Hamsters, pizzas and playgrounds

12 July 2014 by GrrlScientist, posted in Video

SUMMARY: Dwarf hamsters are small but they have an outsized effect on one's life.


Phodopus sungorus.
Image: Ko1 (CC by SA 2.5).

Once again, it's caturday, which means it's time for us to relax and recover from that most recent post-World Cup game hangover by watching animals doing fun stuff!

This week's cute animal videos were inspired by a piece I wrote a little while ago, about a study of wheel-running behaviour in wild mice. Although that study focused on wild mice, I included a video of some dwarf hamsters running on a wheel, mostly because it was so hysterically funny.

So at this point, I should tell you (admit to you?) that I absolutely love dwarf hamsters. It doesn't take much for me to fall helplessly under their spell – in fact, it's difficult for me to resist their obvious charms. Although I am an evolutionary biologist, nearly one decade ago I developed a unique therapeutic technique where dwarf hamsters were valued colleagues for treating human depression.

I have kept dwarf hamsters most of my life (yes, as an adult too – they even helped me mark my students' exams and essays by biting off the sharp corners from their papers). Dwarf hamsters are so darned adorable that I've decided they were the inspiration for Ewoks. So today, I had to share some sweet dwarf hamster videos that always cheer me up whenever I feel a little bit sad.

But first – because I am a zoologist and because these little animals are so interesting – I want to share some actual information about them. Dwarf hamsters are native to central Asia so they are specially adapted to living in the cold. Probably the most adorable adaptive feature they have is that they are fuzzy – really fuzzy. I am especially enchanted that their short (nearly nonexistent) tail is completely covered in thick white fur, as are the soles of their feet.

They are omnivores, eating a variety of vegetables, grains, live insects, worms and fruits. In this video, the pet dwarf hamster, "Chicken", demonstrates how to eat a hamster-sized piece of pizza:

The pizza in this video was made with whole wheat pita bread, natural peanut butter, carrots and mealworms. 

As with all hamsters, dwarf hamsters have cheek pouches that extend from their mouth to their shoulders. These pouches allow them to temporarily store food they collect whilst foraging so they can carry these items back to their burrows to help them survive long, harsh winters. In this video, Chicken is back to demonstrate how to reduce a pumpkin seed to a size that will fit into her cheek pouches:

Captive dwarf hamsters have life spans that are nearly double that of their wild brethren (3, or occasionally 4, years compared to 2 years). And, as is typical of the domestication process, captive dwarf hamsters now have a variety of fur colour morphs; colours that are highly prized by hobbyist-breeders.

There are just three species of dwarf hamsters, all of which are placed into the genus, Phodopus. These include Campbell's Russian dwarf hamster, Phodopus campbelli. A closely related dwarf hamster species is the Dzhungarian (Djungarian) dwarf hamster, Phodopus sungorus, which is sometimes known as the winter white dwarf hamster. Confusingly, both species are known as the Siberian dwarf hamster. As their shared sobriquet implies, these two species are not easy to distinguish visually, especially if you're not a hamster expert. But the Dzhungarian dwarf hamster moults its grey-and-black pelage twice each year, replacing it with a thicker coat of white fur for winter -- a trait that is typically not seen in indoor pets nor in those kept under artificially long days and relative warmth. The other trait -- an important one for pet owners -- is that Campbell's dwarf hamster parents raise their youngsters together, whereas the female Dzhungarian dwarf hamster raises her babies as a single parent. If the male doesn't vacate the premises shortly before the female gives birth, she will convince him to do so -- with her teeny tiny teeth. Unfortunately, pet owners sometimes hybridise these two species. This causes a host of behavioural and health problems in the resulting offspring, which tend to die prematurely.

As you might have guessed, people who keep dwarf hamsters can become extremely fond of them, and sometimes create a variety of objects to keep their pets (and themselves) amused. For example, I often constructed mazes, houses and other structures from Lego for my dwarf hamsters. But in this video, we see a more substantial creation: besides feeding her dwarf hamster tiny pizza slices, Chicken's owner built her an entire playground:

The third species is the Roborovski dwarf hamster, Phodopus roborovskii, which sometimes is known as the desert dwarf hamster or, more affectionately, as "robos". This species can be easily distinguished from the other two because they are the smallest of the dwarf hamsters, they lack the black "racing stripe" on their back, and they have a white splotch above each eye. In the wild, they live in arid and semi-arid regions between 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) and 1,450 metres (4,760 ft) in central Asia, so their bodies are particularly efficient at using water. Physiologically speaking, they are sort of a "gerbilised" version of dwarf hamsters. This species cannot hybridise with the other two dwarf hamster species.

In this video, an adorable couple of young Roborovski dwarf hamsters show you why people are so captivated by these animals:

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NOTE: this piece is slightly modified from the original, written by GrrlScientist and published on The Guardian.

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When she's not trying to resist the charms of dwarf hamsters, Grrlscientist can be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest. She's quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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