Photograph by Eric Baccega, Nature Picture Library
Read Caption
Black-bellied hamsters are found in the wild in Europe. They're around 12 inches (30 centimeters) long, making them the largest wild hamsters.
Photograph by Eric Baccega, Nature Picture Library

Hamsters: From the Wild to Your Bedroom

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.

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.

View Images
Golden Hamsters are common as pets and few live in the wild.

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.

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.