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Rat king

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Rat king found in 1895 in Dellfeld, Germany, now in the Musée zoologique de la ville de Strasbourg, France

A rat king is a collection of rats or mice whose tails are intertwined and bound together in some way. This could be a result of an entangling material like hair, a sticky substance such as sap or gum, or the tails being tied together.

A similar phenomenon with squirrels has been observed, which has had modern documented examples.


The original German term, Rattenkönig, was calqued into English as rat king, and into French as roi des rats. The term was not originally used in reference to actual rats, but for persons who lived off others. Conrad Gesner in Historia animalium (1551–58) stated: "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." Martin Luther stated: "finally, there is the Pope, the king of rats right at the top." Later, the term referred to a king sitting on a throne of knotted tails.[1]

An alternative theory states that the name in French was rouet de rats (or a spinning wheel of rats, the knotted tails being wheel spokes), with the term transforming over time into roi des rats,[1] because formerly French oi was pronounced [we] or similar; nowadays it is pronounced [wa].


Rat king depicted in 16th-century woodcut

The earliest report of rat kings comes from 1564.[1] Most extant examples are formed from black rats (Rattus rattus).[2]

Specimens of purported rat kings are kept in some museums. 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. It consists of 32 rats.[3] Alcohol-preserved rat kings are shown in museums in Hamburg, Göttingen, Hamelin, Stuttgart, Strasbourg and Nantes.

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.[4]

A rat king discovered in 1963 by a farmer at Rucphen, Netherlands, as published by cryptozoologist M. Schneider, consists of seven rats. All of them were killed by the time they were examined.[5] X-ray images show formations of calluses at the fractures of their tails, which suggests that the animals survived for an extended period of time with their tails tangled.[6]

Sightings of the phenomenon in modern times, especially where the specimens are alive, are very rare. One 2005 sighting comes from an Estonian farmer in Saru, of the Võrumaa region;[7] many of the rats in the specimen, now part of the collection at the University of Tartu Museum of Zoology in Estonia, were alive. In 2021, a living "rat king" of five mice was caught on video (and untangled to save the mice) near Stavropol, Russia.[8][9][10][11]

On October 20, 2021, a live rat king of 13 rats was found in Põlvamaa, Estonia. The rat king was brought to Tartu University and humanely euthanized because the rats had no way of freeing themselves. Before that, scientists were able to film the rat king alive. The rat king will be added to the Tartu University Museum of Zoology collection.[12][13]

Squirrel kings[edit]

Instances of squirrel kings have been reported. They were found alive in some cases, and veterinarians have had to separate them as the squirrels could potentially starve or be eaten by a predator.[14] A squirrel king of six squirrels stuck together with pine sap was found in Regina, Saskatchewan, in June 2013.[15] In 2018, five juvenile grey squirrels were found in Wisconsin, US. Some surrounding nest material, grass, and plastic got further entangled with them.[16] The knot caused some tissue damage to their tails.[17]

Possible explanations[edit]

Rat kings have been reported from Germany, Belgium, Estonia, Indonesia (Java), and New Zealand, with the majority of cases reported from the European countries. The existence of this phenomenon is debated due to the limited evidence of it occurring naturally, although the discovery of a live instance in Estonia in 2021 is considered to be proof that it is a natural, albeit extremely rare, phenomenon.[12] Another concern is the possibility that some of the centuries-old preserved museum specimens could be fabricated, such hoaxes being common in earlier eras.[14][18] 17th–18th-century naturalists proposed many hypotheses to explain this phenomenon. Most were dubious, ranging from the rats getting stuck together during birth and glued later, to healthy rats deliberately knotting themselves to weaker rats to make a nest. A possible explanation is that the long flexible tail of the black rat could be exposed to sticky or frozen substances such as sebum (a secretion from the skin itself), sap, food, or excretory products. This mixture acts as a bonding agent and may solidify as rats sleep especially when the animals live in proximity during winter. After realizing that they were bound, they would struggle, tightening the knot. This explanation is plausible given that most cases have been found during winter and in confined spaces.[5] Emma Burns, curator of natural science at the Otago Museum, said regarding her museum's specimen, "Ship rats [black rats], according to some theories, are climbing rats, so their tails have a grasping reflex. In the nest, they form a hold."[2]

Some zoologists remain skeptical, saying that, while theoretically possible, the rats would not be able to survive in such a condition for a long time,[2][5][18] particularly if the temperatures rose or if they bit their own or another's tail to try to free themselves. Since black rats cluster together during winters for warmth, it could be possible for a rat king to be naturally-occurring.[2] Any fabrications would most likely have been created using dead rats, given how difficult the process would be if the rats were alive. However, experts support the idea of isolated freak accidents due to the existence of occasional well-observed cases involving squirrels—also members of the rodent family.[5] A 2007 study published in Proceedings of the Estonian Academy of Science, Biology, and Ecology, following the finding of the University of Tartu specimen, concluded that the phenomenon is possible but rare.[14]

