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Gerbil Behavior

This page is still under construction and isn't complete! Only some of the striking behaviors of the Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus) are described. 
I hope, more text and pictures will come soon!


Gnawing agoutis (6 kB) Gnawing seems to be very important to gerbils. Some new pet owners are wondering, when they find the new plastic wheel after one day lying on the cage floor cut into little pieces ...

I think, we can distinguish between two situations in which gerbils are gnawing. 

The first more natural is the making of nesting material. This is a very pronounced and important instinct in gerbils (e.g. to overcome the rough environment with cold winters in the Mongolia). On the photo you can see two agouti gerbils in teamwork making "excelsior" from crate wood. From many other materials, such as hay, paper etc, gerbils make nesting material. By the way, e.g. when gnawing hay, they find some food too.

The second type of gnawing behaviour occurs, when gerbils are kept in small cages. It seems to be a sign of desperation or boredom, when they spend a lot of time on gnawing on the cage bars. Its a message to the gerbil owner: "Please let me out!" or "Please look after me!" or even "I'm hungry!". 

References: Glickmann, S.E., Fried, L. and Morrison, B.A. (1967): Shredding of nesting material in the Mongolian gerbil. Perceptual and Motor Skills Vol. 24, pp. 473-474

Weinandy, R. (1996): Untersuchungen zur Chronobiologie, Ethologie und zu Streßreaktionen der Mongolischen Wüstenrennmaus. Dissertation Halle: Universität Halle.

Weinandy, R. & Gattermann R. (1996/97): Time of day and stress response to different stressors in experimental animals. Part II: Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus). J. Exp. Anim. Sci. 38: 109-122.


scratching gerbil 2 (5 kB)scratching gerbil 1 (5 kB) Scratching

Please look at the results of Vera Brückmann's experiments when she tried to confirm some earlier results from the swiss psychologist Christoph Wiedenmayer:

When gerbils are born and grow up in a burrow system, may be some artifical too, they don't show stereotypic digging, whereas gerbils, which were born in a burrowless cage will show digging in the corners, even if a burrow is present in the meantime. It seems that once developed this stereotypic digging behavior in the youth it can't be forgotten!

But what will gerbils grown up in a burrow do if the burrow is removed later on? Well, you will find the answer of this question in Vera Brückmanns article, which was first published for the National Gerbil Society Journal in the Sptember 1997 issue.

References: Wiedenmayer C, 1997: CAUSATION OF THE ONTOGENETIC DEVELOPMENT OF STEREOTYPIC DIGGING IN GERBILS, Animal Behaviour, 53(3), 461-470

See Weinandy too (chapter scratching and digging).


sandbathing (8 kB)Sandbathing

Gerbils like to take a sandbath. Just when they find a fine sand, they roll themselves with a very fast body movement. This is obvious because gerbils like to be cleanly, but according to Thiessen et al. there even might be involved some thermoregulation mechanisms. Autogrooming gerbils spread a dark red lipid substance from the Harderian gland to their coat surface, so it becomes a little darker and the warmth from sunlight is better absorbed. However sandbathing removes the dark lipids and so it is slightly regulating these absorbent abilities of the coat. 

Literature: Thiessen, DD. , Pendergrass, M. and Harriman, AE. (1982) The thermoenergetics of coat color maintenance by the Mongolian gerbil (M. u.). J. Therm. Biol. Vol. 7(1), pp. 51-56. 

Sleepingsleeping gerbils (7 kB)

Gerbils are very social animals. They enjoy sleeping closely cuddled up to each other and grooming one another. 

Agouti tryiing (6 kB)Learning and conditioning

For her Diploma, Vera worked with gerbils and trained them in a two-choice-discrimination task to discriminate between a triangle and a circle. The stimuli were presented in random order, and the animal was rewarded with food (Hanfsamen :-)) when it pressed the lever on the correct side, i.e. where the triangle appeared. The gerbils were tested every day (20 trials per day) and thus learned the task within three weeks. Later, they also learned to dicriminate between horizontal and vertical stripes. For further information ask Vera Brueckmann.

