Decoding gerbil communication
Can gerbils purr? What does it mean when a gerbil yips? Why do gerbils make thumping sounds? We reveal some of the secrets of gerbil communication...
With their playful ways and curious nature, it’s no wonder that gerbils have been popular pets for decades. These small rodents – who are larger than mice but smaller than rats and have long furry tails – are extremely social and good communicators – as long as you learn to interpret their body language and range of vocal sounds. Welcome to gerbil communication 101...
DID YOU KNOW?
Although gerbils enjoy interacting with their human, they also need at least one gerbil buddy to be happy. Socialising, digging, hoarding and playing is much more fun as a duo, trio or gang. In the wild, gerbils build up their colony numbers by sticking together for many generations of offspring. Family groups can number as many as 17 or more, with many of the gerbils playing and helping each other on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, one of the main ways that gerbils communicate is completely lost on humans. Gerbils have a highly tuned sense of smell, and an essential part of their behaviour involves marking territory using their scent gland. They can also tell if another gerbil has marked an area. Female gerbils mark their pups with their scent, which helps them recognise their own offspring and warn other gerbils away. So, while your gerbil pals will enjoy sniffing out these secret, scented messages, this is one form of gerbil communication that currently eludes us humans.
However, there are lots of other ways that these small rodents communicate, and, with a little effort, gerbil guardians can learn to recognise and identify.
Gerbils have long rear legs, which are not only brilliantly designed for fast digging, but are also used to raise the alarm – if a gerbil senses danger they’ll thump their rear feet on the ground to warn the rest of the community. If you hear your gerbils thumping, it means they’re alarmed about something, so it’s a good idea to investigate what’s causing the disturbance.
If your gerbils jump in the air, it’s a sign they’re excited – you may find that they do this when they see you first thing in the morning, or when you’re playing with them as a way of letting you know they’re really happy to be socialising with you.
Gerbils make noises to communicate both with us and other gerbils. Some gerbil sounds are easier to hear than others – for example, squeaking is a high-pitched and loud noise that’s easy for even humans to hear, while purring can be subtle and quiet. However not all the noises that gerbils make are audible to people. In fact, according to scientific journal PLoS One, most rodent sounds are too high-pitched for human ears to pick them up. Of course, other gerbils can hear them, but most of the time, we humans just aren’t in the loop when our gerbils chums are chatting to each other...
DID YOU KNOW?
In the wild, young gerbils spend a lot of time with their parents, learning key life skills to enable them to survive and live healthily in the wild – they even pick up what they can or cannot eat from watching their parents and other family members. Gerbil dads are also involved in the upbringing of youngsters – they gather nesting materials to protect them, clean them, and show them how to gather food and materials for themselves.
This is a very distinct high-pitched noise that young gerbils make to get attention from their mothers and is a behaviour that can carry on into adulthood. Your gerbil may chirp to get your attention, for example, if he or she wants to play, show you something they’ve found while exploring, to get some food, or for you to pet them. Chirping also shows that your gerbil trusts and likes you – otherwise they wouldn’t want your attention at all!
If your gerbils make loud yipping noises and start bouncing around and hopping up and down on their back feet, it’s a signal that they’re ready to play. This yip/bounce combo is something that gerbils do to show other gerbils that they’re happy about whatever’s happening or they’re anticipating that something exciting will happen – such as playtime or dinnertime. If you’re lucky, they’ll direct this behaviour at you.
DID YOU KNOW?
Burrowing, tunnelling, or digging are positive signs in gerbils, revealing that they are merrily going about their gerbil business. A comfortable, relaxed gerbil will use his or her tongue to groom or wash their paws, belly, face, and tail – if they do this while being held by you, they’re revealing that they’re feeling happy and calm.
This is a low rumbling noise, similar to a cat’s purr, although gerbils make this noise in a different way to felines. Instead of using the voice box, a gerbil will tap and grind its teeth together to create a rumbly sound. If your gerbil is purring, you can see its jaw moving slightly. Another sign that your gerbil is purring is the vibration it creates. Because its teeth are tapping together, this creates small vibrations that you can feel. If your gerbils vibrate or purr when you pet them, this signals that they are very happy and relaxed indeed and all is well in their gerbil world.
DID YOU KNOW?
Gerbils are omnivores and need protein and fibre in their diet. Without these nutrients, their digestive systems may not function correctly, leading to digestive problems such as diarrhoea and stomach upsets. Burgess Hamster Gerbil & Mouse supplies a balanced diet with useful vitamins such as Vitamin A, Vitamin D3 and Vitamin E. Together, these nutrients and vitamins encourage bone, teeth and heart health, and support a healthy coat.
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