All too often when we think of hamsters we think of the five domestic species that we know and love today. Those species include the Chinese hamster, the Syrian hamster, the Russian Campbell dwarf hamster, the Winter White dwarf hamster and the Roborovski dwarf hamster. These hamsters have only been in the pet market for a short amount of time in comparison to many of our other beloved pets such as the dog, cat or even the rat. Something that many people do not consider is that there are other species of hamsters in the wild. Not only that, but there are many other species of hamsters. I have put this together so that we may learn about the forgotten relatives.
The easiest way to go through these species of hamsters is to use some sort of organizational system. Science has provided us with a nice classification system for us to use. This system is the taxonomic system. It takes all living beings (even plants and fungi) and it breaks them down level by level in order to organize them. The main structure of this classification system consists of the following:
Kingdom> Phylum> Class> Order> Family> Genus > Species
This classification can be broken down further, but for our needs it does not need to be.
We can put hamsters into this classification system:
Kingdom: Animalia> Phylum: Chordata> Class: Mammalia> Order: Rodentia> Family: Cricetidae> || Now before we go any farther we have to realize that some hamsters fall under different genera (plural for genus) and then under their respective genus, falls the different species.
Let’s look at our five domestic species again. The Chinese Hamster falls under the genus, Cricetulus. Their species name is griseus. So the Chinese Hamster fits into the taxonomic classification system like this:
Kingdom: Animalia> Phylum: Chordata> Class: Mammalia> Order: Rodentia> Family: Cricetidae> Genus: Cricetulus> Species: griseus.
The Syrian hamster falls under the genus, Mesocricetus, and their species name is auratus.
Kingdom: Animalia> Phylum: Chordata> Class: Mammalia> Order: Rodentia> Family: Cricetidae> Genus: Mesocricetus> Species: auratus.
The three Dwarf species fall under the genus, Phodopus. Their species names are roborovskii, campbelli and sungorus (Winter White).
Kingdom: Animalia> Phylum: Chordata> Class: Mammalia> Order: Rodentia> Family: Cricetidae> Genus: Phodopus> Species: roborovskii/campbelli/sungorus.
Using this classification system we can see the genus and species, which give us the Latin or scientific name of the living being in question. The Latin name for human is Homo sapiens; Homo being the genus and sapiens being the species. In order to know which species of hamster it is that we are talking about, we will refer to their Latin name. Remember the genus is always capitalized, while the species is not.
There are seven genera that hamsters fall under in total. However, we will be covering only six of them. The seventh genus, Phodopus, has only three species under it and they are the domestic dwarf hamsters that we know today. Since this is about the ‘forgotten relatives’, they do not need to be included.
Note** Some species have several names that are used to describe the same animal. This is rather confusing, and many have been calling for a closer look in order to rename the species so that each animal has one, and one name only.
This genus consists of four species, including the domesticated Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus). The genus, Mesocricetus, was established in 1898 by Nehring when he realized that there were species of hamsters throughout Asia and Europe that did not fit under the genus, Cricetus.
Common Name: Turkish hamster or Brandt’s hamster.
Description: They are solitary animals and are strictly nocturnal, even only eating mostly at night; they hibernate during the cold months. Their appearance is similar to that of an agouti/golden Syrian hamster. They have a dark chest and dark cheek flashes, and are larger than other species under the Mesocricetus genus with an average weight of 150 grams. They only live about two years in laboratory conditions. They breed only two times a year in the wild with an average litter size of thirteen pups. They are known to be highly territorial and aggressive.
Habitat: The M. brandti hamster has a larger and wider geographical distribution than that of their cousin, the Syrian hamster. They can be found throughout Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Georgia and in some other nearby countries. They live in scrub lands, dessert steppes and near farmland. They burrow in the ground from about 0.5 metres to 2 metres deep (19 to 78 inches), and their burrows are composed of tunnels that lead to nesting, storage and toilet sections. According to the IUCN Red List, they are listed as ‘near-threatened’ in the wild, as their habitat is being torn up and farmers are treating them as pests.
Life with Humans: They were popular in lab research in the 1960’s and 1970s, and the colonies in America and Romania are all descended from animals trapped from areas throughout Turkey and Iran. They aren’t used as much today in research, instead being replaced by M. auratus (Syrian hamsters).
Common name: Romanian hamster.
Description: They are solitary animals and are found to be either nocturnal or crepuscular. They have what appears to be a more rat-like face then other Mesocricetus hamsters, a darker coloured back, and dark cheek flashes that reach their shoulders. They weigh about 100 grams and were found to be much harder to breed in captivity than other species. Their diet consists of seeds, vegetation, fruits, nuts and small vertebrates. Their average litter size is ten pups.
