The Untold Story of the Hamster, a.k.a Mr. Saddlebags

There are many ways to be immortal. Israel Aharoni, a Jewish biologist working in Turkish-controlled Jerusalem, imagined that his enduring legacy would come from giving Hebrew names to the animals of the Holy Land. Sometimes, especially for little-known animals, this meant making up new names. More often, it meant matching descriptions in the Torah with the species in and around Jerusalem. What, for example, was a rěēm? It is described as a clean animal with impressive horns that could cause injury. Aharoni thought it to be the aurochs, ancestor to all domesticated cows. This interpretation, like many others, seems to have stuck. But the Hebrew names of animals were not his only enduring legacy. He also captured a poorly known wild animal and in doing so changed our modern lives.

In the spring of 1930, Aharoni staged an expedition to the hills of Syria, near Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world. His quest was simple: he wanted to catch the rare golden mammal whose Arabic name translates roughly as “mister saddlebags.” On finding the animal he would either ally it with its Hebrew name in the Torah or, as seemed more likely, name it himself. But there was another motive. One of Aharoni’s colleagues, Saul Adler, thought that the animal might be similar enough to humans to serve as a lab animal in medical research, particularly for the study of the parasitic disease leishmaniasis, which was and still is common in the region.

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By |2015-01-13T14:51:37-05:00January 24th, 2012|

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