Egyptian Gerbil

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The Egyptian Gerbil

By Julian Barker

This article first appeared in the June 2000 issue of The Nibbler - Journal of the National Gerbil Society

The species often called The Egyptian Gerbil (Gerbillus gerbillus) is better referred to as The Lesser Egyptian Gerbil to avoid confusion with The Greater Egyptian Gerbil (G. pyramidum). It is a much smaller gerbil than the various species normally kept as pets. From nose to the tip of the tail the very largest adults are no more than 230mm (9 inches). A more typical length is only just over 200mm (8 inches). The body is often no more than 90mm long (3.5 inches). The tail is on average over a third longer than the body.

In appearance, they look very much like Pallid Gerbils (G. perpallidus), but they are significantly smaller. The coat on their back is a sandy buff colour, but the precise shade will, as is often the case in desert rodents, depend on the colour of the soil and rocks in the region where they or their ancestors were captured. The belly is white, and the white comes up a long way on the sides and head. So much so that the eyes and mouth are ringed with white. Like Pallid gerbils the Lesser Egyptian Gerbil has a much more fine-boned appearance than the Mongolian Gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus). This appearance is born out by their average weight which is only 23g (less than an ounce), and is about a third of the weight of a Mongolian Gerbil. The ears are unpigmented and are shorter than is often the case with Gerbillus species. The tail is well covered in hair and has tip of longer darker hairs

They live in a large range across North Africa and the Middle East. From Morocco in the west to Sinai, Southern Jordan and parts of North-western Arabia, and as far south as Chad, Niger, Mali, and Uganda. They are one of the most common desert rodents in desert and semi-desert regions of Egypt, Sinai, and much of the Sahara. Egyptian Gerbils often live in very remote areas where rainfall is sparse. This means that the population level can vary greatly from year to year as the rains come and go. This has helped lead to a great diversity in this species. There are many recognised races of Lesser Egyptian Gerbils which vary from one another in various ways.

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The preferred habitat is sandy dunes. They have furred soles of their feet to help them make progress on the shifting sands. They are also common along the Nile Valley where live in sandy patches between palm groves and cultivated areas. Across North Africa they are far more common in the dunes, although they avoid the large sand seas. They are much less common in coastal areas where other species of gerbils predominate. They particularly like to burrow in areas of windblown sand and where sand has accumulated to cover rubbish dumps or abandoned buildings. They often live immediately alongside other gerbil species such as Anderson's Gerbil (G. andersoni), Sundervall's Jird (M. crassus) and The Greater Egyptian Gerbil. They also live alongside jerboas such as Jaculus jaculus. Although almost nothing is known about how Lesser Egyptian Gerbils interact with these other species.

It has been noted that Lesser Egyptian Gerbils will avoid leaving sandy areas. For example, in a study of desert rodents Baluchistan Gerbils (G. nanus) who live normally on salt flats, would also be sometimes found in the neighbouring dunes. But the Lesser Egyptian Gerbils that lived in the dunes would never venture onto the slat flats.

The burrows of Lesser Egyptian Gerbils vary depending on the time of year but are usually about 600mm deep (about 2 feet). They can be some 4.5 metres (14 feet) long with branching passageways and stores of food and nesting material. The burrow allows the gerbils to protect themselves from the extremes of temperature. In one study carried out in January, surface temperature varied from 8C to 27C in a single day, temperature in the burrow stayed between 12 and 14.5C. Humidity in burrows is also high. During the same study outside humidity dropped as low as 15%. Humidity in the burrow stayed between 81 and 100%. The Lesser Egyptian Gerbil is a very social animal and a burrow can contain many gerbils.

Lesser Egyptian Gerbils are attracted by campsites, fallen dates and camel dung, and will often bite when first captured in the wild. However, on repeated handling they soon become tame. The diet appears to consist entirely of seeds, fruits, leaves and buds. Camel dung is torn apart looking for undigested seeds. They have been known to enter inhabited dwellings looking for food and shelter.

The breeding season is between January to May and litter size appears to be between three and six. This gerbil is active throughout the year, and in experiments, they have shown a homing ability. If artificially displaced from their burrows, they can successfully return to them.

Finally, the Lesser Egyptian Gerbil has one characteristic that no other Gerbil species can boast. It has been featured on a postage stamp! In 1992, as part of a series of stamps displaying a variety of rodents, Vietnam issued this 4000 Dong stamp.

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THE MAMMALS OF ARABIA (Second Edition), Harrison DL, Bates PJJ, Harrison Zoological Museum Publication, 1991, 268-305


EAST AFRICAN MAMMALS, VOL IIB., Kingdom, J., Academic Press, London., 1974, , 507-18

MAMMALS OF ALGERIA, Kowalski, K. Rzebik-Kowalska, B. Zaklad Narodowy Imienia Ossolinskich Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk Wroclaw, Poland., 1991, 219-53

RODENTS IN DESERT ENVIRONMENTS, Chapter XIII, Prakash, L and Gosh, P.K. (volume editors)., Dr W. Junk b.v. Publishers, The Hague, 1975, 90 6193 080 4

THE CONTEMPORARY LAND ANIMALS OF EGYPT (INCLUDING SINAI). (Fieldiana Zoology, no. 5), Osborn, D.J. & Helmy, I, 1980, 94-245

RODENTS OF LIBYA: Rank G. L., 1968, U.S. National Museum Bulletin, 275

THE RODENTS OF WEST AFRICA, Rosevear, D.R, British Museum (Natural History), London, 1969, 198-212


MAMMALS OF THE ANGO-EGYPTIAN SUDAN, Setzer H. W., Smithsonian Institute, 1956

THE MAMMALS OF SOUTH SINAI, EGYPT: Wassif K., Hoogstraal H., 63-79


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Last updated 22 September 2007