THE DISCOVERY OF THE SYRIAN HAMSTER
( Mesocricetus auratus)
The following data has been collected over the years during my research not only into hamsters but all rodents. I hope that you find it interesting.
The earliest known description of the Golden Hamsters, as it was then called, was published in 1797 (yes honestly that long ago) in "The Natural History of Aleppo by Alexander Russell", with additional notes by his younger brother Patrick.
I think that it is perhaps important to know a little about Alexander. He was a physician practising in the Aleppo area of Syria from about 1740-1750, where it appears that he became one of the leading experts on the plague that was sweeping the area at the time. During these ten years he kept very detailed records of the fauna, flora, climate and culture of the region. In fact he appears to have taken notes on every detail of the area and the people that lived there, and published the first edition of the natural History of Aleppo in 1756.
Patrick Russell lived in Aleppo from 1750-1781 and published the second edition after the death of Alexander. I am not sure exactly how or when Alexander died.
The Hamster was not mentioned in the first edition , but it is in the second, so perhaps Patrick discovered the species, but nothing is certain; it may also have been contained in unpublished papers of Alexander and not discovered until after his death when Patrick decided to revamp the text.
The passage on the hamster from this book reads ".......The Hamster is less common than the Field Mouse. I once found upon dissecting one of them, the pouch on each side stuffed with young French beans, arranged lengthways so exactly and close to each other, that it appeared strange by what mechanism it had been effected; for the membrane which forms the pouch, though muscular, is thin and the most expert fingers could not have packed the beans in more regular order. When they were laid loosely on the table, they formed a heap three times the bulk of the animals body....."
To me the most surprising thing is that Russell (whichever) did not claim to have discovered a new species, but appears to have mistakenly accepted that the Syrian was the same species as the Common European Hamster. Therefore the species wasn't named either by, or after Russell. Instead, the Syrian or Golden Hamster was named by George Robert Waterhouse, who presented it as a new species in 1839.
George Robert Waterhouse was, at the age of 29, Curator of the London Zoological Society. He presented the "new" species at a meeting of the Society on the 9th April 1839. This presentation was based on a single rather elderly female specimen received from Aleppo, Syria.
Isn't it strange how Aleppo appears at every stage in the history of this species ?
His description was published in the Society's proceedings of 1840 thus: ".......This species is less than the Common Hamster (Cricetus vulgaris). Please note that this has since been changed to Cricetus cricetus/ and is remarkable for its deep golden yellow colouring. The fur is moderately long and very soft and has a silk-like gloss; the deep yellow colouring extends over the upper parts and the sides of the head and body and also over the outer parts of the limbs; on the back the hairs are brownish at the tips, hence this part of the fur assumes a deeper hue than on the sides of the body; the sides of the throat and upper parts of the body are white, but faintly tinted with yellow; on the back and sides of the body, all hairs are of a deep grey or lead colour at the base. The feet and tail are white. The ears are of moderate size, furnished externally with whitish hairs. The moustaches consist of black and white hairs intermixed..."
The collector and donor of the specimen was either unknown or at the very least unacknowledged, but following the description, this hamster, remember an elderly female and perhaps not in good health when captured, became the "type" specimen for the new species Cricetus auratus; Waterhouse (the genus name Mesocricetus was a later modification).
I found this old lady, she is still at the Natural History Museum in London. She is a rather sorry sight but very interesting. She is actually named :- Item BM(NH) 18220.127.116.11. Not a very nice name for such a wonderful old lady.
So now.....if you take the old stories as the truth then little was heard about the Golden Hamster for almost exactly 100 years. WRONG !!!
In fact a group of unknown number was brought from Syria to the UK by James Skeene. He had been British Consul to Syria and on his retirement in 1880 returned to Britain. I can sadly find no reference that he wrote anything about the species in general or his animals in particular, and if anyone can help with this I'd be very happy. It does however appear that they bred in the UK at least until 1910 when the last individual appears to have either died or been destroyed (perhaps of the death of James Skeene?).
Again, no information, and more to the point, no interest, until the late 1920's.
At this time Saul Alder a parasitologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was conducting research on the prevalent disease, Leishmaniasis, for which the "Chinese Hamster" had been shown to be an excellent animal model. However, Alder had been unable to breed Chinese Hamsters successfully and found it totally unacceptable to keep relying on shipments of this species from China. He therefore wanted to obtain a species of hamster that was native to the Middle East. It appears that he knew of the Syrian Hamster from reading the description by Waterhouse, but some authorities propose (and I think I would agree with this) that he was actually more interested in the Grey or Migratory Hamster Cricetulus migratorius, which was and still is quite widespread in Asia Minor. Whichever he was looking for, he asked a colleague from the Zoology Department to help him obtain some native hamsters.
Thus it appears that the real reason that we have Syrians today is due to the fact that the Chinese hamsters were unwilling to have anything to do with sex in the laboratories. Sorry....back to the story....well the zoologist in question was one Israel Aharoni.
Israel Aharoni, was from what I gather quite a colourful character. He was born in Widzi on the Russian/Polish border and then educated in Prague. He is known as the first Hebrew zoologist because he rediscovered or at least assigned Hebrew names to the animals of the Holy Land. At the time of his early life and expeditions in Jerusalem the region was still under the strict rule of the Turks. Aharoni, a Jew, in a Moslem world was only able to travel freely under the protection of the local Turkish Sultan and he received this because he obtained specimens for the Sultan's butterfly collection. On these collecting trips he appears to have collected just about every animal he came across, always assisted by local guides; the initial preparation of the specimens was done in the field and then they were sent to Berlin. However, many of his specimens are still available for you to study today if you care to visit the Russian Compound of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was on one such expedition as this in 1930 that Aharoni on Saul Alder's request looked for hamsters.
