Gerbil owners are familiar with the amusing and endearing antics of their animals, so it may come as a surprise that pet gerbils, even though they may seem wholly domesticated, are quite similar to their wild counterparts. Most gerbils sold in pet stores are descended from Meriones unguiculatus, the Mongolian gerbil, which, as the name suggests, lives in high Asian altitudes.
The Mongolian Gerbil
There are actually well over 90 species of gerbils in the world, but the vast majority of domesticated gerbils are related to the Mongolian gerbil. These gerbils were first discovered living in Mongolia in the 1860s by French explorer and naturalist Armand David, but it was not until the 1930s that they were bred in captivity and subsequently became popular with the public as pets, according to PETA.
Gerbils, like many rodents, are highly social animals that live with their extended family in groups of as many as 20 in the interior of Mongolia, which is why pet owners are advised to keep at least two gerbils at a time in the same cage, preferably of the same sex to avoid unwanted breeding. In captivity, gerbils may live as long as five years, but their lifetime in the wild can be as short as three years, says PETA.
In the wild, Mongolian gerbils live in a series of tunnels that make up their family burrow. Much like domestic gerbils, wild gerbils dig out underground areas for sleeping, birthing and taking care of young and storing food. Because they live in dry areas, flooding from rain is not a frequent problem for their underground homes.
Mongolian gerbils in the wild have similar diets as their domesticated cousins, in the sense that they are vegetarian and feed on local plant life. However, because they live in high, dry altitudes, vegetation is scarce during winter. Thus, gerbil families will store grains and other plant matter in their burrows to sustain them during the colder months when other sources of food are exhausted. This also keeps them from having to brave the harsh winter weather, as their small bodies would lose heat quickly, a potentially life-threatening situation.
Given the arid nature and cold weather of the Mongolian gerbil's habitat, it does not share the landscape with many other animals. However, it does have to deal with some natural predators, such as area snakes as well as carnivorous birds.