It’s pretty interesting learning about how your pets became a domesticated animal that was once only a wild animal. We’re all familiar with the idea that household dogs are domesticated wolves, but where do gerbils come from?
Gerbils originated in Asia and Africa. The most popular gerbil was found in a steppe in Mongolia, was sent to Japan for breeding, and then made its way to the United States. The living conditions where gerbils originated make today’s domesticated gerbil an incredible family pet.
Where They Were Found
There are over 100 different types of gerbils living in the wild. Of those, only two have been domesticated. For this article, we’ll be taking a look at the most common domestic gerbil; the Mongolian Gerbil.
Mongolian gerbils (Meriones unguiculatus) are originally from- you guessed it, Mongolia, but they weren’t always called Mongolian gerbils.
They were first called desert rats. Mongolia is nestled right in between China and Russia, and it has a pretty cool steppe.
A steppe is what happens to a desert when it’s given enough water to grow greenery but is still too hot and there isn’t enough water to support trees. The steppe actually has a large impact on a gerbil’s behavior.
Gerbils don’t have many predators because there aren’t many that can survive the heat, but they do need to watch out for snakes and birds of prey.
There’s no place to hide when you’re surrounded by nothing but grass. To survive, gerbils had to be quick. They have incredibly strong back legs that allow gerbils to outrun their predators.
The nails on their front paws are sharp and that makes it easier and faster to burrow into the earth to escape their predators.
Think of the gerbil’s underground home as an airconditioned apartment. Burrowing underground not only gives gerbils an escape route from their predators, but it also gives them a cool place to hang out during the hottest hours of the day.
There isn’t much to eat besides grass and seeds, so gerbils needed to evolve to have incredibly strong teeth to break open the seeds they find.
Because it is so hot in the Mongolian Steppe, a gerbil’s body can take solid food and fat stores and turn them into water! This keeps them hydrated until it rains again.
Gerbils also don’t pee very often. Ewww, gross! This keeps their homes cleaner, and it allows them to stay hydrated from the liquid in their bodies, almost like a really small camel!
Even though the daytime is incredibly hot, the nights are extremely cool. This made gerbils diurnal, which means they are awake during the day, and they sleep at night.
They are most active right around dusk as the sun is setting and the temperatures have cooled off. Once it’s cooler they leave their burrow in search of food and water and then return home to sleep.
How They Became Pets
Gerbils were found in Mongolia in the 1860s by a French missionary. While he was travelling in Mongolia, he captured close to 20 gerbils and sent them to Japan where they were bred.
In 1954 Mongolian gerbils were imported to the United States. Five females and four males were bred to produce gerbils for distribution for scientific research. Inevitably, some of these gerbils became pets, and it’s easy to see why.
Gerbils in the wild would urinate infrequently to preserve liquids, and they haven’t stopped this habit. So, the cages these gerbils were kept in were much cleaner and smelled much better than the cages of rats, mice, and hamsters.
The gerbils are also awake during the day and are highly active, so it gave the researchers something to watch. The way gerbils run, burrow, and jump is very entertaining.
Where You Can Buy Them Now
If you’re looking to buy a gerbil, there are a few places you can find them.
Pet shops are the easiest place to purchase a gerbil from. They often have several that you can buy at once, so your gerbil doesn’t need to be lonely. The gerbils at pet stores are also cheap to buy compared to the other options.
Adoption shelters or rescue agencies will sometimes have gerbils for adoption too. It’s not very likely you’ll find a gerbil up for adoption, but it is worth a shot to take a look around before purchasing a gerbil from a store.
The third option for buying gerbils is from breeders. There are breeders throughout the states that breed and sell gerbils. There are even some breeders who specifically breed certain colors and have successfully bred new colored gerbils.
Breeders come with a higher price tag, but if you’re looking for a specific gerbil type or colour, they are a great place to buy a gerbil from. With a gestational period of only 24-26 days and 4-8 baby gerbils per pregnancy, there are new gerbils ready to be bought all the time.
The history of where gerbils come from is pretty cool. From the Mongolian Steppe to Japan, and then to the United States is a pretty big trip for such small creatures.
But it’s where they came from that make them great pets. Minimal smells, awake during the day, and highly active makes them an entertaining addition to any family.