The Discovery of the Syrian (Golden) Hamster, Mesocricetus Auratus
Author: Chris Henwood
From Issue 39 Oct 2001
Chris Henwood is one of the UK's leading authorities on the husbandry of small rodent species. He keeps a wide range of such subjects at his home.This article is a reprint of one Chris wrote for the BHA's first magazine in the Spring of 1992.
The main area of my interest in animals is the 1750+ different species, and sub-species of rodents. The most commonly retained of these I am sure I do not have to tell you is the Syrian or Golden Hamster. We have all heard the story of how in 1930 a mother and babies were dug from the Syrian desert and these are the founders of all the hamsters alive today, but is this the real story? Recently while researching for a new book, I thought I would look more closely at the myths that surround the "discovery" of the Syrian Hamster in 1930.
The earliest known description of the Golden Hamster, as it was then always called, was published in 1797 (yes as long ago as that) in the Natural History of Aleppo by Alexander Russell, with additional notes by his younger brother Patrick. I think that it is perhaps important to know a little about Alexander. He was a physician practising in the Aleppo area of Syria from 1740-1750, where it appears he became one of the leading experts on the plague that was sweeping the area. During these ten years he kept very detailed records of the fauna, flora, climate and culture of the region. In fact he appears to have taken notes on every detail of the area and the people that lived there, and published the first edition of the Natural History of Aleppo in 1756. Patrick Russell lived in Aleppo from 1750-1781 and published the second edition well after the death of Alexander. The Hamster was not mentioned in the first edition, but is in the second. So perhaps Patrick discovered the species, but nothing is certain; it may also have been contained in unpublished papers of Alexander and not discovered until after his death when Patrick decided to revamp the text. The passage on the hamster from this book which is now, perhaps naturally, out of print, reads "... The hamster is less common than the Field Mouse. I once found upon dissecting one of them, the pouch on each side stuffed with young French beans. arranged lengthways so exactly, and close to each other, that it appeared strange by what mechanism it had been effected; for the membrane which forms the pouch, though muscular, is thin, and the most expert fingers could not have packed the beans in more regular order. When they were laid loosely on the table, they formed a heap three times the bulk of the animals body.
To me the most surprising thing is that Russell (whichever) did not claim to have discovered a new species, but appears to have mistakenly accepted the Syrian was the same species as the Common European Hamster. Therefore the species wasn't named either by or after Russell. Instead the Syrian or Golden Hamster was named by George Robert Waterhouse, who presented it as a new species in 1839.
George Robert Waterhouse was, at the age of 29, Curator of the London Zoological Society. He presented
the "new" species at a meeting of the Society on the 9th April 1839. This presentation was based on a
single rather elderly female specimen received from Aleppo, Syria. Isn't it strange how Aleppo appears at
every stage in the history of this species? His description was published in the Society's proceedings of 1840
thus: "... This species is less than the Common Hamster (Cricetus Vulgaris)
(Please note that this has since been changed to Cricetus Cricetus)
and is remarkable for its deep golden yellow colouring. The fur is moderately long and very soft and has a silk-like gloss; the deep yellow colouring extends over the upper parts and sides of the head and body and also over the outer sides of the limbs; on the back the hairs are brownish at the tips hence in this part the fur assumes a deeper hue than on the sides of the body; the sides of the throat and upper pans of the body are white, but faintly tinted with yellow; on the back and sides of the body, all hairs are of a deep grey or lead colour at the base. The feet and tail are white. The ears are of moderate size, furnished externally with whitish hairs. The moustaches consist of black and white hairs intermixed ..."
The collector and donor of the specimen was either unknown or at the very least
unacknowledged, but following the description this hamster, remember an elderly female so perhaps not in
good health when captured, became the "type" specimen for the new species Cricetus Auratus; Waterhouse (the genus name Mesocricetus was a later modification). I recently found this old lady still at the Natural History Museum in London. She is a rather sorry sight but is quite interesting. She is actually named:- Item BM(NH) 1818.104.22.168. (not a very nice name for such a wonderful old girl).
