If you’ve ever wondered where your hamster comes from, know that I asked myself the same question. Turns out hamsters have a short history of being pets, and some really wild and rugged ancestors.
It’s a whole story, really. And there’s more than just one hamster type. Today there’s 5 types of hamster available for purchase, and they’re all a bit different.
But let’s start with the basics: where do they come from, where do they go ? (Cotton-eyed Joe)
So where do hamsters come from ?
Hamsters, as a whole, have several ‘roots’ but they all stem from the same general region. Reaching from southern Turkey, Syria, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, parts of China, hamsters are mostly Asian in descent.
At least the ones that we’ve been able to domesticate somewhat, and keep as pets. Each hamster type has a different story, but they have a common thread. That of being noticed in the wild by one scientist or explorer, and brought back to the Western world as pets.
The modern hamster, aside from variations in coat patterns, is very much the same as the wild hamsters discovered about a century ago.
Next, we’ll cover the roots of each hamster type, and how they came to be our pets, including how to care for them given their ancestry.
About the Syrian hamster
Originally from southern Turkey and Syria, the Syrian hamster is the largest of the pet hamsters (up to 7 inches/18 cm). They come from a very hot and dry place on this planet.
They’re the most diverse-looking hamsters out there. They can be all in one color, spotted, ringed, with a dominant spot, golden, or ashen, or pretty much any color combination you can imagine.
The most common is the Golden variation – also the one found in the wild – with orange on the back, and white on the belly, with a bit of grey on his ears. My Teddy is like that.
The Syrian was first sighted in 1839, but didn’t become a pet until the past few decades. You see what happened was that all the way back in 1930 a zoologist named Israel Aharoni was able to find a mother hamster, with a litter of 11 babies.
They were found in Syria, and brought to Jerusalem for study. Not all of the litter survived, since the mother sensed danger and started eating the babies. Unfortunately that happens, and the zoologist wasn’t aware, no one had known hamsters before.
A few of the babies survived, and were raised in the laboratory in Jerusalem. Some escaped, and became the wild hamsters of Israel.
In 1931 a few of them were transported to Britain, and from the on raised and passed on to various laboratories for studies, and to breeders as well.
Today’s modern Syrian hammies are descended from that one mother found in Syria, since none have ever been successfully captured and bred since. So my Teddy – Golden Syrian male – is probably related to your Syrian hammy, like very very distant cousins.
About the Roborovski Dwarf
The Roborovski hammy, or the Robo Dwarf, was first sighted and noted by Lt. Vsevolod Roborovski, a russian expeditioner.
These hammies are much, much smaller than the Syrian, and they’re actually the tiniest of all hamsters. They grow up to 2 inches/ 5 cm and that’s it.
Robos live in parts of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. The regions of those countries that the hamster lives in are particularly dry and sandy, with very little vegetation and water, so this hammy has learned to be great at surviving on very little water.
The Robo was brought in the common household only around 1960 when they were imported into the London Zoo, in the U.K.
Given their small size Roborovski hammies have become very popular as pets, and they’re among the hamster types that can live in a pair. Even if they’re the smallest and hardest pet to literally hold onto, Robos win with their cuteness.
Their fur markings are more limited than the Syrian hamsters, but they live the longest – up to 4 years being the record.
About the Campbell Dwarf
The first ever Campbell Dwarf was found and collected in 1902 in Mongolia by Charles William Campbell (hence the name).
The territory these hamsters live in is somewhere between southern Russia, northern China, Mongolia, and a part of Kazakhstan. Most hamsters, aside from the Syrian and European hamster, come from that area, actually.
Of all the hamster species, the Campbell Dwarf is the most social. They’ve been found living with other hamster types in order to share tunnels, protection, and food.
They also come close to human settlements to find warmth, shelter, and food. For example they can be sometimes found in mongolian yurts in the winter months.
It’s unclear how these furry creatures came to the Western world since there are no definite records. Still, I’d imagine it happened like with the rest of the hammies that can be purchased now..
About the Siberian/Winter white Dwarf
The most confusing hamster type out there, it’s usually confused with the Campbell Dwarf.
The Siberian hammy’s name is always a mix, ranging from:
- Siberian (given the region it lives in)
- to Winter White since its fur changes to white in the winter
- to Russian since it inhabits parts of Russia
- and finally Djungarian for another region of China this hamster lives in
- plus the added “Dwarf”, to make it all even more confusing
Now that being said, this particular hamster lives in parts of Russia, Siberia, China, and Mongolia. The appearance is a lot like the Campbell Dwarf, but with a few key differences.
The Siberian Dwarf is small, with a white belly, and a browny color on its back, a dark stripe going down the back, and a dark spot on its crown. In the winter the fur goes almost completely white.
The Campbell hamster has the same look, but grey on its belly, and has a much thinner stripe down the back, with no dark fur on the crown. They can interbreed only by male Siberian and female Campbell , but the result is a sterile litter.
Naming and discovery happened in 1773 by Peter Simon Pallas, who first described it as a mouse, and later renamed it Mouse Songarus.
