Updated July 10, 2020 10:26 am
Once cried as a nuisance, the often hunted and poisoned European hamster is now officially threatened with extinction. If the small animals are not helped, they may be completely gone in 30 years, animal rights activists warn.
The field hamster, which has become very rare in Germany, is now officially threatened with extinction in its entire distribution area. This emerges from the new Red List of Endangered Animal and Plant Species of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Species of lemurs and a right whale in the Atlantic are now threatened with extinction, as the IUCN reported on Thursday in Gland near Geneva.
In the European Union, the European hamster (Cricetus cricetus) is already strictly protected, but at IUCN it has so far not been considered at risk due to the lack of surveys. Conservationists had thought that there were still plenty of rodents in Eastern Europe and Russia. That was a fallacy.
“If nothing changes, the European hamster will die out in the next 30 years,” warns the IUCN now. “As it turned out, the catastrophe extends to Siberia,” said hamster expert Stefanie Monecke from the Institute for Medical Psychology at the University of Munich to the German Press Agency.
European hamster: a plague for farmers
Between the Alsace and the Jenissei river in Siberia, the field hamsters were once at home millions of times. The “architects under the field” were a plague for farmers because they tunnelled fields and ate up crops. For each hamster killed, premiums were paid to deal with the plague.
In the Halle district alone, tens of thousands of dead animals were delivered in the 1950s, says Monecke. “There are estimates that the population has declined by 99 percent since the 1950s and there are only 10,000 specimens all over Germany.”
It is suspected that the huge monocultures in the fields are not good for the animals. In contrast to the past, harvests are also made faster and the hamsters are thus deprived of their living space within hours. Many German farmers have long since become hamster-friendly, says Monecke. Strips of wild plants have been left between fields for 20 years or are harvested later. Although this slowed the decline, it has not yet been able to stop it.
Light pollution as a possible cause
Monecke, who deals with chronobiology, i.e. the temporal processes of physiological processes and repeated behavior patterns, suspects other problems. She found that the hamsters have had fewer and fewer youngsters since the 1950s. There are fewer litters a year with fewer young animals. In 1954 there were an average of 9 hatchlings per litter, in 2015 there were still 3.4.
Light pollution could be a cause, Monecke believes. Hamsters have an internal clock that controls when they stop reproducing in summer and when they wake up from hibernation. This clock is adjusted in summer, and this requires precise perception of the sunset. Artificial light sources could blur that. Too little light could also generate a wrong signal.
“When the combine comes and the field is bare within a few hours, the hamster crumbles into its burrow and then sits in constant darkness,” she says. For the hamster’s internal clock, this means that, partly because of climate change, mowing takes place in June or July: now it is winter. There is a paradox: the earlier the hamster switches to winter, the later he will start reproducing the following year and will have fewer pups.
Integrated in food chains
Why does the world need field hamsters? “They are part of a huge food chain,” says Monecke. Birds of prey that can no longer find hamsters would have to hunt smaller rodents, but would fly out more often, which would also confuse their lives.
With the new IUCN classification, Monecke hopes for new research funds in order to be able to systematically investigate the causes of their disappearance and, above all, the mysterious decline in the reproduction rate.
The European Court of Justice only strengthened the right of hamsters to their habitat in early July. Their buildings should not be destroyed even if the animals are not currently using them, but may return there.
The background was a case in Austria where hamster buildings for a street had been destroyed. In May, the environmental association Bund Naturschutz Bayern lodged a complaint with the EU Commission because, in its opinion, Bavaria had not taken any effective measures to prevent extinction.
Incidentally, the golden hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) in the cage does not contribute to the preservation of the European hamster. It is a different species, originally from Syria.
Red list is getting longer
The IUCN also classified 13 species of lemurs as more endangered. 103 of the 107 lemur species are now threatened with extinction due to deforestation and hunting in Madagascar. This includes the Berthes mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae), the smallest monkey species in the world with a body length of only around ten centimeters.
The right whale Atlantic Northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is now threatened with extinction. According to estimates, there were only 250 copies left in 2018. The whales followed prey that moved north due to higher ocean temperatures. There they often got tangled in fishing nets or were injured by boats.
In total, the Red List, which has been in operation since 1964, now includes a good 120,000 animal and plant species (previously: a good 116,000). The list is updated at least once a year. Today more than 32,000 species are threatened with extinction. These are species that the IUCN believes will not survive without protective measures. They are divided into three levels: “endangered”, “highly endangered” and “endangered”. In this highest category there are now 6,811 species including field hamsters (previously 6,523). (dpa / kad)
Two hamsters fight in the yoghurt cup for the last crumb. Only one can feed him!