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Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Mystery Genes

By Catya
Catya is a judge with the California Hamster Association. She shares her experiences in hamster ownership from a high school student's perspective.

Click image to enlarge
three hamsters in exercise wheel
The appearance of white-faced Roborovski hamsters was big news because it's the only color mutation known in this species.
white-faced Roborovski hamster
Photos Courtesy of Catya
Vespa is a female, white-faced Roborovski hamster.

Hello, everyone! Last time I told you about hamster breeding, and how I was waiting to see if my research would be accepted. Well, I have some good news to share with you. My abstract was accepted, and I present my research in February! In celebration, I’d like to tell you a bit about what I’m researching.

I told you how there’s only one color mutation in Roborovski hamsters so far: the white-faced gene. When this gene hit the scene, it was a big deal, because before that we had just the normal color. White-faced Roborovskis, as their name suggests, have a white face; the normal Roborovski hamsters have brown faces with white eyebrows. Hamster breeders determined that the white-faced gene was dominant, meaning a hamster only needs one copy of the gene to have a white face.

It can be tricky to breed Roborovskis. We don’t really know which seasons they prefer to breed in yet, and they can’t seem to decide! As a result, hamster breeders all had a hard time getting any litters. In fact, we almost lost the white-faced gene. After searching pet stores, however, we found several more white-faced females.

The first female, white-faced Roborovski hamster we found was my beloved Vespa, and she gave us quite a surprise! We expected that when we bred a white-faced Rob with a normal, at least half of the pups would be white-faced. Instead, Vespa’s children looked like normals, except for a white patch on their foreheads, which looked like the blaze some horses have. We were totally stumped.

When we bred the other female, white-faced Roborovski hamsters, we saw the same thing. All of their pups had the blaze, which made them adorable yet puzzling. It wasn’t until we bred a blaze Roborovski hamster to a blaze Roborovski hamster that a pattern emerged. It looked like this white-faced gene was recessive, despite our previous evidence that it was dominant. We wondered: was this a new gene, or had the white-faced gene actually been recessive?

Reading genetic research papers, talking to biology professors, and doing a few more breedings offered an alternate theory: the white-faced gene itself had mutated slightly. Now the gene was weaker, somewhere between dominant and recessive, and the hamster pups with one copy of the gene didn’t have a fully white face. Although I went through some frustration and head scratching to figure out what caused the blaze, it was fulfilling and well worth the mystery when the answers came. 

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