Editor's note: it's unclear whether the British Museum still has this specimen, as of 2022. A search on their website for "hamster" returned no relevant results. If you have information that would clarify, or add to this article, please contact me and I'll update it.
So now if you take the old story as the truth then little was heard of the Golden Hamster for almost exactly 100 years. Wrong! In fact a group of unknown number was brought from Syria to the UK by James Henry Skeene. He had been British Consul to Syria and on his retirement in 1880 returned to Britain. I can sadly find no reference that he wrote anything about the species in general or his animals in particular, and if anyone can help with this area I would be very grateful. It does however appear that they bred in this country at least until 1910 when the last individuals appear to have either died or been destroyed (perhaps on the death of Skeene?).
Again no information, and, more to the point, no interest, until the late 1920s. At this time Saul Alder a parasitologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was conducting research on the prevalent disease, Leishmaniasis, for which the "Chinese" Hamster had been shown to be an excellent animal model. However, Alder had been unable to breed Chinese Hamsters successfully and found it totally unacceptable to keep relying on shipments from China. He therefore wanted to obtain a species of hamster that was endemic to the Middle East. It appears that he knew of the Syrian Hamster from reading the description by Waterhouse, but some authorities propose (and I think I would go along with this) that he was actually more interested in the Grey or Migratory Hamster (Cricetulus Migratorius) which was and still is quite widespread in Asia Minor. Whichever he was looking for, he asked a colleague from the Zoology Department to help him obtain some endemic hamsters. Thus it appears that the real reason we have the Syrian today is due to the fact that the Chinese Hamsters were unwilling to have anything to do with sex.
Sorry ... back to the story ... well the zoologist in question was one Israel Aharoni - quite a colourful character from what I can gather. He was born in Widzi on the Russian/Polish border and educated in Prague. He is known as the first Hebrew zoologist because he rediscovered or at least assigned Hebrew names to the animals of the Holy Land. At the time of his early life and expeditions in Jerusalem the region was still under the strict rule of the Turks. Aharoni, a Jew, in a Moslem world was only able to travel freely under the protection of the local Turkish Sultan and he received this because he obtained specimens for the Sultan's butterfly collection. On these collecting trips he appears to have collected just about every animal he came across, always assisted by local guides; the initial preparation of the specimens was done in the field and then they were sent to Berlin. However, many of his specimens are still available for you to study today if you care to visit the Russian Compound of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
It was on one such expedition as this in 1930 that Aharoni on Saul Alder's request looked for hamsters. An account of this was published in Aharoni's memoirs in 1942. Although there may be some question as to whether or not Alder knew of the Syrian Hamster, Aharoni certainly did and he knew that it was this species he would look for. It appears that on his arrival in the Aleppo region, he instructed his local Syrian guide Georgius Khalil Tah'an, to go to a certain farm and entreat the local Sheikh (Sheikh El-Beled) to provide information on the location of the hamsters in the area. On 12th April 1930, the Sheikh called a meeting and it was decided by the village to hunt out this creature in the best fields that had a colony. The Sheikh hired a few locals as labourers and they dug in many areas destroying a good proportion of the wheat field. After quite a few hours of hard work they succeeded in raising from the depth of eight feet a complete nest, nicely populated by a female and her eleven young. Thinking that the mother would care for her infants and feed them well with no problems, the whole family was placed in a colony box. I think that what happened next is so important that it should be left to Aharoni's own words: '... I saw the hamster harden her heart and sever with ugly cruelty the head of the pup that approached her most closely (each of the young measuring about 2.5 cms) natural mother love led her to kill her dear child. 'It is better that my infant die than that it be the object of an experiment performed on it by a member of the accursed human race'. When Georgius saw this act of savagery,, he quickly removed the mother hamster (for she would surely kill them all) and put her in a bottle of cyanide to kill her ..." So, simply because this, the first live captured wild female hamster was an anti-vivisectionist and didn't realise how much her offspring would soon come to mean to so many people, she died. Aharoni however was left with ten babies to raise by hand. There is no record of the approximate age of the litter, but their eyes were still closed when captured. Aharoni and his wife did succeed as foster parents and the litter survived. After an escape and recapture of nine of them they were given to Hein Ben-Menachen. the founder and head of the Hebrew University Animal Facilities on Mt. Scopas.
