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Gerbils are small rodents that live mainly in deserts and savannas in Africa and parts of Asia. To cope with the heat, they stay below ground during the day and come out for food at night. Gerbils resemble small, furry rats in their body shape, but their long hind legs make them look like miniature kangaroos. Their fur is sand colored on top, but the underparts are white. Gerbils have long, slender tails with tufts of hair at the end. They use their tails for balance.
Habits: Gerbils live in burrows below ground during the day and only surface during the cool of night. These sociable animals often live in large communities. But gerbils in harsh, dry areas tend to live in single burrows, as there is not enough food to support large numbers. A gerbil’s burrow is usually part of an interconnecting system with many entrances and separate chambers for nesting, sleeping, and storing food. Most entrances are blocked with earth during the day to keep out the heat and predators like snakes and mongooses.
To live in hot, dry areas, gerbils minimize their water loss. Their digestive systems extract water from food, and their kidneys reabsorb water from their urine. Gerbils also have specially adapted bones in their noses that condense water vapor from the air before the animal breathes out. In this way essential moisture is retained. During the day gerbils keep the entrances to their burrows well concealed. The Mongolian gerbil, Meriones unguiculatus, is the breed kept as a pet.
Breeding: With gerbils, reproduction appears to be closely linked to both weather and food supplies. Some gerbils in desertlike areas give birth after the rainy season, when temperatures are lower and food is more plentiful. There is usually just one litter per female. But both the Indian gerbil and savanna gerbil live near a relatively abundant food supply and may breed several times during one year.
After a gestation period of three weeks, the female gives birth to four to eight young. The offspring are helpless at birth and live on their mother’s milk for about 20 days. Then they learn to forage for themselves. When there is only one breeding season in the year, offspring that are born early in the season quickly reach maturity and breed during the same season, at the age of about two months. Gerbils born later become sexually mature after six months and breed during the next season. Gerbil offspring are totally helpless at birth. They are blind and hairless and cannot regulate their body temperature. A female suckles her young in the nest chamber. The young usually feed from their mother for about 20 days.
Food and Feeding: Gerbils come out at night to feed on seeds. They also eat stems, fruit, roots, and bulbs if these foods are available. At night the seeds are saturated with dew, and gerbils take them back to their burrows to eat. This tactic lets them conserve the seeds’ moisture and also makes them less vulnerable to attack by predators, including birds of prey such as eagles and owls. Gerbils gather food such as leaves and stems and take it back to the burrow.
Length: Body, 4-8 in. Tail, 6-10 in.
Weight: 1-8 oz.
Sexual maturity: 2-6 months
Breeding: Breeds once or several times a year, depending on species, climate, and food
Gestation: 3 weeks
No. of Young: 4-8
Habit: Usually nocturnal. Sociable except when living in very harsh conditions
Diet: Seeds, supplemented with stems, leaves, fruit, bulbs
Lifespan: 1-2 years in the wild
Related Species: There are 73 species of
gerbils in 14 genera.
Distribution: Found in dry, desertlike areas, plains, and savanna grasslands in Africa and Asia.
Conservation: Gerbils are not in danger, although when they live close to people they are often trapped or poisoned. Gerbils cause damage by raiding grain crops and by burrowing in irrigation ditches and building foundations.
Common Gerbil Species:
Large North African Gerbil, Gerbillus campestris: Long ears, pale color, large eyes, and long tail.
Great Gerbil, Rhombomys opimus: Largest known gerbil. Thick fur and short tail. Looks like a rat.
North African Jird, Meriones lybicus: Sandy brown hair with white abdomen.
Indian Gerbil, Tatera indica: No hair on soles of hind feet. Fur interspersed with black hairs.
Did You Know:
The coats of different gerbil species are camouflaged to match their habitat. Gerbils living in dark lava sand have a browner coat those living in yellow sand.
There are over 80 species of gerbil. Many are named for their appearance, such as the fat sand mouse and the fat tailed gerbil.
Wagner’s gerbil likes to eat snails. It often leaves piles of empty snail shells outside its burrow entrance.