Most of today’s pet gerbil populations are descended from a wild specimens of the Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus), aka the Mongolian Jird, caught in the deserts and semi-deserts of Mongolia. The animals were bred in captivity, growing in number and popularity until their numbers reached the millions.
The gerbil and jird group of rodents has over a hundred different species, most originating in arid climates across the world. The commonest pet species you'll encounter in the US is the Mongolian Gerbil, with far smaller numbers of Fat-tailed Gerbil (Pachyuromys duprasi), Pale (or Pallid) Gerbil (Gerbillus perpallidus), and Shaw's Jird (Meriones shawi).
The Pallid or Pale Gerbil
You can find out more about the history of the most common species, the Mongolian Gerbil, on our Gerbil History page.
In the wild gerbils live in communal burrows in dry grasslands and semi-deserts, ranging from Africa throughout the Middle East and into India and Central Asia.
Gerbils vary in size from the 2.5 inch Charming Dipodil (Gerbillus amoenus) from North Africa, to species bigger than a rat, such as the Great Gerbil (Rhombomys opimus) of Central Asia. This species is viewed as a serious pest in parts of Western China due to the amount of grain it can hoard and the damage it causes through its burrowing. Although the Great Gerbil has been kept in captivity, it is not recommended as a pet due to it’s aggressive behavior and huge appetite.
The Fat-tailed gerbil is one of the less common species available as a pet
Fat-tailed gerbils originate not from Mongolia, but from the northern reaches of the Sahara Desert, in Algeria ad Morocco. They are great desert survivors, and have evolved a tail in which they can store fat - hence the name. A healthy specimen has a long, hairless tail, relatively thick and heavy compared to other small rodents.
Fat-tailed gerbils were discovered in the late 19th century by biologist Fernand Lataste, and although they’ve become more available as pets in recent years, they are much harder to find than their common Mongolian relatives.
The Pallid comes from Egypt. It has has pale orange fur with white underparts, forelimbs and feet, and white around the eyes. It is smaller than the Mongolian gerbil, and its tail is longer than its body. They are every bit as easy to look after as the Mongolian, and their feeding, cleaning and handling requirements are the same.
Shaw's Jird in its native North African habitat
Shaw's Jird is a common rodent in many North African countries. This is the least common of the gerbils generally available as pets, and slightly bigger than the others. They are not as sociable as the Mongolian and Pallid gerbils, and the females in particular can be aggressive towards each other, being very territorial, so it's best not to keep a female pair together.
Both male and females are very docile when it comes to being handled by humans, and become far more tame than the other species once they get used to handling. They almost never bite, and nor do they smell.