Few creatures are as historically reviled as the rat. It’s known for carrying disease, has been blamed for spreading the Black Death in the mid-14th century (although recent evidence suggests that this did not happen) and the mere mention of its name is enough to incite fear and revulsion in many.
Given the historically unforgiving associations people have with the rat, it’s no wonder that some have imagined it to have abilities and behaviors that are flat-out unbelievable. Case in point: the “rat king.”
Put simply, the term refers to a bunch of rats whose tails have become entwined, effectively creating one gigantic super-rat. While countless professionals among the scientific community dismiss the phenomenon as nothing more than folklore, various specimens are on display in museums across the world. So just what are these creatures, and how might they come into existence?
How Rat Kings Happen
Rat king sightings date as far back as the 1500s, with most taking place in Europe. Those who hold that the phenomena are real say that a group of rats, while confined to a small space such as a burrow or other cramped living quarters, simply become matted together. Others suggest that survival efforts yield the furry amalgam. During particularly cold seasons, these individuals say, the rats will “tie” their own tails to one another to stay huddled and warm.
While the “rat king” phenomenon is likely apocryphal, the idea that the tails of a group of rats could become conjoined is not. As rats — like humans — produce sebum, or oil, to protect and hydrate the surface of the skin, the oily tails of a dozen or so rats could form a sticky substance and bind the rats together.
Others suggest that urine or feces help bind the tails together. Reality bears this thinking out: A 2013 discovery of a “squirrel king” in Saskatchewan, Canada revealed a six-squirrel amalgam, the cause of which researchers attributed to tree sap.
Of course, if these rat kings existed, they certainly didn’t band together out of a sense of camaraderie — and the formation would likely spell their death. “Rodents stuck together could not survive long and are probably in agony and distress until they separate or die,” Kevin Rowe, senior curator of mammals at the Museum Victoria in Australia, told Atlas Obscura.
Luckily for any rats who may find themselves in such unusual 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. Should a bundle of rats in close proximity form a rat king in an effort to stay warm, some speculate that the newly-formed super-rat would simply unfold as soon as the cold weather passed. At the very worst, the formation would lead an individual rat to simply chew off its tail and exit.
If rats can in fact untangle themselves from one another, how to explain the rat kings on display in museums? One obvious theory: They’re fakes.
In the case of the rat king housed in the Otago Museum in Dunedin, New Zealand, curators say that the “sticky substance” theory accounts for this gruesome amalgam — but only after the rats had fallen from the rafters of a shipping office and were beaten to death with an instrument and thus “mashed” together.
Other rat kings are likely the handiwork of, well, the type of person who would tie a dozen-odd rats’ tails together.
Because it’s next to impossible to prove if any one argument is correct, it’s likely that the rat king will continue to spark debate. One thing is sure, though: We’re not sure we want to devote the time to collecting enough evidence to settle this.
If you were fascinated by this look at rat kings and want to learn more about strange (and substantiated) animal behaviors, check out this story on signs among the animal kingdom that the planet is sick.