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This illustration of The Greater Egyptian Gerbil (Gerbillus pyramidum), also sometimes called The Pyramid Gerbil, comes from an English translation of Baron Cuvier's historic 1817 work "Le Règne animal distribué d'après son organisation" . This translation was published in London in 1837 as "The Animal Kingdom arranged according to its organisation". The picture is only one of three on the page. Click on the above image to see the whole print, which also includes drawings of a Common European Hamster (Cricetus cricetus), and a Root Vole (Microtus oeconomus), although different scientific names were used by Cuvier for these species.
Greater Egyptian Gerbil
This article first appeared in the December 2000 issue of the NGS Journal.
The Greater Egyptian Gerbil (Gerbillus pyramidum), sometimes called The Pyramid Gerbil, is a medium sized gerbil that lives in many parts of North Africa. In appearance it is quite distinctive from the other gerbil species I have seen. Firstly, the head is more sloped, and more pointed than is usual in a gerbil, and the ears are much smaller than you would expect in a gerbil of this size. From nose to the tip of the tail they are about 240mm (9.5 inches) long, with the tail being about the same length as the body. In colour they are darker than most gerbillus species, being a dull brown agouti colour, although as is usual with small animals that have such a large range the colour will vary from place to place depending on the colour of the soil on which the gerbils live. Their tails almost totally lack fur, and their bellies are white. It appears that at least in some areas the colour of juveniles is darker than adults.
Greater Egyptian Gerbils live right across the North African Deserts from the Red Sea to the Atlas Mountains, although there is a break in that they are absent from even suitable habitats along the Egyptian/Libyan border. They extend southwards into Chad and Sudan. Notwithstanding the above, the taxonomy of G. pyramidum is unclear. Animals trapped outside Egypt exhibit a range of significant differences in both their physical appearance and their chromosomes. It is therefore possible that what is known as G. pyramidum is really a group of closely related species.
These gerbils are a very common rodent in the oases of the Sahara, living mainly on the bordering sandy areas. They are often only resident where they can access the dates that fall form the palms. Researchers have been known to obtain specimens for study by paying local Arabs for animals they have caught in their homes. In some areas these gerbils avoid barren desert but in others they manage to live amongst the few shrubs that eke out a living in hammada type desert common in the Sahara. In the Sudan they often burrow into the softer sand which gathers around bushes and at the base of acacia trees.
They are nocturnal, appearing as soon as the sun sets, although they are sometimes observed during the day. They do not usually go far from their burrows, and quickly disappear down a hole when disturbed. During daytime they plug the entrance of their burrow with sand. This species has been observed sand bathing in the wild and burrow entrances often have a bowl of soft sand where bathing has taken place immediately outside. Osborne and Helmy who studied these gerbils in Egypt found them very nervous, difficult to handle and prone to biting.
Greater Egyptian Gerbils breed from June to February in the wild, and litter size varies between two and seven. Gestation lasts 22 days. Born hairless and blind, the pups start to crawl at eight days. Eyes open on the nineteenth or twentieth day. Weaning takes until the 25th or 30th day. Once the eyes are open the pups start to venture out of the burrow. Researchers have captured pups as young as 19 to 23 days. In captivity they live until just under two years.
About 6 months ago Karin acquired her first pair of Gerbillus pyramidum. At that time, she had not seen them before. She knew the person who gave them to her had some, and she told him enthusiastically, that she would be very interested in seeing them one day. She was not expecting that he would conclude that she would like to own a pair!
She was a little reserved about purchasing this species, as she was always told that they where very shy and not very tame. But when offered, she surely couldn't refuse, she wanted to experience first hand what they were like. Although several people warned her: "that is not a species for you, you will be disappointed, they are sooo shy!"
She decided to give it a go, though, and got a very young pair. She placed them in a big tank, equipped with two clay pots for nesting, a branch under which they could hide and a sand bowl. She provided two nesting places, as Karin was told that the female would chase the male away when she was pregnant.
Surprisingly they always only use one pot, though, the female has not been pregnant, as far as can be seen. Karin hopes that next spring they will breed. Although they breed Autumn and Winter in North Africa, the European may be more conducive to breeding in summer. Recently Karin saw them fight, and thought something was happening, but it was the male chasing the female. At first she thought it was about the food, but when she put food all around the cage, it was clear that was not the problem. They argue as Cheesman's do, lots of squeaking and boxing, not very serious, no injuries. About 15 minutes later it was over, and she hasn't seen them arguing since.
Karin has not found them very shy! It could be that these two are particularly cheeky, but they are curious as Mongolians! True, they are somewhat nervous, but when the cage is opened, they always come towards the entrance. They have not proved any more difficult to handle than other Gerbillus species, and they certainly do not bite.
They do not drink much water, tend to hide their food and don't use the sand bowl, except as a sleeping place, than they fill it with nesting material, or as food storage. They are very nocturnal, but when disturbed during the day, they often come out to have a look. They move in a very special way, the way they walk is more rat-like.
Overall Karin has found these gerbils to be very nice animals to keep, and beautiful to look at. She is not disappointed in them at all! And she hopes they will breed next year!
NOTES ON MAMMALS FROM THE NILE DELTA REGION OF EGYPT: Setzer W H, 1952, Proceedings of the Unites States National Museum, 102(3305)
CYTOLOGICAL CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE PHYLOGENY AND CLASSIFICATION OF THE RODENT GENUS GERBILLUS: Wahrman J and Zahavi A, 1955, Nature, 175, 600-602
MAMMALS OF THE ANGLO-EGYPTIAN SUDAN: Setzer H W, 1956, Proceedings of the Unites States National Museum, 106 (3377)
RODENTS OF LIBYA: Rank G L, U.S. National Museum Bulletin 275, 1968
THE ECOLOGY OF RODENTS IN THE NORTHERN SUDAN: D C D Happold, Chapter II of RODENTS IN DESERT ENVIRONMENTS, Prakash, L and Gosh, P.K. (volume editors), Dr W. Junk b.v. Publishers, The Hague, 1975, 90 6193 080 4
CHROMOSOMES OF SOME SPECIES OF GERBILLUS (MAMMALIA RODENTIA).: Lay, D.M., Agerson, K., Nadler, C.F., 1975, Zeitschrift fuer Sauegetierkunde, 40, 141-50
THE CONTEMPORARY LAND ANIMALS OF EGYPT (INCLUDING SINAI). (Fieldiana Zoology, no. 5), Osborn, D.J. & Helmy, I.,1980
TAXONOMY OF THE GENUS GERBILLUS (RODENTIA: GERBILLINAE) WITH COMMENTS ON THE APPLICATIONS OF GENERIC AND SUBGENETRIC NAMES AND AN ANNONATED LIST OF SPECIES.: Lay, D.M., 1983, Zeitschrift fuer Sauegetierkunde, 48, 329-354
THE MAMMALS OF ARABIA (Second Edition), Harrison DL, Bates PJJ, Harrison Zoological Museum Publication, 1991
MAMMALS OF ALGERIA, Kowalski, K. Rzebik-Kowalska, B, Zaklad Narodowy Imienia Ossolinskich Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk Wroclaw, Poland, 1991
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Last updated 22 September 2007