Literature: Campbell, N., Straney, D. and Neuringer, A. (1969) Operant conditioning in the Mongolian gerbil. Psychonomic Science Vol. 16(5), pp. 255-256.

Pup retrieving mom (7 kB)Retrieving of pups

Pup retrieving is a maternal (sometimes paternal, too) instinct to get lost pups immediately and directly back to the nest. You can find a mpeg-movie from Solon Luigi Lutz at (the second movie on this site: maus2.mpeg).
There are indications that the young lost pup calls its mom by ultrasonic vocalization. This calling is due to the lower temperatures outside the nest: So whenever a pup gets too cold it starts calling automatically. Imitating such a high tone (by pressing air through the incisor spaces ;-) ), Ehrenfried could tease a gerbil female, which was running outside the cage. Immediately she came back to the cage to take care of her offspring.

Sometimes, when she has disturbed too often and if she has the opportunity, the gerbil mother changes to a new nest and transfers all of her pups as shown on the photo. Obviously she feels the actual nest isn't safe anymore. This can happen anytime, even several times a day, especially in young and nervous mothers. You will be very surprised, if you find the cage empty and perhaps all gerbil babies are cirping behind a cupboard, after your gerbil female was unobserved running in the room... :-)


Broom, D.M., Elwood, R.W., Lakin, J. and Willy, S.J. (1977) Developmental changes in several parameters of ultrasonic calling by young Mongolian gerbils (Meriones unguiculatus). Journal of Zoology, London, Vol. 183, pp. 281-290. 

Lerwill, C.J. (1978) Ultrasound and the Mongolian gerbil, Meriones unguiculatus. Journal of Zoology, London, Vol. 186, pp. 263-266. 

Waring, A.D. and Perper, T. (1979) Parental behaviour in the Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus). I. Retrieval. Animal Behaviour Vol. 27, pp. 1091-1097 

For the French speaking among us: Le Berre, M. and Le Guelte, L. (1988) Structure de l'espace et retour au nid chez la gerbille de Mongolie (Meriones unguiculatus). Zeitschrift fuer Saeugetierkunde Vol. 53, pp 225-233. 


Orienting behavior is very complex in gerbils. Many senses are involved:

Visual perception

Sense of touch

Movement receptor

Olfactory sense  


Who can confirm Gail Seigel , who gets nose kisses from her gerbils? She wrotes:

"A behavior common to all is the "greeting", or touching of noses between gerbils. Our cage has several "rooms" separated by plastic tubes. Whenever a gerbil enters a room where there is another gerbil, they will greet each other by touching noses. Many times when I pick them up, they will also try to greet my nose! "
Frank Müller uses intense cuddling to ward free running gerbils off, so that his daughter can creep up on and catch them safely to remove them back to the cage. They seem to have learned all other tricks and avoid them, but this one always works ;-)).
BTW: You can see a nice photo, where Jackie Roswell gets a kiss from one of her gerbils on the very interesting webpage of the "National Gerbil Society"


Food envy

Gail Seigel has contributed the following nice observation too:

"Whenever any of our gerbils finds a particularly tasty bit of food, it will run into a corner and make a sudden, sharp right turn. This seems to be an instinctive behavior meant to keep food away from the others. However, the comical thing about this is that the gerbil usually ends up right next to another gerbil, who tries to steal the food away from him. This behavior also occurs when there are no other gerbils around. I have seen this behavior in all 10 pairs of gerbils we have had over the years."



Licking at the cage window is very common in gerbils, not only in pups as seen on the photo. And it is a very important sign to its owner, because it normally means: "Hey, I'm thirsty!"
May be, the drinking bottle is clogged up or even empty? And can the little pups reach the water source or some fresh greenfood? Perhaps, the drinking bottle needs to be adjusted to a lower position, too...

It seems, gerbils find in the natural environment condensed water at the cage walls or dewtrops outside and licking is a successful method to get some moisture.