An account of this was published in Aharoni's memoirs in 1942. Although there may be some question as to whether or not Alder knew of the Syrian Hamster, Aharoni certainly did and he knew that it was this species that he would be looking for.
It appears that on his arrival in the Aleppo region, he instructed his local Syrian guide one Georgius Khalil Tah'an, to go to a certain farm and entreat the local Sheikh (Sheikh El-Beled) to provide information on the location of the hamsters in the area. I assume by asking what crop damage was visible where.
On 12th April 1930, the Sheikh called a meeting and it was decided by the village to hunt out this creature in the best fields that appeared to have a colony. The Sheikh supplied a few locals as labourers and they dug in many areas destroying a good proportion of the wheat field. After a few hours of hard work they succeeded in raising from the depth of eight feet a complete nest, nicely populated by a female and her eleven young.
Thinking that the mother would care for her infants and feed them well with no problems, the whole family were placed in a colony box. I think that what happened next is so important that it should be left to Aharoni's own words ".........I saw the hamster harden her heart and sever with ugly cruelty the head of the pup that approached her most closely (each of the young measuring about 2.5cms) natural mother love led her to kill her dear child. 'It is better that my infant die than that it be the object of an experiment performed on it by a member of the accursed human race'. When Georgius saw this act of savagery, he quickly removed the mother hamster (for she would surely kill them all!) and put her in a bottle of cyanide to kill her...."
So simply because this, the first live captured wild female, was an anti-vivisectionist and didn't realise how much her offspring would soon come to mean to so many people, she died.
Aharoni, however was left with ten babies to raise by hand. There is no record of the approximate age of the litter, but their eyes were still closed when captured. Aharoni and his wife did succeed as foster parents and the litter survived. After an escape and recapture of nine of them they were all given to Hein Ben-Menachen, the founder and head of the Hebrew University Animal Facilities on Mt Scopas.
Ben-Menachen placed the hamsters in a cage with a wooden floor. The next morning five had escaped having chewed their way through the bottom of the cage. Ben-Menachen was very upset (understatement I would think), particularly when Aharoni pointed out just how difficult it was to capture these creatures. None of the five escapees were recorded alive. according to Aharoni the remaining four consisted of three males and a single female. However, the statement is contradicted by S. Alder in 1948; in which he indicated that one male and three females survived the escape attempt and one female was later killed by the male. Israel Aharoni was rather skeptical that the remaining animals would breed, but Hein Ben-Menachem had other ideas.
He filled a large wire mesh cage with tightly packed hay leaving only 5cm. brightly illuminated space on top. Into this space he placed his female. Seeking darkness, the female began to burrow into the hay. A day or so later the male was placed into the cage. It proceeded to chase the female and finally caught up with her. By then both were tired and the male was presumably quite aroused. Their position in the burrow was more favourable to mating than to slaughter and they mated. The first hamster colony was prolific and numbered 150 within the first year, although again various authorities give different figures; including, strangely, 365 for the first year !
The first laboratory bred hamsters were given to Alder who published a report on the first research using Syrian Hamsters a short time later. Realising the fragility of a single colony Alder distributed stock to various other laboratories. The Syrian Hamsters arrived in England in 1931 and were literally smuggled into the country in Alder's coat pockets. Why? I'm afraid I have no idea. These animals were given to E. Hindle of the Zoological Society of London.
Although not mentioned by Aharoni in any papers, he did apparently capture more individuals than just the mother and her litter, as three adult female specimens captured on April 27 & 29th 1930 and attributed to him are in the collection of the Berlin Museum and can still been seen there.
There is general agreement that Syrian Hamsters were first imported into the USA in the summer of 1938, although the exact nature of the importation is as confused as the importation of stock to mainland Europe.
The next recorded capture of wild Syrian hamsters that I can trace was in May and June 1971, when American Michael R. Murphy obtained thirteen animals again at Aleppo. Twelve (Four males and eight females) were taken back to the USA; Murphy records that after only three days of handling, the wild caught animals were tame and gentle. All animals mated within four weeks of capture and all eight female produced litters. The average litter size was eleven and every baby was raised to weaning. I would like to track the offspring of this colony in the USA but I have so far been unable to do so and if anyone can help I'd forever grateful.
In 1978 Bill Ducan of the SW Medical School Dallas, Texas, USA made a capture in the same area and returned to the USA with two females. Again this group appears to have disappeared.
In 1980 a Rodent Control Officer, while working at the Field Centre for the International Centre for Agricultural Research In the Dry Area, captured two animals both of which had unfortunately eaten poison rat bait being tested in the area and died soon after. In November 1982 the same officer captured at the same site a further pair (male and female) sadly the male died within a short period and although the female reached quarantine in England safely, no attempt was made to breed from her.
With the help of the Zoological Society of London and Clinton Keeling, I was asked if I would attempt to breed from her after her six months quarantine period. She arrived at my home in June 1983. She was an extremely tame individual even though she had rarely been handled. She was up and about all day and made great friends with myself. Sadly although every attempt was made to breed from her, all failed - I assume due to her age; she eventually died in January 1985 at a ripe old age and still remains one of my favourite animals I have ever shared my home with.
From data I have received from contacts in Israel. The species is regarded as rare only due to its limited range but within that range it is quite common. I hope that within the next few years wild caught Syrians will be breeding in the UK.
© Rodentia 1998
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