hamster, Old World rodent, related to the voles, lemmings, and New World mice. There are many hamster species, classified in several genera. All are solitary, burrowing, nocturnal animals, with chunky bodies, short tails, soft, thick fur, and large external cheek pouches used for holding food. Some of the larger species have scent glands on the flanks; the scent is used for territorial marking. Hamsters feed on grain and other plant matter and are serious agricultural pests in many parts of their range. The common, or European, hamster, Cricetus cricetus, of the temperate parts of Europe and W Asia, is reddish brown with black underparts and white patches on the nose, cheeks, throat and flanks. It is about 12 in. (30 cm) long, with a very short tail. It stores grain in its chambered burrow for use in winter during interruptions of hibernation. The Syrian, or golden, hamster, Mesocricetus auratus, of E Europe and W Asia, is familiar as a laboratory animal and pet, but is little known in the wild state; all of the domestic stock is descended from a single group captured in 1930. About 6 in. (15 cm) long, it is lighter colored than the common hamster, with white underparts. Rat-tailed, or Eurasian, hamsters ( C. cricetulus ) are widely distributed through Europe and Asia; these somewhat longer-tailed forms are quite fierce, preying on other rodents as well as on lizards and small birds, although their diet is mostly vegetarian. Other hamsters are found in Europe and Asia, and species of the hamster genus Mystromys, called white-tailed rats, are found in Africa. Hamsters are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Rodentia, family Cricetidae. See mouse.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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