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Posts Tagged ‘Mesocricetus’

Our mystery animal is a Turkish hamster (Mesocricetus brandti).

It is very closely related to the golden or Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus). If someone presented this animal to me, I would have a hard time distinguishing it from a paler than normal wild-type golden hamster. However, most wild-type golden hamsters are quite richly gold in color.

Wild-type golden or Syrian hamster. Note the rich gold coloring.

Domestic golden hamsters come in several phases.  One really common phase is cinnamon, which is the wild-type coloration without any black hair mixed in. This phase also lacks the black pigment on the ears and on the skin and eyes of the wild-type golden and the Turkish hamster. However, one could mistake this phase for a Turkish hamster.

However, it gets more tricky when one is confronted with a golden hamster that is paler gold than a normal wild-type golden hamster.

I would have a hard time telling a Turkish hamster from some of these paler gold wild-type hamsters.

Now, the hamsters themselves don’t really have this problem.

In the wild they don’t share the exact same range.  Turkish hamsters are  relatively widespread through from Anatolia through Transcaucasia into Iran.

Golden hamsters, which are often called Syrian hamsters, are found only in northern Syria and a small portion of adjacent Turkey.

These two animals very strongly resemble one another, and they are fairly close relatives.

However, they do not interbreed.

Let me rephrase that.

In captive situations, the two species have bred, but no offspring have been produced.

Both species have been kept as laboratory animals, but only the golden hamster has been docile enough to be placed on the pet market.

The Turkish species is known for being quite prone to biting, and like the golden hamster, it is solitary.

Now, one should keep in mind that golden hamsters are not known for being particular docile animals. As a child, I kept many golden hamsters, and I can attest to how fractious they can be at times. The show and pet strains of hamster that are relatively common in the United Kingdom that are known for their docility were not available on the North American pet market at the time. So I essentially had wild hamsters for pets.

If Turkish hamsters are more likely to bite than “wild” golden hamsters, it’s probably a good thing that they aren’t available on the pet market.

It’s really quite a shame, for Turkish hamsters have a greater genetic base than golden hamsters. Because they are more widespread, there are more populations to select from. All golden hamsters on the pet market descend from a single litter that was collected near Aleppo in 1930. In Europe, there is a colony of golden hamsters that are more genetically diverse than this population.   This other colony was captured in Syria during two expeditions in the late 90’s. It’s not easy to get into Syria these days, so it’s not likely that any new golden hamster lines will be brought into the domestic population in the West.

But they have not contributed any genetic material to the pet market.

It’s kind of a shame that Turkish hamsters are so difficult to tame– and cannot interbreed with goldens.  The Turkish species would have a much more stable gene pool, and in theory, it could have provided some genetic material to the domestic Mesocricetus lines. The Algerian hedgehog and the four-toed hedgehog have been crossbred in captivity to produce the domestic African pygmy hedgehog, and something similar could have been done with Turkish and golden hamsters– if  only they were interfertile.

In this way, the two species of Mesocricetus hamsters are like the white-footed mouse and the deer mouse.  These two species of New World mouse are very similar, and I personally can tell them apart.  But they cannot interbreed, even though they are superificially similar and belong to the same genus.

If only Turkish hamsters were nicer.

 

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