Hamsters are active rodents with bodies well suited for running and digging. Most excavate their own burrows (some occupy burrows abandoned by—or still occupied by—other rodents). All are nocturnal and range far from their burrows at night to collect food that they carry home in large, internal cheek pouches. Inside the burrow, where special chambers are reserved for food storage, they stroke cheeks with paws to force the seeds out. In winter, hamsters hibernate if temperatures are sufficiently cold.

Some hamsters are gregarious, even highly social, while others tend to live alone or in pairs. Phodopus may be pair-bonded; paternal care is unusual in hamsters and only Phodo-pus can be kept as mated pairs. Where burrows are closely spaced, this is only because appropriate habitat, soil loose and deep enough for digging, is in limited supply. Hamsters are fierce for their size and very aggressive to members of their own species. Pet golden hamsters must be maintained solitary. In addition to taking prey such as smaller rodents or baby birds the larger hamster species will attack humans and dogs when threatened.

A Dzhungarian (Rissoam dwarf) hamster (Phodopus sungorus). (Photo by © Leach/OSF/Animals Animals. Reproduced by permission.)

Some species hibernate continuously, while others enter shallow daily torpor during the winter. In winter, rat-like hamsters do not hibernate continuously but awaken from time to time to eat stored food. Hibernation for uninterrupted periods of up to 28 days has been experimentally induced in the golden hamster through exposure to cold. The mouse-like hamster is active only at night during the summer, but it is also active by day in the autumn and winter.

Hamsters have a poor sense of sight despite their large protruding and round eyes. This is compensated by their well-developed sense of hearing that allows them to hear a wide range of sounds, including sounds in the ultrasonic frequen-

Hibernating hamsters in their nest chamber. (Illustration by Wendy Baker)
A black-bellied hamster (Cricetus cricetus) foraging in grass. (Photo by Hans Reinhard /Okapia/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

cies, which helps them communicate with each other without being heard by other animals. Hamsters also have an acute sense of smell and can distinguish one another by their distinct scents. Olfactory communication has been shown to play an intricate role in the daily activities of the golden hamster. Olfaction allows these nocturnal, burrowing, solitary, and territorial animals to communicate important individual information to one another and to receive information from their environment.

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