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This article originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of the NGS Journal.
The Great Gerbil (Rhombomys opimus) is one of the largest gerbil species at up to 400mm from head to tail. It is also probably one of the best documented species. In many parts of Central Asia where it lives it is a significant agricultural pest and as a result it has been subject to many studies. In some places the population levels are very high. In parts of Turkmenistan over 1000 burrows have been found a hectare.
The Great Gerbil is significantly bigger than most gerbils and is different enough to be classified in its own genus. Its scientific name means “rich rhomboid mouse” after the rhomboid wear patterns on its teeth and the way it hoards large amounts of food. In appearance it looks a little like a gopher, probably due to having a larger head and small ears than most gerbils. It has an unusual tail for a gerbil, short, but with a distinctive crest of long hairs towards the end.
This species of gerbil is found in many parts of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Southern Mongolia, North-western China and Afghanistan. It prefers sandy soils, living in deserts, semi-deserts and subtropical steppes. The climate in these areas can be very severe. Hot dry summers and cold, windy, snow less winters. Great Gerbils are well adapted for this climate. They make very efficient use of water and can survive long periods on only the water in their food. Their diet mainly consists of the same sort of desert bushes that you see in American Westerns. They have thick fur to protect them in winter, and when the weather is too harsh they spend less time outside their burrows. To avoid the heat of summer they are more active at dawn and dusk, in winter, they are more active during the middle of the day. Great Gerbils are normally only active at night when the juveniles leave their parent’s burrows to set up burrows of their own.
These gerbils are great hoarders of food. In areas where it is easier to dig the cache of food is stored underground. In harder soils food is stacked up outside the burrow. Piles of food up to three metres across and a metre high have been recorded!
Their burrows can be very complex. Even so, Great Gerbils have no great skill at burrowing. They avoid hard soils and groups of gerbils cooperate when digging. Empty burrows are reused when population levels increase. Carbon 14 tests on material found in burrows suggest that the same burrows can remain in use for hundreds or even thousands of years! Where the ground is hard the burrows can be very simple. The more complicated and extensive tunnel systems are built in softer soils.
Because population levels can be high, Great Gerbils have a big impact on the vegetation in the area. Certain plants are disturbed by the burrowing activity, others are encouraged by the large quantities of faeces and urine fertilising the soil. Because their burrows are a long-standing and important feature of the landscape there are many other species that use them for shelter. In addition to insects and other arthropods, over 50 species of mammals, birds and reptiles have been recorded as occupying Great Gerbil burrows in some regions.
Great Gerbils live in large family groups. They often communicate together using foot thumping and whistles. These noises can be heard at some distance. Great Gerbils usually produce their first litter at the age of three or four months. In some areas they breed throughout the year and in dryer areas they may only breed for three months. Litter size is 1-14 with most litters being between four and seven. The maximum life span in the wild for this species is thought to be two to three years for males and three to four for females. Like Mongolian Gerbils the males help care for the pups which are weaned by the time they are 22 days old. In some areas males have been seen visiting females of other burrows, but by contrast females are very intolerant to females from different communities.
Despite being burrowing animals these gerbils are also migratory. They will often move to a different area, probably in search for food. This explains the importance of marking inhabited burrows and the need to occupy vacant burrows.
As well as being an agricultural pest, Great gerbils are known to carry bubonic plague. Once labelled as a major reservoir of this disease it is now apparent that it is only in certain small regions where this is the case. As well as damaging crops Great Gerbils have been known to damage embankments and drainage ditches. In the past, they have even been trapped for their fur!
At one time there were some captive Great Gerbils in the UK. The BBC imported them and filmed them in connection with the making of the series “Realm of the Russian Bear”. After filming the gerbils were passed onto members of the Society but they have probably died out by now. Great Gerbils are sometimes on show at Moscow zoo, I would love to see some one day!
THE MAMMALS OF CHINA AND MONGOLIA. Part 2, Allen, G M, The American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1940
THE NATURAL REGIONS OF THE USSR, Berg L S, Mackmillan, 1950
MAMMALS - THEIR LATIN NAMES EXPLAINED, Gotch A F, Blandford Press, 1979, 0-7137-0939-1
ECOLOGY OF DESERT RODENTS OF THE USSR (JERBOAS AND GERBILS): N P Naumov, V S Lobachev, 1975, Rodents In Desert Enviroments, Dr W. Junk b.v. Publishers, The Hague, 90-6193-080-4
WALKER'S MAMMALS OF THE WORLD. (5th edition), Nowak, R.M., The Johns Hopkins University Press 1991
The photographs on this page are of juvenile Great Gerbils and were taken in Mongolia by A Ballance and are used with the permission of Natural History New Zealand Ltd.
Here is a link to an interesting page about Great Gerbils in Kazakhstan.
The NGS also has a complete list of gerbil species including distribution.
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Last updated 22 September 2007