Wechkin, S. and Breuer, L.F. (1974) Effects of isolation on aggression in the Mongolian gerbil. Psychological Reports Vol. 35, pp.415-421. 

Rothenberg,D. (1974) Territorial behavior characteristics in gerbils. Psychological Reports Vol. 34, pp. 810-810. 

Rieder, C.A. and Reynierse, J.H. (1971) The effects of maintenance condition on aggrssion and marking behaviour of the Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguicultatus). Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology Vol. 75, pp. 471-475. 

Norris, M.L. and Adams, C.E. (1972) Aggressive behaviour and reproduction in the Mongolian gerbil, Meriones unguiculatus, relative to age and sexual experience at pairing. Journal of Reproduction and Fertility Vol. 31, pp. 447-450. (Among others: Especially the experience of the male is more important for a fast breeding success then that of the female)

thumping gerbil (9 kB)Thumping and rapid tail shaking

Gerbils sometimes thump with their hindlegs in danger situations. This will warn other cagemates who either start to thump, too or immediately run for cover (e.g. against any predator). A little movement with your hand, which might resemble to a gerbil as a bird of prey, is enough, and in a flush all gerbils vanish into their burrow.

Try to imitate the gerbil thumping. Sometimes your gerbil will reply with thumping too!

Excitement thumping is also involved in the mating ritual. It's a little faster and softer as in the danger situations. Imitating this, a curious expectant gerbil will come near to you.

Related to this thumping behavior is the fast horizontal tail shaking. It occurs often in timid situatons.

Literature: Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1951) (see citation below)  

MatingMating (9 kB)

Eye winking gerbil (4 kB)Eye winking ;-)

Gerbils often are winking with one Eye, when they get some tasty tidbits. So it seems to be a sign of pleasure and gratitude.

In other timid situations, it seems gerbils are winking as a submissive sign. 

Try to blink to a gerbil and you often will get a reblinking. It's a very special way to communicate with your gerbil. ;-) 


Everybody knows the common behaviour of cats, that they are purring, when they feel comfortable. 

The interesting is: Gerbils exactly do so! My own experience was confirmed by Gail Seigel too. He wrotes to me: "Another common behavior is a purring vibration (like a cat!) that the gerbils make when they are accustomed to being held in your hand and petted. You don't hear a sound, but you can feel it in your hand."


Gerbils in the Wild?

Meanwhile we have found some more
Literature on the Occurrence and Behavior of Gerbils in the Wild Click here to see the 'wild' webpage...

"March, 5th, 1989: After several months, I now feel that these strange little rodents have finally accepted me as one of their own." (from 'BBC-Wildlife')

Overall viewing Literature 

A very comprehensive, early and worth reading description of the behavior of a near related species was given (in German language) by the well known German Ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt. The investigations were done at the Max-Planck-Institute of Marine Biology, Section Behavioral Physiology, in Buldern near Dülmen, Westfalen, Germany:

I. EIBL-EIBESFELDT (1951): Gefangenschaftsbeobachtungen an der persischen Wüstenmaus (Meriones persicus persicus BLANFORD): Ein Beitrag zur vergleichenden Ethologie der Nager. Zeitschrift fuer Tierpsychologie, Vol 8, pp. 400-423.

© 1996 by Ehrenfried Ehrenstein and Vera Brückmann . All parts of this page are protected by copyright! Any unauthorized use would be punishable.

Hello! We are curious as like as our gerbils are! Comments, critics and supplementations will be appreciated! Please mail to us! Or better sign in our new guestbook

To the top of this page

Another good gerbil page from Karin and Fred van Veen with a behavioural section! 

On Julians page you can find scientific literatur on gerbil behaviour, too! (all cited with the summary)! some video-clips with typical gerbil behaviour

To the best gerbil links

The Gerbils Color Palette

Back to Ehrenfrieds home or to his stable

Created: 27. March 1996, Last Updated: 30. April 1998