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." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.