The insane, inconclusive truth behind Rat Kings, the grotesque tangled Super-Rodents

Recently, as of September 2017, a monstrous mess of a creature seems to be back in the popular consciousness, the so-called “Rat King”, literally “rats that get tied together by their tails”. And it didn’t pass quietly, thanks to a flock of science-writers all adopting the same question: “rat kings are real?”

Historically, a Rattenkönig, later translated into English as rat king, and into French as roi des rats, is a collection of rats whose tails are intertwined and bound together.
This alleged phenomenon is particularly associated with Germany but not only and, despite there are several specimens preserved in museums, very few instances have been observed in modern times.
In folklore, rat kings are associated with various superstitions and were often seen as a bad omen, most likely due to rats being considered carriers for diseases. They were also blamed for spreading the Black Death in the mid-14th century, although recent evidence suggests that this did not happen.

Interestingly, the saga of Rat Kings goes back much further than you can expected. As a cryptid, the mythology tells of a rat leader (a king, of course) that demands to sit high atop a throne of lower, pleasantly rats. This tangled, mangled nest of lesser rodents becomes a living dominion of nastiness, representing the twisted and evil nature of the one king sitting high atop his (lower) legacy.
The story initially spread across Europe in the late 1500’s during an era of reformation in Germany after the rise of Lutheranism and a Peasants’ Rebellion in 1524. Commoners across Europe weren’t looking too favorably towards the ruling class, and the idea of a Rat King resonated amongst a populace that thought rulers were exploiting their sovereignty.
In fact, the original German term, Rattenkönig, was not originally used in reference to actual rats, but for real persons who lived off others.
Conrad Gesner in Historia animalium (1551–58) said that “some would have it that the rat waxes mighty in its old age and is fed by its young: this is called the rat king”, while Martin Luther was quoted famously as saying “finally, there is the Pope, the king of rats right at the top.”
And the metaphor stuck.

Now beyond this symbolism, there’s a larger question that looms on the horizon: are rat kings real?
Evidence would say yes, but intuition says otherwise.
Put simply, rat kings refer to a bunch of rats whose tails have become entwined, effectively creating one gigantic super-rat.
According to an actual scientific paper published on the phenomenon…yes, there have been 58 “reliable” Rat Kings recorded, of which six are preserved for the public to see. Insane, right?
If this “urban legend” seemed perfectly suited for folklore spawned from Renaissance-era Europe, It actually does exists.
The earliest report of rat kings comes from 1564, while the museum Mauritianum in Altenburg, Thuringia, shows the largest well-known mummified “rat king”, which was found in 1828 in a miller’s fireplace at Buchheim and consists of 32 rats.
According to the museum, the clump was found by a man named Miller Steinbruck while cleaning his chimney.
The earliest mention of a rat king is credited to Johannes Sambucus, a Hungarian historian, who recorded that his servants discovered seven rats with knotted tails in Antwerp, Belgium. Then in 1894, a frozen clump of 10 rodents was found under a bale of hay in Dellfeld, Germany, and that specimen is now on display at the Strasbourg Zoological Museum.
Others are shown in museums in Hamburg, Göttingen, Hamelin, Stuttgart, and Nantes, and I guess you can go check it out.
A rat king found in 1930 in New Zealand, displayed in the Otago Museum in Dunedin, was composed of immature black rats whose tails were entangled by horse hair.
A most recent rat king discovered in 1963 by a farmer at Rucphen, Netherlands, consists of seven rats.

And yet…scientists are skeptical.
Despite there being a half-dozen specimens around museums today, most evidence could lend itself to fraud, at least, according to some researchers.
The rise of Rat King specimens came during an era when deceptive and manipulated evidence of cryptids was a common occurrence — including travelers would spend their money for unicorn horns they knew to come from creatures like narwhals or oryx.
But not only, as in medieval times, some sleazy European merchants glued bat wings to lizards and sold them as dragons.
So, what’s to stop people from knotting the tails of dead rats together and claiming fame?
Nothing, really, and many rat experts think this to be the most common case, especially considering that most rats would gnaw off their own tails before succumbing to starvation as a King.

When looking for natural explanations for the phenomena, scientists have a few hypotheses.
Some theories are more insane than others: In the 17th and 18th centuries, naturalists suggested the tails had been woven during birth, glued by the afterbirth, while others suggested that healthy rats deliberately tangled the tails of weaker rodents to make a nest, but both theories are unlikely.
Those who hold that the phenomenon is real, say that it occurs when a group of rats, while confined to a small space such as a little burrow, simply becomes matted together.
Others suggest that this is due survival efforts: during particularly cold seasons, the rats will intentionally “tie” their own tails to one another in order to stay huddled and warm, a phenomenon made all the more believable because rats, like humans, produce sebum, or natural oil, in order to protect and hydrate their skin. It is thus possible that the oily tails of a dozen or so rats could form a sticky substance, binding them together.
However, rodents stuck together could not survive long and are probably in agony and distress until they separate or die.
On the other hand, other believers in the rat king suggest that tails must become knotted together through some binding agent as ice, blood, feces, food, or urine or feces.
And reality bears this thinking out, as a 2013 discovery of a “squirrel king” in Saskatchewan, Canada revealed a six-squirrel amalgam, the cause of which researchers attributed to tree sap.
Moreover some rats have semi-prehensile tails, and so certain theories claim that in cold conditions, they may coil together naturally and wind up unintentionally knotted into a grotesque, inextricable mass.
Luckily for any rats who may find themselves in such surreal circumstances, experts doubt that they would get so far as to the point of meeting such a painful end, as their tails would simply unravel at the first suggestion of separation.

Because it’s next to impossible to prove if any single argument is correct, it is likely that the rat king will continue to spark debate.
But, if in some cases the phenomenon can indeed be created under natural conditions, it is clear that rats work better as loners and evolution intends to keep it that way.

Images from web – Google Research

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