The Untold Story of the Hamster, a.k.a Mr. Saddlebags

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

Upon discovering Mr. Saddlebags, Aharoni gave them the name, oger. We know them, in English, as the Syrian hamster or, because it is now the most common hamster in the world, simply the hamster. (De Agostini / Getty Images)

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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. These hamsters colonized the world, one cage at a time. Some hamsters were smuggled out of Jerusalem in coat pockets. Others made it out in more conventional ways, 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.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of papers have been written about laboratory hamsters. They have been used to understand circadian rhythms, chemical communication and other aspects of basic mammal biology. But their greatest research impact has been in the context of medicine. Hamsters long served as one of the most important “guinea pigs” and helped build our understanding of human ailments and their treatments. Ironically, the success of hamsters in medical research is, in no small part, due to the specifics of Aharoni’s story. Because hamsters are inbred, they suffer congenital heart disorders (dilated cardiomyopathy in particular). Heart disease is nearly as common in domestic hamsters as it is in humans. It is this particular form of dying that has made them useful animal models for our own heart disease. Perhaps more so than any other species, they die like we die and for that reason they are likely to continue to be used in labs to help us understand ourselves.

Understanding the hamsters, on the other hand, has proven more difficult. The wild populations of hamsters remain relatively unstudied. Aharoni published a paper on what he saw in 1930—the depth of the burrow, the local conditions, what the hamsters were seen eating. Observations of Syrian hamsters in the wild have been rare: one expedition in 1981, one in 1997, another in 1999, but little progress has been made. Wild Syrian hamsters have never been found outside of agricultural fields. And even in the fields, they are not common. They are found only in one small part of Syria and nowhere else. Where is or was their wilderness? Maybe there is a faraway place where they run among the tall grasses like the antelope on the plains, but maybe not. Maybe the hamsters’ ancestors abandoned their pre-agricultural niche for the wheat fields around Aleppo, where wheat has been grown for as long as wheat has been grown anywhere. Or maybe the wheat itself displaced the habitat the hamsters once used. We don’t know, but we could. All it would take would be for someone, you perhaps, to go to Syria and look; in other words, to stage a new expedition for Mr. Saddlebags.

In the end, domestic hamsters are Aharoni’s legacy. Maybe this is how he had intended to live on all along, immortal everywhere that a hamster lives in a cage. When they squeak and run, they do so in his image. And so next time your hamster tries to escape, think of Aharoni, but don’t think too long, because as he would tell you, hamsters are wily and fast.


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