Ben-Menachen placed the hamsters in a cage with a wooden floor. The next morning five had escaped having chewed their way through the bottom of the cage. Ben-Menachen was very upset, particularly when Aharoni pointed out how difficult it was to capture these creatures. None of the five escapees were recovered alive. According to Aharoni the remaining four consisted of three males and a single female. However, the statement is contradicted by S Alder in 1948; in which he indicated that one male and three females survived the escape attempt and one female was later killed by the male. Israel Aharoni was rather sceptical that the remaining animals would breed, but Hein Ben-Menachem had other ideas. He filled a large wire mesh cage with tightly packed hay, leaving only 5 cm brightly illuminated space on the top. Into this space he placed his female. Seeking darkness, the female began to burrow into the hay. A day or so later the male was placed into the cage. It proceeded to chase the female and finally caught up with her. By then both were tired and the male was presumably quite aroused. Their position in the burrow was more favourable to mating than to slaughter, and they mated. The first hamster colony was prolific and numbered 150 within the first year, although again various authorities have different figures: including strangely 365 for the first year.
The first laboratory-bred hamsters were given to Alder who published a report on the first research using Syrian Hamsters a short time later. Realising the fragility of a single colony Alder distributed stock to various other laboratories. The Syrian Hamsters arrived in England in 1931 and were literally smuggled into the country in Alder's coat pockets: why, I'm afraid, I don't know. These were given to E Hindle of the Zoological Society of London.
Although not mentioned by Aharoni in any papers, he apparently captured more individuals than just the mother and her litter, as three adult female specimens captured on April 27th & 29th 1930, and attributed to him. are in the collection of the Berlin Museum and can still be seen there. There is general agreement that hamsters were first imported into the USA in the summer of 1938, although the exact nature of the importation is confused as is the importation of stock to mainland Europe.
The next recorded capture of wild Syrian Hamsters that I can trace was in May and June 1971, when American Michael R Murphy obtained thirteen animals at Aleppo. Twelve (four males and eight females) were taken back to the USA. Murphy records that after only three days of handling, the wild caught hamsters were tame and gentle. All animals mated within four weeks of capture and all eight females produced litters. The average litter size was eleven and every baby was raised to weaning. I'm in the process of attempting to track down this colony once it arrived in the USA and any information any reader may have would be most gratefully received. In 1978 Bill Ducan of SW Medical School Dallas, Texas, USA made a third capture in the same area and returned to the USA with two females. Again I can trace no information on this group.
In 1980 a Rodent Control Officer, while working at the Field Centre for the International Centre for Agricultural Research In the Dry Areas, captured two animals both of which had unfortunately eaten rat bait being tested and died soon after. In November 1982 the same officer captured, at the same site, a further pair: sadly the male died within a short period, and although the female reached quarantine in England safely, no attempt was made to breed her. With the help of the Zoological Society of London, and Clinton Keeling, she arrived at my home in June 1983. She was an extremely tame individual who was up and about at all times of the day and made great friends with myself. Sadly, although every attempt was made to breed from her, all failed - I assume due to her age; she eventually died in January 1985 at a ripe old age. Since then, as far as I can ascertain, no further attempt has been made to capture individuals from the wild although it is rumoured that the Tel Aviv Zoological Gardens has wild caught stock and that the species does occur in Israel proper.
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