The Syrian hamster, also known as a golden hamster, is a popular small pet. Known for its chubby cheek pouches, small ears and tail, these hamsters have gone from the wild to a mainstay of pet shops and scientific laboratories only in the last 100 years. Still active in the wild in Syria, the animal's habitat has been threatened, and it is considered vulnerable to extinction.
Syrian hamsters were first identified in the 19th century but weren't fully studied until 1930, when scientist Israel Aharoni set out to collect and examine them. Aharoni's discovery of Syrian hamsters led to the spreading of the species throughout the world. He took the hamsters back to Jerusalem, where some escaped from his lab and became wild in Israel. Other animals from Aharoni's collection help spread the breed as lab specimens and pets in the United States and England.
In the Wild
Part of what made Syrian hamsters so hard to find and identify in the wild is their size and colouring. In the desert climate of Syria, the small creatures with dusky brown coats are hard to spot. Their nocturnal activity also makes them tricky to discover. But these days, Syrian hamsters are rare, as their natural habitats are encroached on by development. Wild hamsters have been designated as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Syrian hamsters are considered good pets because of their size, ease of care and cost. Hamsters are usually around 6 inches long and live for about two or three years. Syrian hamsters are solitary and are better to be left one to a cage. A drawback for a pet owner is the hamster's nocturnal habits, which can include digging and playing at night. Hamsters eat fruits and vegetables or premade hamster pellets, made from grain.
As Lab Specimens
Like rats, mice and other small rodents, Syrian hamsters have also been adopted as an animal to experiment on in laboratories. Hamsters are the fifth most commonly used animal in research -- behind mice, rats, rabbits, and guinea pigs -- according to a study by the University of South Alabama. Hamsters are useful in scientific study because of their abundance and ease of breeding. Hamsters can also be inbred to study genetics.