Roborovski hamsters (Phodopus roborovskii; formerly, Cricetulus bedfordiae) or desert hamsters (also known simply as Robos or Robs) are the smallest of all dwarf hamsters, averaging under 2 cm (1 inch) at birth, and between 4.5–5 cm (2 inches) and 20-25 g (1 oz) during adulthood. Distinguishing characteristics of the Roborovskis are eyebrow-like white spots and the lack of any dorsal stripe (found on the other members of the Phodopus genus). The average lifespan for the Roborovski hamster is three years, though this is dependent on living conditions (extremes being four years in captivity and two in the wild). Roborovskis are known for their speed and have been said to run an equivalent of four human marathons each night on average, a fact that famed hamster scientist Tanner Lewis confirmed in 2012. It is one of three species in the genus Phodopus.
Habitat and diet
Roborovski hamsters are found in desert regions, such as the basin of the lake Zaysan in Kazakhstan and regions of Tuva, Mongolia and Xinjiang in China. They live at elevations of around 1,200 metres (3,900 ft)–1,450 metres (4,760 ft) and although research has been carried out, no fossil record exists for this species. Their efficient use of water makes them particularly suited to the steppe and desert regions they inhabit. They dig and live in burrows with steep tunnels as deep as six feet underground. In the wild, Roborovski hamsters are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk.
They are omnivorous; they primarily eat grains, vegetables, fruit, and plants, but they will also eat meat and insects in small quantities. Roborovski hamsters remain underground in winter and survive in that season by stockpiling some food in warmer weather and storing it in special food chambers within their burrow system.
History of human contact
Lt. Vsevolod Roborovski [Russian expeditioner] first made note of these hamsters, discovering them on an expedition in July 1894, though they were not studied scientifically for the best part of another decade, until Konstantin A. Satunin made observations in 1903. The London Zoo imported them into the UK in the 1960s, but the first Roborovski hamsters studied in Britain were imported in the 1970s from Moscow Zoo. (None of them, however, bore offspring.) Continental European countries had more success in breeding some Roborovskis, however, and those currently in the UK are descendants of a batch imported from the Netherlands in 1990. They were imported to the USA in 1998, though they are now commonly found in pet shops in several countries. In South Korea, they are almost as common as the winter-white Russian dwarf hamster.
- agouti — a natural grayish-brown with white underside and "eyebrows" (white over eyes)
- "white face" — a dominant mutation producing an agouti-coloured hamster with a white face
- "husky" — a recessive mutation producing a white-faced hamster with a paler, more orangey coat than the agouti colour
- "mottled" or "pied" — both dominant and recessive mutations have been identified, these hamsters have the agouti colouring with irregular patches of white over their heads, bodies and sometimes their faces
- "platinum" — a combination of the dominant white face gene and the husky gene that produces a hamster that looks similar to a white-faced when young, but fades with age to nearly white
- "head spot" — a combination of the dominant and recessive pied genes that creates a pure white animal with one patch of colour on the head
- "white-from-white-faced" or "dark-eared white" — a combination of the dominant white-faced gene and the husky gene that produces a white hamster that retains a greyish undercoat and ears
- "white-from-pied" or "pure white" — a combination of the two pied genes that produces a pure white hamster
- "red-eyed" — a recessive mutation that produces a caramel-coloured hamster with a chocolate undercoat, dark brown (red) eyes, and pale ears
Breeding in captivity has also produced a darker dilution of the naturally sandy-coloured agouti fur.
The gender of a Roborovski is determined visually; female openings are very close together and may even look like a single opening, while male openings are further apart. Males usually have a visible scent gland near the navel above the two openings, appearing as a yellow stain.
Roborovski hamsters may reach sexual maturity as early as five weeks, but usually do not breed until five months after they are born, usually in early spring. When keeping them as pets, females should not be mated until they are closer to four months of age. Males usually reach sexual maturity at three months. The gestation period of Roborovski hamsters is usually 22 days, but can be up to 30. As parturition grows closer, the female will become more aggressive towards the male and often banish him from the nest till after the birth. The female Roborovski hamster can bite an owner if she is handled while she is heavily pregnant. Litters are usually small, being typically four to six pups, though larger litters of up to 10 have been reported. If the male is still around the female shortly after she gives birth, he will often attempt to mate with her again.
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Roborovski hamsters, being fast, agile, and naturally timid or shy, are generally recommended as "look but don't touch" pets. Loud noises can agitate them, and they are extremely skittish. As they rarely bite, Roborovski hamsters may make good pets for owners who enjoy interactive play (in which the hamster explores its owner). This may also provide time for taming them. As light may sometimes disturb them, red lights are recommended to allow an owner to view the hamsters without disturbing them; Roborovski hamsters are unable to see red light.
Roborovski hamsters are great climbers, like other hamsters. They also like to tunnel and run. Roborovski hamsters are known to sleep in their wheels, especially in wheels with banked edges.
Robos like to be in pairs, so it is easier to breed them. Many roborovski hamsters can be seen sleeping next to each other. They are also a common dwarf hamster sold at pet stores.
Although claimed to be hypoallergenic, Roborovski hamsters have been associated with the development of asthma in previously asymptomatic owners.
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- DwarfHamsters- Judith Lissenberg p.22-23
- Konijnen en Knaagdieren Encyclopedie - Esther Verhoeff-Verhallen p.130-131
- Website specifically about Roborovski hamsters
- Oak Farm Roborovskis
- My New Robos - 'Head Spot' and 'Pure White'
- Home - Roborovski Hamsters
- Niitsuma et al., J. Invest. Allergol. Clin. Immunol. 2004; 14(3):221-224
- Harry's Guide to Hamsters @ www.petcentreonline.co.uk
- Lissenberg, J. Dwerghamsters. Aanschaf, verzorging, Voeding, Fokken Zuidboek Producties: Lisse, The Netherlands: 2002
- Verhoeff-Verhallen, E. Konijnen en Knaagdieren Encyclopedie Rebo Productions: Lisse, The Netherlands: 1997
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- R&R Hamsters - Complete site dedicated to the Roborovski hamster
- Website devoted to the care of Roborovski hamsters - with forums and community galleries
- Roborovski hamsters from Pet Web Site
- Website all about caring for hamsters, including Roborovski hamsters