A rat king is a collection of rats whose tails are intertwined and bound together by one of several possible mechanisms, such as entangling material like hair or sticky substances like sap or gum or getting tied together. Historically, this alleged phenomenon is particularly associated with Germany. There are several specimens preserved in museums but very few instances of rat kings have been observed in modern times.
A similar phenomenon with squirrels has been observed, which has had modern documented examples.
In folklore, rat kings are associated with various superstitions and were often seen as a bad omen, particularly associated with plagues.
Etymology and folklore
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.
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, because formerly French oi was pronounced "we" or similar; nowadays it is pronounced "wa".
Historically, the rat king was viewed as a bad omen, most likely due to rats being considered carriers for diseases such as the plague.
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. Alcohol-preserved rat kings are shown in museums in Hamburg, Göttingen, Hamelin, Stuttgart, Strasbourg and Nantes.
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. X-ray images show formations of callus at the fractures of their tails, which suggests that the animals survived for an extended period of time with their tails tangled.
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; 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 were caught on video (and untangled to save the mice) near Stavropol, Russia[unreliable source?].
On October 20, 2021, a live rat king of 13 rats was found in Põlvamaa, Estonia. This was the first live specimen found. 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 alive rat king. The rat king will be added to the Tartu University Museum of Zoology collection.
Besides the Estonian specimen, post-2000, squirrel king instances have been reported. Found alive in both cases, veterinarians had to separate them since they were potentially fatally stuck together else they could starve or get eaten by a predator. A "squirrel king" of six squirrels stuck together with pine sap was also found in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada in June 2013, and five juvenile grey squirrels were found in Wisconsin, US, in 2018. For the five, the surrounding nest material, grass and plastic got further entangled with them. The knot caused some tissue damage to their tails.
The existence of this phenomenon is debated due to the limited evidence of it occurring naturally. Another concern is the possibility that some of the centuries-old preserved museum specimens could be fabricated, such hoaxes being common in the medieval era. 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 they sleep especially when rats live in proximity during winter. Once they realise they are bound, they would struggle and the knot would get tighter. This explanation is plausible given that most cases were found during winter and in confined spaces. 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."
Zoologists remain skeptical of it, saying that, while theoretically possible, the rats would barely be able to survive in such a condition for a long time, particularly if the temperatures rose or if they bite their own or another one's tail to try to free themselves. They would also be in pain. Since black rats do cluster together during winters for warmth, it could be remotely possible for it to be naturally-occurring. Regarding some of the preserved specimens being fakes, the fabrication would have most likely been done on dead ones, given how difficult it would be if the rats were alive. Proper observation of the phenomenon, under scientific scrutiny, occurring naturally with live rats from the start till the end, has yet to happen. However, experts support it being cases of freak accidents with well-observed instances of it occasionally happening to squirrels—also from the rodent family. 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.
In popular culture
Rat kings appear in novels such as It by Stephen King, Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx, The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot, Ratking by Michael Dibdin, Rotters by Daniel Kraus, Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding, Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle, Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross, The War for the Lot by Sterling E. Lanier, Cold Storage by David Koepp, where it plays a prominent role, and The Rats by James Herbert. The Lorrie Moore short story Wings features a couple who discover a rat king in their attic. In Alan Moore and Ian Gibson's comic book series The Ballad of Halo Jones, the Rat King was a weapon of war, a super-intelligent collective able to coordinate attacks by regular rats on a global scale, decimating an entire planet.
In The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett, Keith skeptically notes that the filth associated with supposedly tying the young rats together at a young age is not found in a rat's nest, and suspects that a rat king is created as a sort of project by a rat catcher himself. One rat king, called Spider due to having eight component rats, supports this by his grudge against humanity for his traumatic creation. In an author's note at the end of the novel, Pratchett ventures the theory that "down the ages, some cruel and inventive people have had altogether too much time on their hands".
E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King features a "Mouse King" (Mausekönig) with seven heads, seemingly inspired by the multiple-bodied rat king. The character is typically depicted as multi-headed in productions of the Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker, based on the novella. The film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, based on the short story, similarly features a "Mouse King", a rat-king like creature formed from a teeming mass of small mice. The Mouse King is also portrayed as a three-headed rat in Moscow Ballet's production of The Great Russian Nutcracker.
In the eleventh episode of the sixth season of Teen Wolf, "Said the Spider to the Fly", Liam Dunbar and Mason Hewitt encounter a rat king. The sixth episode of the first season of 30 Rock, "Jack Meets Dennis", Dennis Duffy claims to have seen a rat king. Later, Liz Lemon describes what her future with Dennis would be like, becoming "more and more tangled up in each other's lives until [she] can't even get away," and realizes that he is a metaphorical rat king. An episode of the NBC TV urban fantasy series Grimm featured a monstrous, bipedal Rat King loose in Portland, formed by multiple 'Rienegen' (were-rats) conjoining their body mass. An episode of the Netflix TV show Hilda, "The Nightmare Spirit," featured a large rat king with glowing red eyes made of an unknown number of rats. This character is a peddler of secrets, willing to trade gossip with anyone who will tell him something worthy.
Rat King is also the name of an exotic sidearm in the video game Destiny 2.
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 current political and social events.
The Last of Us Part II
A creature known as the Rat King is featured in the 2020 action-adventure game The Last of Us Part II. It is an amalgam of multiple infected humans which appears halfway through the plot, when protagonist Abby explores the underground levels of a hospital in Seattle which were ground zero for the outbreak in the city over 20 years before.
Three actors were tied together to perform motion capture for the creature. It was originally supposed to appear in the game's predecessor, but the developers couldn't find a proper moment to include it, so it was put aside.
In creating the Rat King and its boss fight, the team drew inspiration from 2016 game Inside, Neill Blomkamp's 2017 short film Zygote, 2018 film Annihilation, 2018 game God of War and the third season of Netflix series Stranger Things. 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."
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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.
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