Richard OGrady, Director of Glasgow Zoopark.
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.
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?
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 Davids
I first encountered these fascinating little rodents in 1965. I
borrowed my dads car to visit another young student, Roger
Wilkinson, to buy a female Bourkes 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 dont 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
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 Regents 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 Stephens 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
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
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
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:
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.
Liberated in Britain
have escaped or been liberated into the British countryside, but
no, they never became established like grey squirrels and brown
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