Habitat: The M. newtoni can be found in a small region in both Romania and Bulgaria. They live in dry, barren desert or grassy steppes, while others live close to farmland. Its burrow system is apparently complex, with many chambers and tunnels. They are listed as ‘near threatened’ in the wild, according to the IUCN Red List, due to habitat loss from expanding agricultural practices.
Life with Humans: Not much seems to be written about this species since they are apparently harder to breed in captivity and are a protected species. They do appear to be used in lab research to this day.
Common Name: Ciscaucasion or Georgian hamster.
Further Name Information: It is believed that there are two or three subspecies within the raddei species, though not all scientists agree. Some names that are used synonymously and are likely supposed to be subspecies names are: Cricetus nehgricans and Mesocricetus nigriculus.
Description: The M. raddei are solitary animals that are crepuscular, but are seen sometimes during the day in the spring and summer. They have a yellowish-brown top coat, a dark belly, and dark cheek and shoulder flashes. They are about 24 cm long (roughly 9 inches). They hibernate 4-6 months throughout the year and breed a couple of times throughout the warmer months with litter sizes of about twelve.
Habitat: These hamsters are found in Russia, though there have been sightings of them in Georgia as well. They live in either mountainous or grassy steppes, or in flat plains. They are also known to make their home near farmland. Their burrows are deep, and those found in mountainous areas tend to have multiple exits while those that live in plains seem to only have one exit. The IUCN Red List describes their population to be of least concern.
Life with Humans: They do not seem to be popular for use in laboratories as not many seem to appear in studies.
This genus contains only one species of hamster, in fact it is the largest species of hamster in the world.
Common Name: European hamster, Common hamster, or Black-bellied hamster.
Description: This hamster is mostly solitary, though the territory of a male can overlap with that of nearby females. They are noted to be quite aggressive towards others of their species, though in lab conditions it was found for lab bred C. cricetus to be able to live in group settings. They have a reddish-brown dorsal (back) coat, white sides and a black belly and chest. They hibernate during the colder months of the year, sealing off their tunnels and storing large amounts of food to last them through until spring. They are reported to breed two to five times during the mating season, having litters averaging a total of nine pups. They have a lifespan of eight years in the wild, and are about 20 to 30 cm (7 to 11 inches) in length.
Habitat: These hamsters have a large habitat range found in countries such as Germany, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Austria, Russia, Kazakhstan and many other countries throughout Europe. They are found near riverbanks, on grassy steppes and near farmland, though they have also been seen living in meadows and gardens. Their burrows can be as deep as two metres (78 inches), but usually they tend to stay in shallower levels of their burrow in the warmer months. The IUCN Red List has this species listed as least concern, though others considered them to be closer to endangered.
Life with Humans: Though they were first noted in 1679 (named in 1758), they were not used much in laboratories until the early 1970’s due to their aggression with each other. At this time a breeding colony was finally set up after researchers found a way to safely breed them. In lab conditions their hibernation stopped and their lifespan shortened, as it was found that lack of hibernation decreased their lifespan by about three years. They are also widely considered pests to farmers, and while technically a protected species, many countries have failed to work diligently to actually protect the species.
This genus only has one species under it - the triton. Not much seems to be known about this species.
Common Name: Greater Long-tailed hamster.
Further Name Information: Not all list this species under its own genus while others use a different species name. Some names that are considered synonymous with Tscherskia triton are Cricetulus nestor, Cricetus triton and Tscherskia albipes.
Description: The T. triton is considered nocturnal, though it is also seen during the day at times. They have a life expectancy of about one year and are said to ‘waste away’ once they have bred. T. triton has a brown dorsal coat and a white underside; it also has a longer tail than most species of hamsters. They feed on seeds, cultivated plants (such as rice, sunflower and corn) and may, at times, also eat leaves. They have a length of about 12 to 16 cm (4 to 6 inches), with a tail of about 7 to 10 cm (about 2 to 3 inches). Their active breeding season is from April to October where they breed anywhere from two to five times and have an average litter size of eight to ten pups.
Habitat: These hamsters are found in Eastern China, North and South Korea as well as in Russia. They are found in xeric (extremely dry) land, near marshes, river banks, canals, farmland and even roads. They are said to have large stores of food in their burrows and they may also hibernate. They are listed as least concern by the IUCN Red List.
Life with Humans: This species has been known as a pest to farmers since ancient times and seems to thrive rather well as such. They do also seem to be used in some laboratory research.
There is only one species of hamster, under this genus, that has been agreed upon by some researchers who claim that it is, indeed, its own species and should remain under this genus.
