These rodents are found in a wide range of habitats, from northern Europe in a broad band across much of Asia, apart from the southeastern corner. Twenty-four species are known but, as in the gerbils, only one - the Golden, or Syrian, Hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) - has become popular as a pet throughout the world.
The Golden, or Syrian, Hamster
The Golden Hamster was first discovered in 1839 and, forty years later, live specimens were brought to England from Syria by James Skene, who had been serving there in the diplomatic service. This group seems to have thrived for thirty years, with the final progeny dying in 1910.
Subsequently, there seems to have been none of these rodents in captivity until April, 1930. Indeed, it was suggested that the species was extinct, until Dr. Israel Aharoni discovered a nest of Syrian Hamsters on Mount Appo in Syria. The young hamsters were transferred to the Hebrew University at Jerusalem. The breeding program was not entirely successful at first, since four of the eight hamsters escaped, and then a female died as a result of a fight with the only surviving male. From this unpromising beginning, however, the male mated successfully with both the other females and, within a year, three hundred and sixty-four offspring had been reared.
Some of the progeny were sent to Dr. Edward Hindle in England and, possibly via breeding stock at the London Zoo, Golden Hamsters became available to the pet-owning public. It was not until the start of the Second World War that these hamsters were seen alive in North America. It is amazing to reflect that all such hamsters kept throughout the world today are believed to be the direct descendants from that nest found on Mount Appo more than half a century ago.
An unusual and often disconcerting habit of hamsters is their ability to hibernate if environmental conditions are unfavorable. This is a natural trait, which to some extent is now less apparent in domesticated stock. The hamster's body temperature falls from the normal level of about 37 C (98.7 F) to a little above the environmental temperature. The respiratory rate is barely one breath a minute, whereas under normal circumstances the figure reaches up to one hundred or more. Since the heart beat can also be as low as four contractions per minute, compared with five hundred per minute in the active animal, to the casual observer a hibernating hamster appears dead. A fall in temperature, coupled with declining periods of light, will trigger hamsters to enter this torpid state.
Clearly, in a room in the home heated during cold weather, such behavior is less likely to occur. To encourage a hibernating hamster to wake from its sleep, transfer it to a warm position where it can awake gradually. A temperature in excess of 20 C (68 F) is ideal. Gradually the hamster's breathing will become apparent, and its body will warm up as blood flow to the skin increases. If you discover a hamster apparently dead in the nest, treat it in this way to establish whether or not it has simply entered a torpid state.
Other factors also influence a hamster's readiness to enter a state of dormancy. These include the provision of a very deep layer of bedding material and, significantly, an opportunity for the hamster to store food. Hoarding behavior is quite natural, with food being taken back in the cheek pouches and stored in the nest.