Golden hamsters are ubiquitous worldwide as pets and research animals. Wild populations are restricted to a small area of the Middle East. The majority of the species' range is encompassed by the Aleppinian plateau in Syria. Golden hamsters have also been reported in areas of Eastern Turkey. (Gattermann, et al., 2001; Burnie and Wilson, 2005)
Historically, golden hamsters probably inhabited open steppe habitat, which once characterized the Aleppinian plateau and adjacent areas. As their range has become increasingly populated however, golden hamsters have shown an affinity for agricultural areas. Hamster burrows are often found in legume plots or near irrigation wells. The climate of the region inhabited by golden hamsters is seasonal. Summers are hot (35-38 degrees C) at midday and cold (6-15 degrees C) at night. Winters are cold (~10 degrees C) and wet. Overall, precipitation is very low (~336 mm/year). (Gattermann, et al., 2001; Burnie and Wilson, 2005)
Golden hamsters are medium-sized hamsters, with adult mass ranging from 100 to 125 g. They are significantly smaller than common hamsters (Cricetus cricetus) of eastern Europe and western Asia,and larger than Roborovski's desert hamsters (Phodopus roborovskii) of China and Mongolia. As with many hamsters, golden hamsters have a blunt rostrum, relatively small eyes, large ears, and a short (1.5 cm) tail. The fur is golden-brown above, fading to gray or white on the ventral surface. Some individuals may also possess a dark forehead patch and a black stripe on each side of the face running from the cheek to the neck. (Alderton, 1996; Burnie and Wilson, 2005)
Females indicate their receptiveness to males primarly through olfactory cues in vaginal secretions. When the female is ready to mate, she will increase the frequency of vaginal marking, a behavior characterized by pressing the vaginal region against a surface and moving forward a few inches. (Lisk, 1985)
Ovulation in mature female golden hamsters is mainly determined by photoperiod. Ovulation is induced by long photoperiods (>12.5 hours) and will continue indefinitely as long as the photoperiod remains long. If the photoperiod is reduced, or if females are exposed to complete darkness in a lab setting, they will stop ovulating. However, after 5 months, the females will acclimate to this shorter photoperiod and begin ovulating spontaneously. In the wild, this photoperiodic cycle ensures that young are born during the season most favorable for their survival. (Lisk, 1985)
Golden hamsters have a gestation period of 16 days, the shortest gestation period among eutherian mammals. Average parturition time is 1.5 to 2.5 hours, during which 8 to 12 young are born. The young are altricial at birth, born with their eyes closed. They first open their eyes at 12 to 14 days of age. Weaning occurs at 19 to 21 days, and the young become sexually mature at about 1 month of age. (Clemens and Witcher, 1985; Lisk, 1985)
Despite a short gestation period, golden hamsters exhibit prenatal investment sufficient for the offspring to exhibit genital development at birth that is comparable to animals with longer gestation periods. The mother alone cares for the young. In some situations, the mother may reduce the size of her litter through cannibalism. In the wild, this is likely a strategy employed in times of limited resources, but in captivity, cannibalism is often a response to some sort of anthropogenic disturbance. (Clemens and Witcher, 1985)
Golden hamsters have relatively short life spans, 1.5 to 2 years on average. They can live nearly twice as long in captivity as in the wild. (Siegel, 1985)
Golden hamsters are solitary and highly territorial. They are highly aggressive toward conspecifics except when mating. To mark their territory, hamsters will make use of scent glands on their flanks. Individuals will rub their flanks against a substrate to spread their scent. A great deal of information can be discerned from flank markings, including kin recognition. Hamsters spend the day in their burrows, and wake at dusk. They spend most of the night gathering food, which they cache in their burrows. Over the course of a single evening, a single hamster may cover 8 miles as it scurries back and forth between food sources and its burrow. In the winter, golden hamsters exhibit a period of torpor that is not considered true hibernation. Torpor has been induced in captive animals exposed to temperatures below 8 degrees C. (Gattermann, et al., 2001; Burnie and Wilson, 2005; Heth, et al., 1998; Johnston, 1985)
Golden hamsters maintain a large distance between home burrows of conspecifics. The closest measurement between occupied golden hamster burrows in the wild was 118 m. (Gattermann, et al., 2001)
