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The hamster may be ubiquitous now, but it was a pioneering scientist who brought the rodent into labs and homes across the world.

The first mention of the Syrian hamster was in 1797, when physician Alexander Russell came across them in the wild and described the rodents in a publication called The Natural History of Aleppo.

The Syrian hamster was then recognized as a distinct species in 1839 by British zoologist George Robert Waterhouse. Waterhouse's original specimen was a female hamster; he named it Cricetus auratus or the "golden hamster".

In fact, there are 26 species of wild hamster that run free in parts of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, including Mesocricetus auratus, the Syrian hamster, which comes from the region surrounding Aleppo, Syria.


Out from the wild, wily and fast

In 1930, Israel Aharoni, a zoologist and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, captured a mother hamster and her litter of pups in Aleppo.

The Syrian hamsters Aharoni collected were the first to be studied in any great detail. Aharoni removed the animals from the farm and gave them the Hebrew name, oger. We now know them, in English, as the Syrian hamster or, because it is now the most common hamster in the world, simply the hamster.

Aharoni put the family in a box, thinking that the mother would look after them. Instead, the mother ate one of the babies. So the mother was euthanized, leaving Aharoni to raise the babies by hand. The hamsters were bred in Jerusalem as laboratory animals. Some escaped from the cage, and most of the wild golden hamsters in Israel today are believed to be descended from this litter.


Colonising the world, one cage at a time

Per the Smithsonian, from then on the hamsters would be fruitful and multiply. That single brother and sister gave rise to 150 offspring who begat even more until there were thousands and then tens of thousands, and finally the modern multitudes of hamsters.

Some hamsters were smuggled out of Jerusalem. Others made it out in cages or packing boxes. They spread like the children of the first people from the Torah, Adam and Eve. And so it is that every domestic Syrian hamster on earth now descends from Aharoni’s first couple.



SMITHSONIAN: “The Untold Story of the Hamster, a.k.a Mr. Saddlebags.”

WIKIPEDIA: “Golden hamster.”