Gerbils in the Wild

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This picture of Mongolian Gerbils, was taken in the wild in Mongolia. Click for a larger version.
Used by permission of Dr. GŁnther Eichhorn. Visit his website for some great nature photos of Mongolia (and other locations). 
Click here for some more of GŁnther's wild gerbil pictures, and some pictures of wild gerbils now in captivity. 

(The rest of the pictures on this page are of regions of the Gobi Desert and are typical of the sort of places you would expect to find Gerbils.)

 

The following information on gerbils in the wild is taken exclusively from:

G. Agren, Zhou Q & Zhong W. 1989. Ecology and social behaviour of Mongolian gerbils, Meriones unguiculatus, at Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia, China. Animal Behaviour, 37, 11-27.
Abstract. Observations were made of social and territorial behaviour in a wild high-density population of Mongolian gerbils. The social units were multi-male, multi-female age-structured groups, judged to be families. The operational sex ratio was male biased. Group size varied from two to about 17 animals. Non- overlapping territories were defined by a clustered distribution of burrows, by common areas of activity of group members, and by chases across border zones between the areas used by each group. Territory size was correlated with group size, and ranged from 325 to 1550 m2. Within groups, differential social status was indicated by behaviour patterns of dominant as well as subordinate character. Larger individuals dominated smaller ones, and males usually dominated females. Males ranged more widely and they were generally more active than females. The rate of sexual maturation in subadults varied according to group composition. Mainly the largest reproductively active males defended the territories by chasing, and also by marking along borders. An increased marking rate was observed in reproductively active males and females during oestrus. Three females were observed to copulate, two with more than one male. One female preferentially copulated with a neighbouring male. The functions of territorial defence, marking behaviour and promiscuous mating are discussed, and some cross-species comparisons are made. The present observations are to a large extent compatible with the results of relevant laboratory and seminatural studies.
[Picture] Habitat

[Picture] Food

[Picture] Predators and Competitors

[Picture] Population

[Picture] Social Organisation

[Picture] Reproductive Behaviour

[Picture]

Habitat

Mongolian Gerbils were observed in the wild in the Xilinhot area of Inner Mongolia (44N, 116E) at 1100m above see level. The area is typical steppe with a sandy soil and a sparse covering of grass, herbs and shrub. Precipitation falls mainly as rain from June to August and snow from October to April. In 1983, the year before the observations the total rainfall was 228.9mm. The winter before the observations there had been a total of 60 days of snow cover with the longest single period being 20 days. The annual mean temperature in the region is 1.7C with a monthly mean of -19.8C in January and +20.8C in July. Temperatures can reach -40C in winter and +50C in summer. The Xilinhot area is representative of the Mongolian Gerbil's preferred habitat.

The observations, which were made in June 1984, were restricted to an area 175m x 50m along a small track with the movement of animals reported against a grid marked out by flags. Initially traps were set and the animals caught were weighed, their fur was clipped to enable identification from a distance and the animals were examined for pregnancy, lactation, sexual maturity, development of the scent gland etc. It was estimated from the low number of unmarked animals subsequently seen that almost all the population of the area was successfully trapped. Subsequent observations were made in the morning and in the evening which coincided with peak activity above ground.

Food

gobi4.jpg (13824 bytes)Gerbils were seen feeding mainly on the Mugwort Artemisia sieversiana, although A. commutata, Salsola collina, a Saltwort, Setaria viridis, a Bristle Grass and the Lyme Grass Leymus chinensis were also eaten. Gerbils were seen foraging in barren areas and it was assumed that they were feeding on seeds. Gerbils dug whilst feeding and might have been also eating roots. Although not mentioned in the article it is possible they were seeking invertebrates. The remains of two winter food stores were discovered and both consisted entirely of the seed husks of L chinensis. Interestingly the dried plant sold as Millet Sprays for Budgerigars in UK petshops is a Bristle Grass. As an experiment I gave some to four pet gerbils who devoured the entire spray in minutes.

Predators and Competitors

Weasels were seen in the area and fled to gerbil burrows when disturbed. Gerbil activity was very much reduced for some days afterwards in the areas where these animals were observed. Buzzards were seen every day but there was no sign of preying on gerbils. The Eagle Owl is the only owl native to the area and all owl pellets examined contained only gerbil remains. Other local predators which were not observed are foxes, wolves, and sheep dogs.

The only observed competitor was a single female Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus dauricus) but the Daurian Pika (Ochotona daurica,) and Daurian Dwarf Hamster (Cricetulus barbabensis, a close relative of the Chinese Dwarf Hamster) also live in the area. Gerbils and the ground squirrel were seen to respond to one another's warning signals. Gerbils responded to the squirrel's warning whistles and the Citellus reciprocated when gerbils gave foot thumping warnings.

Population

GobiFrom trapping and observations it was determined that the average population ranged from 42 to 90.6 gerbils per hectare dependent on vegetation growth. Of the 126 gerbils caught 19% were juveniles, 54% subadults and 27% adults. Only 4% of the adults were likely to be aged at least 8 months old. Males made up 42% of juveniles, 58% of subadults and 68% of adults. At the time of the study (June 1984) 9 of the 11 adult females were either pregnant or lactating.

Social Organisation

Burrows took the form either of 10-20 irregularly spaced entrances that were likely to form a single burrow system or of a more shallow burrow with 1-3 entrances located some distance from the main burrow. The manner in which the same gerbils were repeatedly trapped in the same areas associated with burrow entrances allowed the social groupings of the gerbils to be identified. By observing that the borders of the ranges were marked by chasing behaviour between rival adults (mainly males) it was possible to identify the territory belonging to each social group. Chasing and scent marking were the main forms of territorial behaviour.

The territory belonging to each group ranged from 325 to 1550m2 depending on group size, food availability and most importantly the body weight of the largest male gerbil.

Groups consisted of up to 17 individuals. A typical group had on adult male and an adult female living with up to 3 litters of offspring.

[Picture]Within the territory of each group the dominant male was the only gerbil the usually used anything like the whole area. Juveniles rarely strayed far from the burrow entrances and on average females ranged over a much smaller area than comparable males. Where there was no dominant male the younger males ranged over a large area.

Reproductive Behaviour

Females were seen copulating three times. In two of these cases the female was seen to copulate with at least two different partners immediately after one another. In at least one of these cases the female mated with both the dominant male from her burrow and a subordinate male from an adjacent territory. A male partner was seen collecting nesting material on 13 occasions on two and three days before mating took place. Females were only once seen collecting nesting material.

There is plenty more in this paper which I would recommend to anyone with an interest in Mongolian Gerbils.

Here are some more of GŁnther Eichhorn's pictures of wild gerbils - 

Wild Wild Wild

In Europe there are some gerbils that are completely descended from gerbils caught in Mongolia in about 1995. These gerbils have different characteristics to those normally kept. For example, they are less easy to handle, have longer, narrower heads, their eyes are larger and the most obvious feature, their ears are darker, longer, more pointed and carried further back on the head. Less obviously, the feet are darker and their is much more yellow on the belly. Additionally, their fur is thicker and the tail tuft is more prominent.

The differences are no doubt in part due to human selection as gerbils have been kept as pets for over 40 years, but it is possible the there are differences between different wild populations of Mongolian Gerbils.

wild1.jpg (56134 bytes)

 

Click here for more information on Mongolian Gerbils living in the wild.

If anyone encounters scientific papers on gerbil behaviour, or natural observations of other species of gerbil or jird, .

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Last updated 22 November 2013