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MONGOLIAN GERBILS
by Richard O’Grady, Director of Glasgow Zoopark.

In June 1999 nineteen gerbils were donated to our Zoo. We accepted them because of the display possibilities and the story they could tell. They arrived in two tanks - males in one, females in another. Many were of fascinating colours, some resembling the colouration of the ‘old-style’ Seal Point Siamese cats.

In the wild Mongolian gerbils are found in the Amur River basin of Mongolia, familiar to zoo-philes from the Amur of Siberian tiger and Amur Leopard cat. They were first described for western science by Père Armand David, the Jesuit priest of Père David’s deer fame.

I first encountered these fascinating little rodents in 1965. I borrowed my dad’s car to visit another young student, Roger Wilkinson, to buy a female Bourke’s parakeet. We both lived in the Flyde, inland to the east of Blackpool. Roger went on, after studying for this Ph.D. at Southampton, to become the highly successful Curator of Birds at Chester Zoo.

In 1965 he was only fifteen or sixteen, I would guess, and we seemed to hit it off. He said: “Come and have a look at these,” showing me a wooden chest of drawers in a shed, converted to a block of rodent cages. “Gerbils. First imported by a university last year. These are some of the off-spring. They don’t half chew!”

In 1977/78, together with Mina Henley, a Job Creation worker on our education programme at Glasgow Zoo, we (to cut a long story shorter!) imported two dozen of the black mutation (then restricted to the U.S.A.) from the Space Research Station at Harlow. We quarantined them for six months at an animal dealers (by law we had to do this!) - males in one cage, females in another, to prevent breeding and fights before, on their release, mating as many as possible to young (12-13 weeks) of the golden mutation.

In 1978, the sandy-coloured, golden mutation (now known as argente) was only available from a few people in the United Kingdom. It had been bred by chance in a north London Primary school, before being spotted in a pet shop window by a member of the National Mongolian Gerbil Club.

After quarantine, most of our black gerbils were ‘knocking on a bit’. None of the females bred (being too old, we are sure), but some of the males did. We obtained 26 F 1 s. These were all, as we anticipated, of the normal agouti, wild type. It was what these would breed when mated together which would prove to be so fascinating.

I had to deliver a paper on ‘ Melanism in Breeding Wild Cats ’ at the ABWAK (Association of British Wild Animal Keepers) symposium at the Zoological Society of London meeting rooms in Regent’s Park on 31 st March 1979. The mentor for our gerbil project was the late, and much lamented, Roy Robinson, the self-taught small animal (and particularly cat) geneticist from St Stephen’s Green in Hertfordshire. I met him in the meeting rooms at Z.S.L. and passed over a small box containing a pair of these F 1 gerbils. A few weeks later he beat us to the punch by a few days, by being the first to breed the next, brand-new mutation of the Mongolian gerbil. He bred a litter of six and one was the new (and greatly anticipated) mutation - just how lucky can you get! Still, it meant he was able to describe it there and then.

Back in Glasgow, we set about breeding our twenty-four F 1
agouti Mongolian gerbils. We succeeded in producing 243 young over the next nine months. These consisted of 38 blacks, 43 golden, 146 agouti, and 16 of the new dove grey mutation. These were dove grey with red eyes.

“This tell us immediately that the golden should more accurately be described as argente,” said Roy Robinson. “If it had been otherwise the new mutation could only have been a black-eyed chocolate.”

Back in 1978/79, so intent were we on ensuring that the black and dove mutations did not fizzle out through inbreeding depression and selfishness on the part of breeders, that we distributed pairs free to any member of the National Mongolian Gerbil Club who requested them. In this manner they were soon found in pet shops the length and breadth of Britain, and have been a common sight ever since.

In 1979/80 Mina Henley wanted to continue breeding the gerbils, developing new varieties by selection for specific characteristics. Almost immediately she spotted dark hairs on the ears, muzzle and tail of whites, suggesting early development of Himalayan characteristics in whites. Some whites also appeared to be approaching creams or silver. However, due to changes in the funding for the Job Creation programme, it became impossible to justify continued expenditure of resources on this project. Clearly, our own role was complete and the hobbyist breeder could take Mongolian gerbil breeding forward more effectively.

It was with a start that I realised that twenty years have since elapsed. It is gratifying to see the many varieties and variations which are available in this rodent. This is not conservation, but stock-breeding of a non-endangered species. It provides hours of pleasure to millions of people, past, present and still to come, developing their knowledge of a whole range of issues. Those who decry the breeding of mutations on principle - and we agree this is inappropriate where an endangered species is involved - could reflect on this vastly increased interest this creates in an otherwise everyday species.
Interested in gerbil mutations? Investigate the Journal of Heredity:

  • Leiper, B.D. and Roy Robinson: Gray mutant in the Mongolian gerbil. The Journal of Heredity 76:473 (1985)

  • Henley, M and R. Robinson: Non-agouti and pink-eyed dilution in the Mongolian gerbil. J. Heredity 72:60-61 (1981)

  • Leiper, B.S. and R. Robinson: A case of dominance modification in the Mongolian gerbil. J. Heredity 75:323 (1984)

    Cannibalism Among Gerbils

Question: We had 2 gerbils, they lived hapilly together for over two years but one of them ate half of the other - is this common or do gerbils do this to dispose of their dead my children are devestated and I need to tell them why this happened can you help?

Answer: These things happen. Please tell the children that one gerbil almost certainly died first, whereupon in nature, it would change from a mate/friend to an inanimate object. Gerbils originate in desert areas where protein is scarce. In nature there is little waste, so the dead gerbil would be re-cycled, so to speak. We find it upsetting, but nature is unemotional and strictly functional. I'm sorry the children were upset, but sometimes one just has to accept nature as it is, not as we wish it is or imagine it should be, I'm afraid.

Gerbils Liberated in Britain

Gerbils have escaped or been liberated into the British countryside, but no, they never became established like grey squirrels and brown rats.

Apparently, after the BBC finished filming 'Tales of the Riverbank' some years ago all the animals utilised were freed by the suppliers, and some lingered on for a few years. Christopher Lever, in his book on the naturalised animals of the British Isles, records a number of other small pockets through the years, but none became established.