Hamsters: From the Wild to Your Bedroom

Your pet hamster has some wild ancestors!

Photograph by Lilly, Dreamstime

Published November 18, 2014


Cheeks puffed, growling, and ready to pick a fight with a barn cat: The black-bellied hamster is a far cry from the domesticated hamster you might have as a pet. It’s a good thing these black-bellied hamsters are defending themselves, because in France, where only 500 to 1,000 remain in the wild, these courageous critters are literally fighting for survival.


In the December 2014/January 2015 issue of National Geographic Kids magazine, you can find out more about wild hamsters in France, their history, and what people are doing to help their populations recover. And read below to learn more about wild and pet hamsters.

Where Did Your Pet Hamster Come From?

One of the most popular species of pet hamsters in North America and Western Europe is the Syrian, or golden, hamster, which was discovered in the wild in 1797. So how did this hamster get from the Middle East all the way to your bedroom or classroom? Thank zoologist Israel Aharoni. During a 1930 expedition to look for these golden hamsters, he and local Sheikh El-Beled uncovered a golden hamster and her 11 young living 8 feet (2.4 meters) below a wheat field.

Aharoni brought the hamsters back to Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The hamsters quickly multiplied, soon finding their way into universities, zoos, and eventually homes around the world.

Hamsters Close-Up


There are over 20 species of hamsters, which are related to voles, lemmings, and mice. Only five species are common as pets. Wild hamsters are found throughout much of Europe and Asia. All hamsters are nocturnal, or active at night. They have terrible eyesight but their senses of smell and touch, as well as their whiskers, help them navigate. Take a look at how the black-bellied hamster compares to a common pet hamster.


Photograph by Eric Baccega, Nature Picture Library

Black-bellied hamster

Cricetus cricetus

  • Can’t be tamed

  • Lives in the wild in Europe, from Belgium to Siberia

  • Around 12 inches (30 centimeters) long, making it the largest hamster


Photograph by Stockdreams, Dreamstime

Golden hamster (aka Syrian hamster)

Mesocricetus auratus

  • Common as pets

  • Limited number lives in the wild in Syria

  • Around 6 inches (15 centimeters) long

Portions of this story were taken from the "Wild Hamsters" article written by Kate Jaimet in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of National Geographic Kids magazine.