The genus Phodopus consists of three species--P. campbelli (Pc), P. sungorus (Ps), and P. roborovskii (Pr). They inhabit steppes, semi-deserts, and deserts in continental Asia with a climate changing from a moderate to a hard Continental one with extreme daily and seasonal variations. These different environmental challenges are likely to have consequences for hamsters' morphology, physiology, and behavior. Hamsters of all three species were investigated during the course of the year in the laboratory though using natural lighting and temperature conditions. Motor activity and body temperature were measured continuously, and body mass, testes size, and fur coloration every 1-2 weeks. With regard to the pattern of activity, nearly twice as many Pc as Ps hamsters (25 vs. 14%) failed to respond to changes of photoperiod, whereas all Pr hamsters did. Body mass and testes size were high in summer and low in winter, with the biggest relative change in Ps and the lowest in Pr hamsters. Changes of fur coloration were found in Ps hamsters only. All responding animals (that is excluding Pr), exhibited regular torpor bouts during the short winter days. In autumn, seasonal changes started considerably earlier in Ps hamsters. To investigate the putative causes of these different time courses, a further experiment was performed, to identify the critical photoperiod. Hamsters were kept for 10 weeks under different photoperiods, changing from 16 to 8 h light per day. Motor activity was recorded continuously, to identify responding and non-responding animals. Body mass was measured at the beginning and the end of the experiment, testes mass only at the end. The critical photoperiod was found to be similar in all three species. Though in a further experiment, Pc and Pr hamsters showed a delayed response, whereas the changes in Ps hamsters started immediately following transfer to short-day conditions. The results show that interspecific differences in seasonal adaptation exist, even between the closely related Ps and Pc hamsters, possibly due to different conditions in their natural habitat. Also, the impact of environmental factors like climatic conditions and food resources may differ between species.
Keywords: Body mass; Body temperature; Critical photoperiod; Dwarf hamsters; Fur coloration; Motor activity; Non-responder; Photoperiodism; Testes size.