Common Name: Gansu Hamster
Description: This species is nocturnal, mainly active during the spring and summer. It is a herbivore, feeding on leaves and grasses. Its coat is said to be gray, with black markings on the topside. They have a body length of about 14 cm (5.5 inches), with a tail of about 11 cm (4 inches). Their litter size averages six to eight pups.
Habitat: C. canus is found in central China. Unlike other hamsters, it is an arboreal species (living among trees), living in the forests that are found within the mountainous areas of their habitat. The IUCN Red List lists this species of hamster as least concern.
Life with Humans: It is reported that three specimens were caught during the 20th century. Not much else is known about this species.
This genus has two species that are both found in Asia.
Common Name: Mongolian hamster.
Further Name Information: This species is often mistakenly found under the genus Cricetulus. While some scientists do hold that this species belongs under the genus, Cricetulus, many do not agree. Some scientists also list this species as a subspecies of A. eversmanni.
Description: This species is active both in the early evening and during the night. Their breeding season begins in April, having two to three litters a year with an average litter size of six pups. They keep a store of food to hold them over during the winter months. Their diet consists mainly of seeds, though they sometimes do eat insects as well. They are about 20 to 38 cm (8 to 15 inches) in length and are yellowish gray on their back, while their underside is white.
Habitat: A. curtatus is found in China, Mongolia and in small parts of Russia. They live in sandy areas, grasslands or semi-desert areas, with shallow, simple burrows. They are listed as least concern by the IUCN Red List.
Life with Humans: They have been living near humans for some time with little incident, though one case was reported where one of this species carried the plague. These hamsters are said to be fairly tame and friendly in the wild, showing no fear to humans.
Common Name: Eversmann’s hamster
Further Name Information: This species is often mistakenly found under the genus Cricetulus. While some scientists do hold that this species belong under the genus, Cricetulus, many do not agree.
Description: This hamster does not hibernate, although daily activity does decrease in the winter months. It feeds on nearby vegetation and seeds, though some reports claim it’s been seen eating lizards, voles, young squirrels and even young bird nestlings. Hamsters found in the northern edge of the habitat range have only two to three litters a year, while those found farther south in the habitat range have three to four litters per year. They are about 13.6 to 16 cm (about 5 to 6 inches) in length. The average litter size is four to six pups.
Habitat: The A. eversmanni is found mostly throughout Kazakhstan, as well as some parts of Russia and China. It lives in dry steppes and semi-desert conditions, while others are found closer to farmland. Further north, some hamsters have been found in forest steppe land. This species is listed as ‘least concern’ by the IUCN Red List.
Life with Humans: This species is seen as a major and damaging pest in some parts of its habitat range.
This genus has many species, and is very mixed up depending on who you are asking. They need to be assessed and re-classified. I will do my best to mention all of the animals in this genus as well as to try and comprehend between those that are the same species, but under different names and so on.
Common Name: Ladek hamster, Tibetan hamster
Description: This species of hamster has a litter size of about five to ten pups, breeding from May to August. C. alticola is about 9 to 10 cm (about 3.5 to 4 inches) in length. Their backs are gray-brown and yellow, while their undersides are white. They are mainly nocturnal, though they have been seen during the day too. They eat various seeds, grains and grasses.
Habitat: This species is found in India, China and Nepal. C. alticola live in habitats from coniferous and birch tree forests, to shrubland, dessert steppe, swamp meadows and highland meadows. It is listed as least concern by the IUCN Red List.
Life with Humans: Insufficient data present in order to complete this.
Common Name: Chinese striped hamster
Further Name Information: This species is found to be synonymous with Cricetulus manchuricus, Cricetulus mongolicus and Cricetulus obscurus. This species is also often mixed up with Cricetulus griseus (our domestic Chinese hamster), though for the most part they are agreed to be different species. Some people count them as the same species while still others count one or the other as a subspecies of each other. For this we will treat them as their own species. The information on this species may be slightly flawed, since so many do tend to treat C. griseus and C. barabensis as the same species.
Description: C. barabensis is active in the early night. It’s a social animal, living in groups averaging of around four to five hamsters per burrow. They are about seven to ten cm long (three to four inches) with a slightly longer tail than most hamster species. They eat and store various seeds and legumes and hibernate throughout the winter months, coming out in early spring. The breeding season peaks in March and April, and once again in the fall, breeding two to five times per year with an average litter size of six to seven pups.
Habitat: These hamsters are found in China, Korea, Mongolia as well as Russia. They live in arid places such as desert steppe and semi-desert habitats, and some are also found near farmland. Their burrows tend to be rather simple, about a metre deep, with two to three entrances. They have been found to line their nests with grass. The IUCN Red List has this species listed as least concern.
