The natural habitat of gerbils is surprisingly exotic, inhospitable, and remote. In the wild, gerbils live in dry landscapes with little vegetation. So, gerbils need to be very resourceful in order to survive.
Mongolian gerbils live in the Gobi Desert and the steppe, which is a desert-like grassland. Both of these habitats are in central Asia, spread between China and Mongolia. These places are dry and experience temperature extremes, high and low. There are several gerbil predators encountered, such as Pallas cats and marbled polecats.
Besides Mongolian gerbils, there are several other species, such as fat-tailed gerbils, great gerbils, and Indian gerbils. Each of these species also lives in an arid environment.
Where Do Mongolian Gerbils Live?
Mongolian gerbils live in Mongolia, which has a range of habitats. The Mongolian-Manchurian steppe covers much of eastern Mongolia. This region extends from the eastern border with China towards the heart of the country, and around the capital city Ulaanbaatar.
This is a unique ecosystem, the like of which isn’t found anywhere else on earth. Because of its particular qualities, many species thrive here which can’t be found anywhere else, including gerbils.
Mongolian gerbils can also be found in the Gobi Desert. This is a vast desert which covers the southern half of Mongolia, and extends south into Tibet/China.
Where Do Fat-Tailed Gerbils Live?
Fat-tailed gerbils are from the Sahara in North Africa. They live in countries like Egypt, Libya, and Algeria, each of which extends into the dry Sahara biome.
You can also find them closer to the Mediterranean Sea in more temperate areas, like Tunisia, or towards the Middle East in Syria. They are difficult to spot because they live in burrows.
There are many more gerbil species. All of them live in similar environments: dry, sandy areas with little rainfall. However, these two species are the only ones that are kept as pets.
The Steppe and Gobi Desert Are Dry
Both the steppe and the Gobi Desert are exceptionally dry. The Gobi might get seven inches of rain each year. That’s comparable to the deserts of Arizona. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, most of this rain falls in the summer.
This part of the world is so dry because of the Himalayas, far to the south. The Himalayas are, of course, home to the tallest mountains on earth. They’re an exceptionally long range of mountains.
National Geographic tells us that mountain ranges affect the weather. The Himalayas traps humid air and clouds, so they can’t get past because they’re so tall. So, the area beyond them (the Gobi) is in what’s called the Himalayas’ ‘rain shadow.’
But that doesn’t mean that the whole area is covered in sand, like the Sahara. Only a tiny portion of the total area, something like 5%, is sandy enough to form dunes. The steppe is grassland, which means it’s covered as far as the eye can see in grasses and shrubs.
Even the Gobi Desert isn’t all sand. It’s rocky, with lots of valleys and cliffs. But what you will notice is that the soil in each of these areas is sandy. This prevents many plants from growing, only allowing certain grasses.
Gerbils have had to adapt to this lack of rain. They conserve water by only going to the toilet infrequently. Rather than rely on rain, they get most of their water from the food they eat.
The Steppe and Gobi Desert Get Cold
Everybody thinks of the desert as hot. Most deserts are located in hot parts of the world, not far from the equator. And the Gobi can get hot, but deserts can also get very cold.
Both the steppe and the Gobi are big, wide-open places. Throughout most of the area, you can see all of the horizon from where you’re standing, and it’s flat with no big hills or mountains visible.
This means that there’s little in the way of protective landscape features. Take a forest, for example. In the heat of the daytime, the forest keeps the ground cool because it’s shady. Then, at night, it stops heat from dissipating quite as much because it acts as a big heat trap.
The same applies to hills. A hill can stop harsh winds from hitting you, for example. But wide-open spaces like these don’t offer such protection. They can get exceptionally cold. Snow can fall from September onwards, and the average high temperature in January is -11 Fahrenheit.
Gerbils have had to adapt to these temperature variations. They dig large, extensive burrow systems under the ground to hide from the heat and cold.
These burrows have many exits, but can go deep underground where the cold and snow can’t reach. In the winter, they’ll spend most of their time inside these structures.
The Gobi Desert Is Huge
Both the Gobi and the steppe are huge ecosystems that cover most of Mongolia. Their exceptional size is mirrored in their wide-open landscapes, where the horizon seems to stretch out forever.
The steppe is smaller in area. It covers 342,000 square miles, so it would almost entirely cover Montana. Gerbils live throughout the range of the steppe, from east to west and north to south.
The Gobi is roughly 50% bigger, at around 500,000 square miles. That’s bigger than California, but not as big as Texas. It’s a roughly oval shape which spans across the whole of southern Mongolia, and deep into China to the south.
