Hamster - Encyclopedia

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HAMSTER, a European mammal of the order Rodentia, scientifically known as Cricetus frumentarius (or C. cicetus), and belonging to the mouse tribe, Muridae, in which it typifies the sub-family Cricetinae. The essential characteristic of the Cricetines is to be found in the upper cheek-teeth, which (as shown in the figure of those of Cricetus in the article RODENTIA) have their cusps arranged in two longitudinal rows separated by a groove. The hamsters, of which there are several kinds, are short-tailed rodents, with large cheek-pouches, of which the largest is the common C. frumentarius. Their geographical distribution comprises a large portion of Europe and Asia north of the Himalaya. All the European hamsters show more or less black on the under-parts, but the small species from Central Asia, which constitute distinct subgenera, are uniformly grey. The common species is specially interesting on account of its habits. It constructs elaborate burrows containing several chambers, one of which is employed as a granary, and filled with corn, frequently of several kinds, for winter use. As a rule, the males, females, and young of the first year occupy separate burrows. During the winter these animals retire to their burrows, sleeping the greater part of the time, but awakening about February or March, when they feed on the garnered grain. They are very prolific, the female producing several litters in the year, each consisting of over a dozen blind young; and these, when not more than three weeks old, are turned out of the parental burrow to form underground homes for themselves. The burrow of the young hamster is only about a foot in depth, while that of the adult descends 4 or 5 ft. beneath the surface. On retiring for the winter the hamster closes the various entrances to its burrow, and becomes torpid during the coldest period. Although feeding chiefly on roots, fruits and grain, it is also to some extent carnivorous, attacking and eating small quadrupeds, lizards and birds. It is exceedingly fierce and pugnacious, the males especially fighting with each other for possession of the females. The numbers of these destructive rodents are kept in check by foxes, dogs, cats and pole-cats, which feed upon them. The skin of the hamster is of some value, and its flesh is used as food. Its burrows are sought after in the countries where it abounds, both for capturing the animal and for rifling its store. America, especially North America, is the home of by far the great majority of Cricetinae, several of which are called white-footed or deermice. They are divided into numerous genera and the number of species is very large indeed. Both in size and form considerable variability is displayed, the species of Holochilus being some of the largest, while the common white-footed mouse (Eligmodon leucopus) of North America is one of the smaller forms. Some kinds, such as Oryzomys and Peromyscus have long, rat-like tails, while others, like Acodon, are short-tailed and more volelike in appearance. In habits some are partially arboreal, others wholly terrestrial, and a few more or less aquatic. Among the latter, the most remarkable are the fish-eating rats (Ichthyomys) of North-western South America, which frequent streams and feed on small fish. The Florida rice-rat (Sigmodon hispidus) is another well-known representative of the group. In the Old World the group is represented by the Persian Calomyscus, a near relative of Peromyscus. (R. L.*)

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