In popular culture[edit]

Rat king found in 1986 in Vendée

The phenomenon's name appeared as the title of a Boston Manor song released in 2020. When asked about it, vocalist Henry Cox explained that he used the rat king as a metaphor for contemporary political and social events.[19]

A creature known as the Rat King is featured in the 2020 action-adventure video game The Last of Us Part II. It is a conjoinment of multiple fungus-infected humans, which protagonist Abby encounters in the underground levels of a hospital.[20] Three actors were tied together to perform motion capture for the creature.[20][21] Co-director Kurt Margenau described the idea behind the Rat King as the team's take on "what happens to them [the infected] when they sit around for a really long time."[20]

A three-head rat sovereign appears as the primary antagonist in Mac Barnett's, graphic novel, The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Hart, Martin (1982). Rats. Translated from 1973 Dutch edn by Arnold J. Pomerans. Allison & Busby. pp. 66–67. ISBN 0-85031-297-3.
  2. ^ a b c d Ossola, Alexandra (23 December 2016). "The Complicated, Inconclusive Truth behind Rat Kings". Atlas Obscura.
  3. ^ "Dauerausstellung | Naturkundemuseum Mauritianum Altenburg" (in German). Archived from the original on 25 November 2020. Retrieved 20 August 2019.
  4. ^ "Rat King: Ship rat, Rattus rattus, VT2314". Otago Museum Collections. Retrieved 9 June 2007. The Otago Museum's rat king: This display features a family of Rattus rattus, discovered in the 1930s. They had fallen from their nest in the rafters of a shipping company shed, and were immediately followed to the floor by a parent who vigorously defended the young.
  5. ^ a b c d "An (Almost) Comprehensive History of Rat Kings". mentalfloss.com. 24 October 2017.
  6. ^ Schneider, M. "De Rattenkoning van Rucphen". Museumkennis. Rucphen. Archived from the original on 13 December 2007. Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  7. ^ Miljutin A. (2007). "Rat Kings in Estonia" (PDF). Proc. Estonian Acad. Sci. Biol. Ecol. 56 (1): 77–81.
  8. ^ В Ставрополье нашли живого «крысиного короля» — нескольких грызунов, связавшихся хвостами — Нож
  9. ^ Опубликовано видео с найденным в Ставрополье уникальным живым «крысиным королём» - МК
  10. ^ Житель Ставрополья нашёл в огороде живого «крысиного короля» - Газета.Ru | Новости»
  11. ^ Ставрополец нашел «крысиного короля» — мышей, связанных хвостами в узел. Явление считалось выдумкой - Афиша Daily
  12. ^ a b Süldre, Lauraliis 20 October 2021): Tartu Ülikooli loodusmuuseumi jõudis üliharuldane rotikuningas. Eesti Rahvusringhääling (in Estonian).
  13. ^ "Põlvamaalt elusana leitud üliharuldane rotikuningas uinutati ning jääb teadlastele uurimiseks". The Delfi (in Estonian). 21 November 2021. Retrieved 21 October 2021.
  14. ^ a b c "Six Baby Squirrels With Tails Hopelessly Tangled Together Rescued in Nebraska". Gizmodo. 17 May 2018. Retrieved 20 September 2019.
  15. ^ McDonald, Alyssa (11 June 2013). "Photos: Regina Squirrels Tangled by Sticky Situation". Metro News. Archived from the original on 25 November 2017. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  16. ^ Pinarski, Phil (14 September 2018). "That's Nuts! Five Squirrels Tied Together by Tails Freed by Wisconsin Humane Society". Retrieved 14 September 2018.
  17. ^ "A tale of Five Squirrels: Vets Untangle 'Gordian Knot' of Rodents". The Guardian. 17 September 2018. Retrieved 17 September 2018.
  18. ^ a b Hignett, Katherine (17 September 2018). "Vets have untied a bundle of squirrels tangled by their tails in Wisconsin". Newsweek.
  19. ^ "Hear Boston Manor's urgent new anthem "Ratking"". Revolver. 5 March 2020. Retrieved 31 December 2020.
  20. ^ a b c Avard, Alex (16 October 2020). "The making of a Rat King: How Naughty Dog created its scariest foe in The Last of Us Part 2". GamesRadar+. Future US. Retrieved 20 March 2021.
  21. ^ Cryer, Hirun (10 July 2020). "The Last of Us Part 2 Tied Three Actors Together to Motion Capture The Rat King". USGamer. Reed Exhibitions. Archived from the original on 22 January 2021. Retrieved 20 March 2021.
  22. ^ "Epic Lunacy, Kirkus, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/mac-barnett/the-first-cat-in-space-ate-pizza/

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