Despite having so much area to share out, gerbils are highly territorial. They will fight off other gerbils which come near. Their groups will frequently declan, forcing one or some of the gerbils in the group to head off and find new homes.
Not Much Grows in The Steppe
The Gobi Desert is rocky and sandy, and doesn’t have much growing there. The steppe is the same. The sandy soil means that plants that can grow in more temperate areas can’t grow here.
But what you do find lots of are grasses. The steppe is covered as far as the eye can see in grasses and shrubs, such as:
- Feathergrass. This grass has fluffy ends that look like feathers, and can grow three feet long.
- Couch grass/quack grass. This grass looks like a long and tall version of regular grass.
- Lyme grass/sand ryegrass. It has long stalks with long grains at the end.
These grasses have adapted to the area. Common grasses in North America have short roots, because there is lots of water available. But the grasses here have longer roots, so that the plant picks up as much water as it can.
Because not much grows here, the area is low on food. There aren’t many plants to support large herbivorous animals. These plants are perfect for gerbils to feed on, though.
They will eat the leaves, stems, bulbs, and roots of these grasses. Precious little can be wasted because there’s hardly anything available.
There Are Lots of Predators
Despite being such a difficult environment for animals to live in, the Gobi and steppe are home to many predators. Unfortunately, many of these predators feed on gerbils. These are only a few of the predators that call this corner of the world home:
|Name||Description||Preys on Gerbils?|
|Pallas’ cat||It looks like a large, fluffy house cat. Found across the steppe and the Gobi Desert.||Ideal size to eat gerbils.|
|Golden eagle||The same bird that lives in North America. It lives on the edges of the Gobi Desert, too.||They eat rodents and similar animals all across their range.|
|Gobi pit viper||A venomous snake with variable color and pattern. They have light horizontal stripes.||Pit vipers incapacitate rodent prey with venom before eating them whole.|
|Marbled polecat||It looks like a ferret, but with a black and white head and a marbled yellow and brown back. Lives in the Gobi, south of the steppe.||Feeds on both the great gerbil, the small gerbil, and the jerboa.|
|Gobi bear||A critically endangered animal which is a subspecies of the brown bear.||Likely not, as it prefers to feed on larger prey like gazelle or ibex.|
|Snow leopard||The top predator of the Gobi desert. It is a light white or gray with black spots.||Occasionally. Like the Gobi bear, it prefers to eat larger prey, but can eat smaller prey like rodents in the summer.|
So, the gerbil isn’t safe in this environment, even if the number of predators is low.
The Steppe is Sparsely Populated
Historically, the Mongolian steppe has been home to people. However, these people didn’t live like the people in Europe to the west, or China to the south. They didn’t set down farms or live in big towns, or even villages.
Instead, these people were nomadic. They went from place to place, depending on the season and temperature. They raised ruminants (animals which ate grass), but couldn’t farm because the soil was and is too sandy for crops to grow.
Many people here are still nomadic today. While there are towns and cities, many people still live in tents like their relatives did all those years ago. They still rely on goats and horses for food and income, too.
You might not think this is relevant to the gerbil, but it is. There are only 0.1 people per square mile in the steppe. This means that much of the environment is relatively untouched. Gerbils can live their lives free of interference from infrastructure building and environmental destruction.
One issue which can affect the steppe is grazing. Sheep and goats are still reared here in large numbers. These eat the grasses that wildlife feed on, too. However, the steppe is big, so this won’t severely affect wildlife numbers if the industry stays the same.
The Steppe Has Wildfires
Being so dry, the steppe can go through severe wildfires. These fires can be started by people or naturally. Lightning can start a fire, and while there aren’t frequent storms here, there are some.
They can also be started when natural materials like dried leaves become dry enough that they spontaneously combust. However, fires inadvertently started by people are more common.
Wildfires spread quickly. They spread from plant to plant, and can travel over vast swathes of area. These fires occur in the spring more than any other season. But the entire year is dry here, so they can happen at any time.
They may not last long. There are hardly any trees in the steppe, only shrubs and grasses. These burn quickly, and don’t leave behind cinders and embers like burning wood. So, these fires can be over soon after they’ve begun, unlike the ones in the Americas.
Gerbils can hide in their burrows when these fires occur. Smoke rises, but some will still get trapped in the tunnels of the burrow. However, these tunnel networks are extensive and deep, so they offer lots of places to escape to if smoke starts seeping in.
Wildfires aren’t all bad for the environment. According to Solid Earth Discussions, burnt plants act as fertilizer which can feed the next generation of plants.