In 1930, Professor Aharoni captured a female Syrian hamster (otherwise called Golden or Teddy bear hamster) with her twelve pups in Aleppo (Syria). Since then, this species has become a highly popular household pet throughout western states. In fact, all Syrian hamsters that are now kept as pets, originate from this single captured female. Syrian hamster is a small rodent of the Cricetinae family. According to the Louisiana Veterinary Medical Association, this animal was introduced to North America in 1936 and became one of the first domesticated pet hamsters. The rodent is so called since individuals in the wild are usually colored in golden brown. Syrian hamster has cheek pouches that are used as food stores.
The natural range of Syrian hamster is a quite small area in the Middle East, restricted to northern Syria and southern Turkey. Populations in the wild are most commonly found in fertile, agricultural and densely populated areas on Aleppinian plateau (Syria). Preferred habitats of this species are steppes, sand dunes, edges of deserts and other warm, dry areas.
These solitary animals normally don't tolerate individuals of their kind, although they socialize during the mating season. Syrian hamsters are highly territorial, scent marking their home ranges with glands, found on their flanks. When scent marking, they simply rub their flanks against a substrate, thus leaving the scent, which can convey various types of information, even allowing to identify individuals. This species is nocturnal, the daytime hours are usually spent in burrows and the activity period begins at dusk. During the nighttime hours, these rodents forage, taking multiple trips between food sources and their burrow to carry and store the food in their dwellings. Each hamster travels as much as 8 miles per one evening to find and cache food. During the winter months, Syrian hamsters hibernate or enter a state of torpor. Captive individuals usually hibernate when the temperature drops under 8 degrees Celsius.
Syrian hamsters are polygynous animals, which mean that one male mates with multiple females. Breeding in this species depends on photoperiods or day length: Syrian hamsters breed when photoperiods are long. During each breeding season, females are able to produce young approximately every month. Gestation period is 16 days, yielding 8 - 12 altricial young that are born with closed eyes. The babies are cared by their mother, whereas the father usually doesn't participate in rearing the young. After producing large litters, some females may reduce the litter size by cannibalism. Females in the wild usually do it during food shortages, while those in captivity display cannibalism as a response to anthropogenic disturbance. Young hamsters open their eyes at 12 - 14 days old and are weaned at 19 - 21 days of age. The age of sexual maturity is one month old.
Population of this species in Syria is threatened by loss of its natural habitat due to development of human settlements. In February, when their burrow entrances begin to emerge, these animals are heavily trapped and poisoned throughout their range as serious pest species. During May-June, when fields are harvested, burnt and ploughed, sheep clean out remaining vegetation, leaving Syrian hamsters without cover, nutrition and winter food supply.
The IUCN Red List doesn’t provide the exact number of Syrian hamsters’ population. However, the total population may consist of fewer than 2,500 mature individuals. Currently, this species is classified as Vulnerable (VU) and its numbers are decreasing.
These animals are key prey species for many local predators. Moreover, Syrian hamsters act as seed dispersers due to feeding upon various seeds and grains that are occasionally lost while storing. And finally, burrows of these rodents are used by other species, including toads.