All of the billions of golden hamsters in the pet trade apparently can trace their ancestry back to a single female and her litter of 11 collected in Syria on April 12, 1930! The actual number of founders is even smaller than that, because deaths (the female killed 1 youngster when first captured, and was herself then euthanized by the collector) and 2 subsequent escapes (apparently the hamsters’ prodigious gnawing abilities were not well-known at the time!) reduced the original number to 4 individuals before breeding occurred. Therefore, all pet trade hamsters are derived from sibling pairings. Amazingly, however, the captive population exhibits none of the inbreeding problems that would be expected in such a situation.
The collector of the original female and her litter was Israel Aharoni, who found the animals in a burrow of 8 feet in length. He collected them on behalf of Saul Alder, a parasitologist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, for use in lab studies. After euthanizing the female, Mr. Aharoni and his wife somehow succeeded in bottle-rearing the young, whose eyes were still closed at the time.
Hamsters were first brought to England (smuggled into the country, it seems) in 1931, and arrived in the USA in 1938. There are no further recorded importations into the USA since that time, save for a small group, derived from wild-caught stock that entered in 1971. The fate of these animals is, however, unknown, and it is not clear whether or not any descendents remain. Apparently a few hamsters also arrived in England in the early 1900’s (prior to the collection of the founding female and her litter), but these died out by 1910.
Hamsters (species unclear) first appeared in the literature in 1797, but were not scientifically described until 1839. British zoologist George Waterhouse based his description on single female, whose pelt is still in the collection of the London Natural History Museum.
Today the golden hamster is said to have an extremely limited range in Syria, but to be reasonably common within that range. There is still a surprising lack of field research on this species, and few if any recent collections of wild hamsters.
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