Golden hamsters communicate mainly by scent marking, but they also employ a variety of auditory signals. They produce squeaking sounds in several situations, usually in association with sudden body movements. In addition, hamsters exhibit teeth chattering. Teeth chattering behavior is a sign of aggression. It has been recorded in 92% of male to male interactions observed, in 39% of female to female interactions, and in only 5% of male to female encounters. Young hamsters are able to produce ultrasonic squeaks that likely are important in maternal care of the young. Hamsters also rely on visual signals in communicating with conspecifics. In interactions between dominant and submissive individuals, the submissive individual will arch its back and lift its tail. The dominant individual will then mount the subordinate to assert dominance. In male to female interactions, the female will signal that she is ready to mate by taking a quick series of short steps, and assuming a posture in which the body is stretched out, the back legs are splayed, and the tail is up. This posture is referred to as the Lordosis posture. The female may remain in this position for up to 10 minutes. The male will follow the female and sniff and lick her genital region, likely to gather chemical signals. There has additionally been some speculation that the pelage of an individual hamster has a bearing on its social status. However, studies have had contradictory results. (Johnston, 1985)
Golden hamsters are omnivorous, feeding on seeds, nuts, and insects, including ants (Formicidae), flies (Diptera), cockroaches (Blattaria), and wasps (Hymenoptera). (Burnie and Wilson, 2005)
Golden hamsters serve as a food source for many different predators, including foxes, mustelids, birds of prey, and snakes. Golden hamsters avoid predation by seeking shelter in their burrows and through vigilance. Their rapid reproductive rate means that golden hamster populations can withstand relatively high rates of predation. (Gattermann, et al., 2001)
Like many small rodents, golden hamsters serve as a food source for many other animals. As a result of their diet of seeds and grains, they also disperse seeds, as seeds are often lost in the process of caching. Abandoned hamster burrows are often used by other animals, such as toads. (Gattermann, et al., 2001)
Because of their short gestation period and ability to spontaneously ovulate, golden hamsters are an excellent model organism for use in research. Many studies have been conducted in which hamsters were the test subjects. Hamsters are also extremely popular as pets. Many domestic varieties have been developed for the pet trade. (Gattermann, et al., 2001; Lisk, 1985)
Golden hamsters are considered agricultural pests in the wild. The government of Syria provides rodenticides to farmers in hopes of controlling hamsters. (Gattermann, et al., 2001)
Golden hamsters are listed as endangered by the IUCN because of their small geographic range and localized distribution. The greatest threat to wild populations is human encroachment on habitat. Hamsters continue to be trapped and poisoned as agricultural pests. Because of the wide use of golden hamsters as pets and research animals, the species is in no danger of becoming fully extinct, but wild populations are under threat. (Gattermann, et al., 2001; Burnie and Wilson, 2005)
Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Alex Champagne (author), Michigan State University, Barbara Lundrigan (editor, instructor), Michigan State University.
living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.
uses sound to communicate
living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.
young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.
ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.
having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
active during the night
an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals
the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.
having more than one female as a mate at one time
communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them
breeding is confined to a particular season
remains in the same area
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
places a food item in a special place to be eaten later. Also called "hoarding"
uses touch to communicate
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
Living on the ground.
defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement
A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.
A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.
A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.
uses sound above the range of human hearing for either navigation or communication or both
uses sight to communicate
reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.
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Gattermann, R., P. Fritzsche, K. Neumann, I. Al-Hussein, A. Kayser, M. Abiad, R. Yakti. 2001. Notes on the current distribution and the ecology of wild golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus). Journal of Zoology, 254: 359-365.
Heth, G., J. Todrank, R. Johnston. 1998. Kin recognition in golden hamsters: evidence for phenotype matching. Animal Behaviour, 56: 409-417.
Johnston, R. 1985. Communication. Pp. 121-148 in H Siegel, ed. The Hamster: Reproduction and Behavior. New York, NY and London, U.K.: Plenum Press.
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Siegel, H. 1985. Characteristics of Mesocricetus auratus. Pp. 435-436 in H Siegel, ed. The Hamster: Reproduction and Behavior. New York, NY: Plenum Press.