Gerbils were originally known as ‘desert rats’ before they were introduced to North America and Europe as a companion species. Although they are rodents, they are a distinct group of animals from rats. Gerbils are able to shed their tail if it gets caught. This self-defence adaptation allows them to escape predators that are able to catch their tail as they try to flee. Their tails are around the same size as the rest of their body. Gerbils build extensive networks of underground tunnels. They spend most of their time in these burrows, only tending to leave to find food and water. Gerbils’ whole bodies, including their tails, are covered with fur. This is important for protecting them from getting sun-burnt in the hot desert regions.
Because their teeth continue to grow throughout their lives, gerbils need to gnaw daily. In the wild, a gerbil will gnaw away at a branch of a pine tree, stripping off all the pines before moving on to the branch itself. Evidence that a group of gerbils are nearby can often be identified by gnaw marks on the wood in the area. Pet gerbils love chewing through cardboard tubes, but wooden gnawing toys provide a better long-term solution.