Friday, December 9, 2011

Hamster Husbandry

Some of my pet hamsters from earlier days. Usually they were the mostly dark brown kind  as pictured above versus the cream pictured here.

For a ninth grade biology project, I found it necessary to obtain hamster babies of the same litter in order to eliminate one variable. I decided to raise this litter myself from a male and female purchased. I named them Male and Female with the  not-so-cleverly pronounced  accent on the last e.

Hamster factoid: Hamsters are solitary animals. Pairs should not be raised together. They will fight to the death to have sole possession of the space. Winner of the Female vs Male battle? Female. By a whole lot.

It was necessary to start over with a new male. Female meanwhile had grown into an adult. As time was a wastin', I needed to find an adult male, a not easy task. Eventually I located Male the Second, a fine animal weighing 350 grams to Female's 225 grams. Both were larger than average.

Hamster factoid: There is sexual dimorphism among hamsters. Males are generally 50% larger than females. They are easily identified by their oversized testicle sack.

Hamster factoid: The female comes into estrus once every 4 days.

What the hamster book didn't tell me was how long this estrus period lasted. All day or just for a few minutes? Also I could not tell just by looking at her whether this estrus was occurring. (Dogs and cats; very easy) I had to go by her behavior. If she was in the mood (very rare), she would let Male the Second approach her without her orange teeth bared. If she was not (almost all of the time), she would proceed to kill Male. Male, for his part, was a sex machine with only one thing on his mind. Even when his face was being chewed, he didn't abandon his sole aim. He made no attempt to defend himself even though he was much larger. Female was a very sweet hamster to humans as evidenced by never biting the hand that fed her. To other hamsters, not so much. Finally after a week or so of gingerly introducing her with gloved hands so I could reach in and save Male without losing my fingers, she submitted. The hamster book gave no indication on how long the sex act lasted. I was too afraid to give them the privacy they probably didn't need as the moment could pass for Female and she would be back in killing mode. They coupled repeatedly for over an hour.

Hamster factoid: The gestation period for hamsters is the shortest of any mammal: 16 days.

16 days had passed and no sign of hamster babies. I had looked for signs during this period and found none. Female had retained her girlish figure. I went back to introducing Male carefully waiting impatiently for the magic to begin. It took a long time. Finally she submitted to a 2 hour  frenzy bumping hamster uglies. I would not be fooled again and introduced her a few more times in the next 2 weeks and to my dismay, she still behaved if she were in estrus which led me to believe, she was NOT pregnant.

But she was. On day 16, she delivered 8 totally bald, blind pink babies of greatly varying sizes. So much for the invariability of siblings.( Later when I practiced 'human husbandry', I ended up with 3 very different progeny in terms of skill sets, temperaments, and appearances). Initially I thought my project was off to a good start (though delayed by all of the above) but each day that went by, I was finding fewer and fewer babies. Apparently Female didn't limit her rage to her sex partners. Sometimes I would just find half a body. To her credit, she ate the smallest babies. Maybe they had died before being consumed. I was down to four babies. I forgot what the minimum nursing period is for hamsters but I know I cut it short a couple days for fear that she ate them for fun. They survived their abrupt weaning though one escaped, dangerous as I had a cat who had displayed too much interest in them. She didn't kill it; a mattress spring was inadvertently dropped on it when trying to capture it. I needed more hamsters. Even though it was a flaw in my first thinking, I bought 2 outsiders.

The experiment itself was stupid. The title was the Effect of Diet on Hamster's Learning and Growth. Their ability to learn was measured by the time it took them to master a maze I elaborately constructed from Masonite. The two diets were plain sunflower seeds versus a diet supplemented by vegetables. Growth was according to weight gain on a very good pan  balance the school lent me. One major fly in the ointment was they were not motivated to run the maze unless they were hungry. If I had just let them run it a few times, then they would not have been so hungry. This impacted their growth. The vegetable group did gain more weight and learned the mazes faster, marginally. I typed up all my experiences, did an elaborate error analysis, etc. I did get an A plus. At the end, I had 8 hamsters. Male the second was a borrowed hamster. My teacher offered to find 'good homes' for the rest. I didn't question him too closely on this. I kept Female and the surviving runt of the litter as I was afraid that his smallness might impact his chances of finding a home.

Snow, snow go away. At this time of year, I can't waste 'good days' such as yesterday which was sunny and dry. I am hoping that there might be some ice free pavement later.

1 comment:

Holly said...

You were quite the intense 9th grader!!!!


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