Most of the gerbils available as pets are the Mongolian Gerbil species, Meriones unguiculatus. This translates as ‘clawed warrior’. A little over-dramatic for the cute gerbil, perhaps; but there is a legend to match.
It is said that the warlike name was bestowed by none other than the Emperor Genghis Khan, after a Mongolian Gerbil bit the foot of a would-be assassin just as he was about to strike the slumbering Emperor. The assassin cried out in pain as the little teeth dug in. Waking, Khan grabbed his sword and saw off the assassin. Afterwards, Genghis was inseparable from his gerbil, and wherever he went his ‘clawed warrior’ went too.
Like all good legends, this one may dip fewer than one toe in the well of truth; but Genghis would certainly have been familiar with this common Mongolian rodent.
The first ever depiction of a Gerbil, mid-19th century
The First Gerbils in Europe
In the mid-19th century, French missionary and zoologist Father Armand David travelled widely in northern and central Asia, collecting animals and plants unknown to western science at that time and sent them back to Paris. Amongst his many discoveries was the Giant Panda, and an animal that was named for him – Pére David’s Deer. In 1867 he sent live Mongolian Gerbil specimens to Europe, the first ones to venture beyond Asia, as far as we know.
Gerbils in the USA
Gerbils did not immediately take off as pets. But in the later 1950s they became popular in America, which still has the biggest market for the pets.
In 1954 Dr. Victor Schwentker had imported gerbils into the US for scientific research purposes. It was while tending them in his laboratory that Schwentker recognized their suitability as pets. Before long a few specimens had made it to the local pet store, and their intelligence and inquisitive characters made them an instant hit with kids. The gerbil craze spread quickly (apart from in California, where state officials were concerned that gerbils would establish feral colonies if they escaped, damaging crops and the local ecosystem).
The next country to catch the gerbil bug was the UK. They were first imported there from the US in 1964 and once again proved very popular with children. Ten years later, they had become one of the most popular small pets in the world.
An Omleteer, 1 March 2021
Lelia said: "hi i have four gerbils and they are super cute and fun so if you dont have one get one now today!!!" I like how enthusiastic you are, but I have a small comment on what you said. You should NOT just go out and buy a gerbil without first reading about them (This article is best) and you should also prepare your home for them in advance. Make sure you REALLY want the gerbil(s) before getting them, or you will be stuck with an animal that has to go back to the store.