The Siberian hammy was brought to Germany (and the West in general) only in 1968, all the way from western Siberia to the Max Planck institute in Germany.
About the Chinese Dwarf
This hamster was also discovered by the same zoologist as the Siberian Dwarf, Peter Simon Pallas, and recorded in 1773.
There is some serious confusion between the Chinese hamster, and the Striped Chinese hamster. They seem to be the same species, but it’s honestly hard to make sense of the conflicting info. Some say they’re the same, some say they’re each other subspecies, some say they’re completely different.
What’s definite though is that they both have a longer tail than other domestic hamsters, and look mostly the same. As in mostly brown with a few darker hairs, and a very thin dark stripe going down the back.
These hammies are larger than a Dwarf, but smaller than a Syrian. As in, the reach up to 4 inches/ 10 cm, yet they’re classified as Dwarf types, given that they’re still smaller than the Syrian.
Chinese hamsters are also very territorial, and can’t be housed together. They and the Syrian hamster will fight to the death, even if introduced to their own siblings as babies.
The region these hamsters live in ranges from Mongolia, China, Korea, Western Siberia, Southern Russia.
There is a wild European hamster no one has ever tamed
Alright, after all these hamster types that you can find in most pet shops, there is another one. A much larger, completely impossible to tame hamster.
The European hamster, or black-bellied hamster, can grow to double the size of a Syrian hammy. So that puts an adult European to about 8-14 inches/20-35 cm !
Their fur is usually brown, with a black belly, chest, and neck and a few white markings on the neck and paws.
Its territory ranges from Belgium and Eastern Europe, all the way to Western Russia. Aside from this, not much is known about this hamster when it comes to who named it and why it’s not suitable as a pet.
I’m guessing its large size makes it harder to keep in check, and thus wouldn’t be a good pet. That’s just my guess though.
How the wild hamster came to be your cuddly pet
Now that you know where your hammy came from, now let’s see which kind of hamster you have. You can find a simple, clear guide to hamster breeds here, so you know which hamster type you have.
And here you’ll find the main differences between the Syrian hammy, and the Dwarf type hammies out there. There’s quite a few differences.
Okay, now you know which hammy you have. But how did it become your pet ? Actually, why did hamsters in general become pets ?
Well, as you’ve read most of the hamster types were imported to either Britain or Germany for study. Back in the day zoologists and explorers did intense research and expeditions to find out everything you now read in your zoology and biology textbook.
They did more than just that, but that’s the part where the hamsters come in. So hamsters became both laboratory animals, and zoo expositions as well.
Once scientists and professors started getting valuable info about the hamsters and they became widely known, they started to become gifts. For a dignitary or diplomat, hamsters were given as pets, and were exported into toe U.S. as well in the late 1900’s.
So the hamster has a history of curiosity in the wild, to laboratory animal, to zoo animal, and finally as a pet. They became very popular as pets in 1930-40, and only grown in popularity since.
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Pet hamsters vs wild hamsters – is there a difference ?
When it comes to temperament, the modern hamster isn’t all that different from the wild hamster. Given the fact that the selective breeding process has been going on for less than a century, your hammy at home isn’t decidedly tame or domesticated.
Unlike dogs for example, who’ve been bred for thousands of years, and became domestic and tame and loving pets, hamsters have a very short history of being pets.
And there is also the difference between rodents and canines, which makes rodents harder to teach.
That being said, if you were to release your Syrian hammy in your back yard, it would have a low chance or survival, depending on where you live.
If you’re in a warm, sandy, dry place, it would be a lot like his home and he’d scamper away to dig a burrow.
If you’re like us in a cooler, more humid place, with all 4 seasons, your Syrian hammy would perish as soon as autumn kicked in.
It’s not necessarily the cold that gets to them, but the humidity that goes through their fur and makes them sick very fast.
When it comes to markings though, the modern hamster has many more variations than the wild one. Aside from that though, your pet hammy is mostly the same as his wild cousin.
Is a hamster a good pet for your home ?
A hamster is a great pet to have, but he comes with his own challenges. Hamsters are very sensitive to temperature, light, sounds, and smells.
They don’t do well in crowded, loud homes, and react very badly under stress. They also get stressed very easily, to there’s that too.
The ideal home for a hamster is a quiet, calm home, with not many adults, children, or pets running around the house, and of an even temperature.
For this reason, and the fact that they’re mostly nocturnal and sleep during the day, hamsters are deceptive pets. They look cute and sound easy to take care of, but need constant handling in order to remain tame.
Hamsters are still wild animals, and rodents at that. So they’re excellent escape artists, and will often gnaw on everything they can.
That being said, having a hamster as a pet can be rewarding on its own. It’s just very different from having a puppy or a kitten. You can find out more about what having a hamster is like.
And if you want to know how to choose a good hamster for you, check out this guide on the health and personality traits to look out for in your pet hamster.
A word from Teddy
I hope you liked reading about us hammies, and how we came to be your pets. I know it can be a bit confusing, but we’ve had a wild ride all the way to your home.
If you want to know more about us hamsters, you can read the related articles below, for steps on how to care for us and so on.