster was first described on a scientific level by George Robert Waterhouse. That was in 1839. It was 100 years until researchers were able to domesticate them.

In 1930, an expedition headed by zoologist Israel Aharoni set out to secure some of them. And Christine Dellamore’s National Geographic piece explains the rest:

"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).

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."

At this point in 2019, the entire population of Syrian hamsters is apparently descended from a pairing in imported to the University of Jerusalem in 1930.

It’s also unclear if the genus still exists in the wild. Yes, that’s a genuine thing. So all the Syrian hamster pets of this world are the ones keeping their species going, it appears.

Evolutionary Traits

Whilst all very cute and cuddly, hamsters still have a variety of tricks up their cheeks to further their species.

Stuffing a mass of food into their face is the most notable ability. Some of them take this really seriously – or just utterly fail to realise they’re overdoing it a bit.

Obviously, in its little minds the hamster is interested in gathering food, finding shelter, and avoiding predators. From a human perspective, their antics in completing those endeavours are a joy to behold.

But the hamster also knows how to chillax it up a notch. Having put all that effort into getting food back to its bed (yes, the hamster generally takes its food to bed and lies with it), it’ll proceed to half sleep, half eat.

The only trick it’s missing is Netflix.

It seems harsh to criticise hamsters as their bumbling ineptitude is rather adorable, but we do wonder how on Earth the species has avoided extinction given their casual ineptitude.

We guess out in the wild they’re a bit more, you know, on it. Domestication chills them out a tad.

Our Hamsters

Beans the hamster.
Beans.

Here’s a chance to offer a little homage to the hamsters we’ve loved looking after recently. This began with Beans (above), a Chinese dwarf hamster we picked up in 2012.

She was a moody and unfriendly little git, taking to nipping (a characteristic of dwarf hamsters) and singularly refused to take any food off us during her time on Earth.

But she was still cool. Check out the many emotions of Beans in this old post!

Plus, rather athletic – she could launch herself upside down onto the roof of the cage and tug herself all the way to the other side. Neato!

Boris the hamster
Boris.

We turned to Syrian hamsters after Beans, with Boris being a lovely little lady (we named her Boris thinking she was a man).

Something of an escape artist, Boris busted out of her makeshift home twice after extended gnawing sessions.

Unfortunately, she was with us for only five months before suffering a stroke.

Keith was next up. This lively, lovely little chap was highly amusing and quirky. He has a good run from 2013 right to the end of 2015.

This dude was obsessed with pumpkin seeds. But was also rather athletic, perfecting a backflip in his cage and also being goofy enough to fall off his perch on several occasions whilst standing on hind legs looking at us for food.

Finally, Steve the hamster was an epic little chap. He spent the first year of his life pretending to be a monkey, using 70% of his spare time to dangle from the roof of his cage.

As he got older, he soon realised he was a hamster and took to bombarding his wheel with utter gusto.

And, yes, there emerged a pumpkin seed obsession. But he would also go ballistic over broccoli – never have we seen anymore revel in the moment over the green stuff quite as much as Steve.

He’s also the longest living hamster we kept, raging on for two and a half years! That’s about 200 human years, so he had some real pluck about him.

9 comments

  1. I had a Chinese dwarf hamster when I was younger. The little dude was awesome.

    This post was a blast to read and the videos were great to watch! Too bad they live such relatively short lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, we had a guinea pig when I was a young one. I called it Scrambles, due to its hyperactivity.

      Hamsters are highly recommended. Until you own one you won’t quite “get” it. But then they become mandatory.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Really? I adore animals but right now I’ve got this little dog that has taken over my life. If I leave him he doesn’t eat or drink and goes into a catatonic state of deep depression until I return so I think this will be my last pet. These little guys are so fun though! The hamster, not my dog.

        Liked by 1 person

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