There are various types pf gerbils. They are found all over the world, mostly in dry, infertile and sandy steppes. (In English prairie is almost never used except when describing North American grasslands.) Gerbils are found in North Africa, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Sri Lanka, India, Northern China and Mongolia. The Mongolian gerbil is the best known and the most suitable to be kept as a pet. The Mongolian steppes, the original habitat of the Mongolian gerbil, are a biotope with a strange, extreme environment. As only a few animals can cope with such an extreme environment, the Mongolian gerbil does not have many natural enemies. To escape from those enemies that do exist, such as snakes and birds of prey, the gerbil has a highly developed jumping ability. The ability, which is also useful when others of its kind attack a gerbil, is the result of very strong back legs. Gerbils have a number of characteristics that are typical of desert animals. They have fantastic hearing. They can also store a lot of water in their layers of fat cells and are very economic with the little water they get. Gerbils urinate very little, and they produce very dry droppings.
Contrary to many other desert animals, the gerbil is not primarily nocturnal. It does stay in its burrow during the hottest time of the day, but it has alternating periods of waking and sleep. It is active for a few hours, and then it sleeps again for few hours. This cycle is also carried on in captivity. This makes the gerbil a very attractive pet, as you can also see it in action during the day.
The gerbil has a fairly short history as a pet. Twenty breeding couples were captured in Eastern Mongolia and Manchuria. These animals are regarded as the ancestors of the gerbils, which are kept in captivity today. Approximately twenty years after these first captive animals had been domesticated, the first gerbils were taken to the US for research. There, it very quickly became apparent, that these were unique animal, which also made ideal pets. The gerbil is interesting and safe in both its behaviour and its appearance. It is exceptionally intelligent and quickly learns individual tricks. This makes the gerbil an amusing and fascinating pet for people who can give it time and attention.
Gerbils are rodents and therefore mammals, just like humans, dogs and horses. Rodents actually from the largest group of mammals; of all the species of mammals in the world, more than half are rodents. The best-known rodents are probably mice and rats, but in fact they come in all shapes and sizes. The largest rodent in the world is Capybara, or “water pig”, which can grow to over one metre long and weigh more than 60 kg. The tiny tot among the rodents is the African dwarf mouse, which is never longer than three centimetres. Between these extremes one finds the squirrel, the guinea pig, the porcupine, marmot, hamster and countless other rodent varieties. Contrary to popular opinion, rabbits and hares are not rodents. They are more closely related to hoofed animals, such as the goat. However, rabbits and hares do share one significant characteristic with the rodents; they have continuously growing front teeth without roots. Because rodents are constantly gnawing, they grind their front teeth down. Nature found a solution by having their teeth just keep growing. However rodents do run the risk of so-called “Overgrown teeth” and you can read more about that in “Your gerbil’s health”. When choosing a cage or a hutch, remember that rodents have sharp teeth and can easily chew a hole in wood.
The rodent order is divided into four sub-orders: mice, squirrels, porcupines and guinea pig species. All rats, mice gerbils and (dwarf) hamsters belong to the sub-order of the mice.
This sub-order of the mice is then again divided into three super-families: real mice, dormice and jumping mice. The super-family of the real mice is split into four families: hamsters and voles, mice and rats, root rats and mole rats. Of course, mice belong to the mice and rats genus (Muridae).
The family of hamsters and voles has five sub-families: real hamster, Madagascar rats, crested rates, voles and gerbils. The Latin name for the last sub-family is Gerbillinae. The family of the jumping mice is divided into genera, such as (among others) Taterillus. These genera are again divided into different tribes and species.