Hamsters are a great second pet for most children. The first should be goldfish. If they can show some empathy there and keep it alive for a while they have earned the promotion to a hamster. Hamsters do die easily but are cheap to replace and if you pick one with a basic color you can likely replace it without your child even knowing. Yet most people don’t realize that hamsters are actually a wild rodent. They originated in Asia but moved to Europe during the Ice Age. The population in Europe thrived for many years but recently has started to dwindle. As the wild hamster now faces extinction experts are asking why.
Of course, the usual answers are popping up and likely do explain the lower population of the hamster. The agricultural lands in Europe have changed dramatically over the years. While they once held rich soils and a variety of crops throughout the year, they now are increasingly home to a mono-crop environment and the soils are decreasing in quality as a result.
To study the hamster population, researchers had to wait till after the hamsters gave birth and looked after the young. They had no way to see what was happening underground so were only able to chart the numbers when they came above ground a few weeks later. What they found was that hamsters were having much smaller litters and less often. In the past, they were having multiple litters a year and around eight pups per litter. In modern times they were having one a year and between one and four pups. Clearly, something was wrong.
Hamsters were soon included in the protected species list of many European countries. Orders were placed to address the agricultural issues that were taking place by the European Union and large fines were proposed for those who did not address the agricultural issues and declining wild animal population.
At the same time, there was a study taking place where one researcher actually took a litter of hamsters into her care. For the first time, she would be able to analyze the birth of the litter from the moment it took place until adulthood, instead of waiting for them to emerge from their burrows. What she found was incredibly shocking.
The first litter that she looked after gave birth to a large number of pups, she was delighted. However, when she returned to the pups the next day, they were all dead. The mother hamster had eaten them all. She didn’t understand why but continued to monitor a number of new litters and the result remained the same. She had the hamsters on the same diet as a wild Alsace hamster so was recreating the environment perfectly. Why were the hamsters eating their young? Were they doing it in the wild?
She went to another researcher and asked for advice. She asked if she was doing something wrong if she should stop the study. Her colleague told her to continue that a strange result is a result that requires further examination. After considerable efforts, she realized the cause. The majority of crops in Europe had now switched to corn. This is something that is happening around the world. People who eat a diet solely of corn end up with a Vitamin B3 deficiency and get a disease called pellagra. Pellagra no longer exists in the developed world but poor countries still suffer from this disease. It can result in diarrhea, skin rash, paranoia, depression, and hallucinations. The disease has been used as a defense in murder trials! It appears that the hamsters were eating their young because of a B3 deficiency.
The research started to supplement the hamster diets with B3 and they quickly stopped eating their young. The cannibal issue appeared to have a solution. However, it appears very difficult to give wild hamsters B3 supplements. Unless the European Union can place a ruling that forces the planting of other vegetables high in B3, then this solution may not be able to stop the eventual extinction of the wild hamster.