Short reminder

If you have already read the Naming and classification post you then propably know the origin of the name gerbil. But for those who don’t know, Meriones unguiculatus roughly translated means „clawed warrior“ or „warrior with claws“ (Meriones – a greek mythological warrior, unguiculatus – associates with the meaning of fingernail or claw).

The name gerbil as told by the legend was given by an emperor named Gengis Khan. When the emperor was asleep, an assassin came and he tried to strike the emperor in sleep, but right as he wanted to strike him a gerbil bit his foot. The bite caused the assassin pain and he yelled, waking the emperor which saved his life.
From that moment on the emperor gave his little saviour the name clawed warrior (or as we call them gerbils) and they were inseparable. But of course those are only legends and it is very much possible that they aren’t true.
You can read more here.

Mongolian gerbil in the wild

The most well-known pet gerbil or Mongolian gerbil inhabits the steppe,savanna, hot and semmi-desert regions of Mongolia, India, the Middle East and Africa and it was rarely found in the mountan regions. With their habit extending to east and also reaching northern limits by being transported they can even be found in Russia (from the expedition in 1954.).

Later they were found in the itermediate regions also inhabitating the south where their range was extending beyond Mongolian boundaries to the sandy regions of NW and NE China (discovered in 1959. expediton).
There were also reports of findings of isolated populations in the far west of Kazahstan that is about 300 kilometers away from their main habitat in Mongolia. The gerbil has a preference for dry soil, but being very adaptive little cratures they can be found even in rocky and humid areas.

As many research was done it showed that the more north a gerbils habitat was the more a gerbil was atracted to areas influenced by humans. That only shows how adaptive gerbils are.

History of gerbils

The first time ever in history a gerbil was mentioned by Armande David  as a „yellow rat“. In 1866 Armande went for an expedition and his journey took him to the nort and west of China. In that expedition he discovered many new species of plants and animals, but the journey to Inner Mongolia is where he discovered that gerbils are of great interest. In his diary he writes about his first sightings of gerbils and describes them as „Yellow rats“ with long hairy tails and black claws.

About a year later in 1867. A. Milne – Edwards described the Mongolian gerbil in a scientific publication which was the result of Armand sending unindentified specimens of yellow rats to be identified.  They were then named Gerbillus unguiculatus until later when they were renamed to Meriones uguiculatus.

Gerbils spreading all over the world

In 1935 a Japanese researcher Professor Kasugo collected 20 pairs of gerbils by the Amur river in eastern Mongolia. They were then sent to the Kitasato Insitute in Japan for furhter research of a bacteria which causes typhus, called Rickettsia. These 20 pairs of gerbils captured in Mongolia are probable ancestors of most gerbil pets today.

The news of gerbils being kept in Japan came to Dr. Schwentker. He then for his own research in 1954. obtained 4 pairs who were imported to U.S.A. Dr. Schwentker established the first colony of gerbils in the Tumblebrook farm where the gerbils bred well and their numbers started to increase.

In that period Schwentker discovered how friendly and suitable for pets gerbils were, and when they reached bigger numbers  he began giving them to his friends, family and colleagues. Not long after that, first gerbils starred appearing in pet stores.
In 1964. they were imported to the U.K. and after that many gerbils were exported all over other countries around the world.
They became more popular over time because of their curios and friendly nature, and many interesting coat mutations who continue to fascinate breeders and ovners all around the world.


  1. Rosa

    Hi Kristina,

    I’ve known that gerbils are kept as pets. They are cute little creatures. They almost look like a mouse. It’s sad to read how these little gerbils were used in the in the past.

    My grandson’s friend just recently bought two gerbils. I’m going to show her this website to help her know more about gerbils.

    Thank you for sharing this post.

    1. Kristina Post author

      Hi Rosa,
      I agree, gerbils are very cute. Yes, they really do look a bit like a mouse. It is sad how they used them, but it’s even sader because they are still used like that.
      Your grandson and his friend will have lots of fun playing with them, they make great pets for children.

  2. Eric

    Hey Kristina, I love it when someone has a passion or hobby and wants to share, so when I saw your article on site comments I had to stop and check it out! I didn’t realise the history about gerbils, and the story about Genghis Khan is cool, even though we will never know if it was actually true. Some of these legends we read about and watch on tv probably are based on some form or truth passed down over the years. I must admit, I never owned a gerbil as a pet, although I have had rabbits, mice, and guinea pigs as a youngster. I think gerbils may be cuter than all of them!

    1. Kristina Post author

      Hy Eric! I agree, when you see someones passion about something it makes it more interesting to read, and you wish them just the best. The love for my pets keeps me trying to make something interesting for people to read so they can get to know those lovely creatures.
      Some stories are just interesting legends, or it may have really happened and the told story changed through history. We can only keep on guessing what the true really is.
      I always wanted to have a pet rabbit, but never had enough space for one and my paretns wouldn’t allow to keep them inside the house, so i found out about gerbils and I fell in love with them immediately.


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