The rodent has disappeared from three-quarters of its original habitat.
With a black belly, red back and white spots on the muzzle, the Alsatian hamster is now “in critical danger” of extinction, a victim of habitat depletion in France that forces even females to devour their young.
The small wild rodent, called the European hamster, the large Alsatian hamster, or the rye pig, was once abundant in Europe, from Alsace to Russia. But, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, under the influence of various factors (expansion of monocultures, industrial development, light pollution, etc.), it has disappeared from three-quarters of its original habitat in Alsace and Eastern Europe. IUCN), which classified it on Thursday as “endangered” on its famous red list.
“The species may disappear within the next 30 years”
Its reproductive rate is plummeting (20 cubs per female per year for most of the 20th century, compared to 5 or 6 today) and “if nothing changes, the species could become extinct within the next 30 years,” the organization warned.
The status, demanded for several years by European rodent experts, “brings the species back into the spotlight, and this can only help in its conservation,” says Julien Eidenschenk, of France’s Office of Biodiversity (OFB).
France, which has been protecting the animal since 1993, has initiated conservation plans that have “stabilized” its population in recent years, several experts say. But the decline in numbers since the 1970s, when it was considered a pest to be eradicated, is impressive.
“In the early 1970s, it was estimated that there were several hundred thousand hamsters in Alsace. It is estimated that today there are about 1,500 individuals left,” explains Julien Eidenschenk.
Present in twenty municipalities
Historic was the number of municipalities in which he lived: more than 300 in 1972, compared to about twenty today. An estimate is now made by counting the burrows normally occupied by adults after hibernation each spring: 400 in 2016, 750 in 2019. Since not all burrows can be found, this figure is then extrapolated.
In order to contain the extinction of the species, captive-bred hamsters are released every year in Alsace, and work is carried out with farmers to improve their habitat, in particular, to provide better protection from predators (foxes, cats, etc.) and diversification . their diet in the Alsace plain is marked by monocultures of maize and wheat.
Vitamin B3 deficiency
A study published in 2017 in the journal Royal Society Proceedings B sheds light on the problem of vitamin B3 deficiency associated with a corn-only diet.
“This deficiency causes females to eat their young as soon as they give birth,” explains Caroline Habold, a researcher at the Hubert Curien Multidisciplinary Institute in Strasbourg, who took part in the study.
“This has been observed in the laboratory in 90% of mothers,” she emphasizes. As for wheat, “it lacks protein: the females have true maternal behavior, but they fail because of the lack of protein.”
And farming practices aren’t the only issue: “This animal is indeed at the center of use conflicts between the economy and the environment,” the researcher continues. Environmentalists denounce, in particular, the project of a large bypass road west of Strasbourg, which will pass through one of the rare areas where it still exists.