How The Wild Hamster Was Tamed

Originally published on April 10, 2011 6:43 pm

In the spring of 1930, a biologist named Israel Aharoni ventured into Syria on a mission. He was searching for a rare golden mammal.

Its name in Arabic translates roughly as "Mr. Saddlebags." Thanks to Aharoni, the little rodent with the big cheeks can now be found in many grade-school classrooms, running on a little wheel in a little cage.

That's right. Aharoni's big find was the hamster.

Of course, Aharoni didn't set out looking for a schoolchild's pet, biologist Rob Dunn tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. Dunn, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, wrote about the hamster's discovery in a recent article on Smithsonian.com.

One of Aharoni's colleagues, Saul Adler, thought the animal might be similar enough to humans to use for medical research. "Aharoni saw this as a chance to both to discover this organism in the wild and to bring them back to Adler so he could make major discoveries about humans," Dunn says.

Following tips from local farmers, Aharoni tracked down a litter of 11 hamsters in a Syrian wheat field. He put the little family in a box, and trouble started immediately when mama hamster ate one of her babies.

More troubles followed in the lab. There was more hamster cannibalism, and five others escaped from their cage — never to be found. Finally, two of the remaining three hamsters started to breed, an event hailed as a miracle by their frustrated caretakers.

Those Adam-and-Eve hamsters produced 150 offspring, Dunn says, and they started to travel abroad, sent between labs or via the occasional coat pocket. Today, the hamsters you see in pet stores are most likely descendants of Aharoni's litter.

Because these hamsters are so inbred, they typically have heart disease similar to what humans suffer. Dunn says that makes them ideal research models.

"They do matter to us in this unusual way," Dunn says. "In addition to turning those wheels all around the world."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

Welcome to the show.

ROB DUNN: Thank you very much. It's great to have a chance to talk with you today.

WERTHEIMER: So how did you get on to Mr. Aharoni's story and - his story of Mr. Saddlebags?

DUNN: I'm fascinated with the stories of individual humans and the way they affect both the living world and our understanding of the living world. And my general sense is that more often than not, these big changes we see in the world often can be traced back to the actions of individual humans with all sorts of problems. And so I'm always on the lookout for these stories.

WERTHEIMER: What inspired Aharoni to venture into the desert in search of this little saddlebag guy?

DUNN: Aharoni saw this as a chance both to discover this organism in the wild and to bring it back from Adler, who could then breed them and make major discoveries about humans.

WERTHEIMER: What they ultimately had to do was dig a giant hole, and at the bottom of it, in a little burrow, they found a hamster nest and took the little babies back to the lab. But as you describe it in your paper, he kept losing bits of this litter.

DUNN: And so then, there were four. And the brother ate one of the sisters, and then there were three. At this point...

WERTHEIMER: Good lord. This is a very brutal adventure.

DUNN: And so, lo and behold, one of the sisters and the brother hamster have sex, and everyone is so excited that it's described as one of the greatest miracles in science of the times, and it's this incredible thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: I guess those of us who had some experience of modern hamsters would not think that this was so surprising.

DUNN: And so the hamster that you might have had as a child descends from that original brother and sister, almost inevitably.

WERTHEIMER: Why doesn't Israel Aharoni get the fame that he obviously deserves, to be the father of the hamster, so to speak?

DUNN: And so they do matter to us in this unusual way, in addition to turning those wheels all around the world.

WERTHEIMER: Professor Dunn, thank you.

DUNN: Thank you so much.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.