Life with Humans: Some will argue that this is the same species as the domesticated Chinese Hamster (C. griseus), and thus their life with humans is very close - being used in research and kept as pets. For those that agree that they are separate species, they are used in some research, but are not kept as pets.
Cricetulus kamensis, lama and tibetanus
Common Name: Kam hamster, Lama hamster, Tibetan hamster
Other Name Information: These three species are recognized by a few as “their own species”, but many are regarding them as the same or as subspecies of each other. This article will group them together.
Description: Not a lot is known about this species, which is probably why so much confusion surrounds their name. They are 8.8 to 11.2 cm in length (about three to four inches). The fur on their back is dark gray-brown, with a black dorsal stripe. Their underside is white. They eat grains, grasses, seeds and insects, storing large amounts for the winter months. They have been found to be active both during the day and at night. Their breeding seasons are from May to August with average litter sizes of seven to eight pups.
Habitat: They are found in China near Tibet (or Xizang); living in high mountain grasslands, open steppe and shrubby marshes. The IUCN Red List considers this species to be of least-concern.
Life with Humans: Insufficient data. They may be seen as a pest in China, though.
Common Name: Long-tailed Hamster
Other Name Information: Some names that are used synonymously with C. longicaudatus include: C. andersoni, C. nigrescens and C. kozhantschikovi.
Description: This species feeds mostly on seeds, though at times also consume insects, they are known for constructing food storages and grass-lined nests. They sometimes occupy burrows that have been abandoned by other animals. C longicaudatus are nocturnal. They have at least two litters of about four to nine young throughout the months of March and April each year. They were discovered in 1867 by Armand David. The coat is dark gray on the back and white the underside. Their tail is longer than most other species at about four to five cm (1.5 to 2 inches) in length and they lack a dorsal stripe. They are 8 to 13 cm (three to five inches) in length from head to body.
Habitat: This species is found in China, Russia and Mongolia. They inhabit various areas such as deserts, shrubland, semi-desert land, mountainous steppe, forests and even alpine meadows. They live in shallow burrows that are often found underneath rocks which are more horizontal rather than deep into the ground. They are listed as least concern by the IUCN Red List.
Life with Humans: They are used in some research labs and most studies to do with advancing knowledge in regards to medicine.
Common Name: Grey Hamster or Armenian Hamster
Description: This species is nocturnal, with a body length of about 8.8 to 11.7 cm (3 to 4 inches). The upper coat is light gray in colour while the underside is white or off-white. It is said to have relatively long ears and large eyes. It typically eats roots, shoots and seeds.
Habitat: They have a wide habitat range found in countries such as Afghanistan, Bulgaria, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Mongolia, Pakistan, Romania; Russia, Syrian, Turkey, Ukraine and Armenia. C. migratorius are usually found in grasslands, steppes and semi-deserts and now even found near farmland, gardens and even in houses.
Life with Humans: Often regarded as a pest and are used in laboratory research.
Common Name: Sokolov’s hamster
Other Name Information: Formally known as Cricetulus barabensis obscurus, in other words as a sub-species of C. barabensis, but was renamed as its own species in 1988.
Description: C. sokolovi is said to wake up at about mid-day, and is about 7.7 to 11.4 cm (about 3 to 4 inches) in length, their tail being about 1.8 to 3.2 cm (0.7 to 1.2 inches) long. They have a dark stripe running down their back and a gray coat. They begin breeding in May, having two to three litters annually, each averaging two to nine pups.
Habitat: These hamsters are found in Mongolia and China and live in semi-desert habitats - living in burrows built under desert shrubs, mainly in sandy areas.
Life with Humans: Not much information is available right now.
Other Genera to Note
There are two other genera of rodents that are often listed as hamsters; however each genus belongs under a different family. These genera are Mystromys (species under this genus being M. albicaudatus) and Calomyscus (species under this genus being bailwardi along with some subspecies). Since they are not under the Cricetidae family, they are not hamsters.
I hope that this information was interesting and insightful. It is not complete knowledge of these animals in any way, but I believe that it does give us a good basic understanding of what other species are out there. None of this information is my own; I worked to bring this together from several sources that will be listed below. I will try and update it now and again when new information is put out about these wonderful creatures.
Resources and Further Reading
German Wikipedia’s Hamster Pages (with use of Google translator).
IUCN Red List (various pages).
Van Hoosier, G. L. & McPherson. C. W. (1987). Laboratory Hamsters, 368-401.
Wilson, D. E. (2005). Rodentia, Cricetinae. Mammal Species of the World: a taxonomic and geographic reference, 1041-1045.
And a very special thank you to HoppingHammy, from Hamster Hideout, for her help in editing this.