The rat king is a phenomenon that has captured the imagination for centuries. At its core, the rat king involves a number of rats becoming attached at their tails, forming one larger conglomeration. But does this actually happen in real life? Let’s explore the facts behind the legend of the rat king.
What is a rat king?
A rat king refers to a group of rats whose tails have become intertwined and stuck together by one of several possible bonding agents, such as blood, dirt, ice, feces, or simply knotted. This results in the rats being conjoined at the tails and bound to each other.
The number of rats joined together varies, but rat kings of up to 32 rats have been reported. The rats, though still alive and capable of movement, are forced to move together as a unit.
Historical accounts of rat kings
Stories and legends of rat kings date back centuries, with the earliest known reference appearing in 1564. Here are some notable historical mentions of rat kings:
- A 16th century German publication tells of a rat king consisting of seven rats found in a mill.
- An 1850 book on anomalies in nature describes and illustrates a rat king of 16 rats discovered in a German cave.
- An 1848 account describes a rat king of 32 rats found in a French chimney.
- Rat kings are mentioned in several old legends as being associated with plagues.
So while fanciful illustrations of giant rat kings have often been exaggerated, there is evidence of real rat kings being discovered over the past several hundred years.
How does a rat king form?
The exact mechanism by which rat kings form is not fully understood. However, there are a few leading theories:
- Rats huddle together for warmth in cold weather and their tails accidentally become knotted and stuck together.
- Rats moving through small spaces get their tails twisted together.
- Urine and feces accumulate on the rats’ tails, acting as a bonding agent when combined with dirt and oil.
- Blood from open wounds on their tails mixes and clots, gluing them together.
The tails of rats are sensitive, vascularized, and used for temperature regulation, so injury and subsequent infection is one possibility. Their tails are also prehensile and useful for navigating tight spaces, increasing chances of entanglement in cramped environments.
Modern evidence and occurrences
While historical accounts cannot be verified, there are a number of modern documented cases:
- A rat king discovered in New Zealand in 1963 comprised of three rats.
- A 2005 incident in Estonia involved 16 rats knotted together by their tails.
- A live 7-rat cluster was found in an Indonesian palm oil plantation in 2017.
- Rat kings of up to 20 rats have been created under laboratory conditions by gluing or knotting their tails together.
So while extremely rare, it appears that rat kings can and do occasionally form in nature. Advances in photography and scientific documentation allow these more recent cases to be authenticated.
Famous and controversial rat kings
Some purported rat kings have generated significant interest and controversy over the years:
- An alleged 32-rat king preserved in formalin was displayed in the Naturmuseum Senckenberg in Germany in 1914. It was later determined to have been artificially created as a hoax around 1900.
- The Museum Wiesbaden in Germany claims to display a mummified rat king consisting of 7 rats. However, this specimen has been met with skepticism about its authenticity.
- A taxidermic rat king of 6 rats can be seen at the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, Germany. But it may have been intentionally created.
Analysis of these controversial specimens suggests they were likely manually entwined or glued together after death rather than naturally occurring conjoinments.
Is the rat king real or a myth?
In summary, the evidence suggests:
- Historic accounts of rat kings date back several centuries, though these cannot be verified.
- Modern documented cases provide evidence of real rat kings forming naturally, though only involving a small number of rats.
- Larger rat kings displaying dozens of rats are most likely hoaxes artificially created and not actual specimens.
- While exceedingly rare, it does appear possible for a rat king to naturally occur under the right circumstances.
So in conclusion, while the grandiose rat kings of myth and legend are likely fabricated, the phenomenon of smaller real rat kings formed naturally does have some basis in fact. Though extraordinary, it seems the rat king is not merely a myth but a true, if extremely uncommon, phenomenon.
Why rat kings attract fascination and superstition
What is it about the rat king that captivates the human imagination? Some reasons this phenomenon has attracted fascination and superstition include:
- Their striking and bizarre appearance.
- Association with plagues and pestilence in medieval Europe.
- Representing hardship, survival against odds, and resourcefulness.
- Symbolizing the complexities of social interdependence and co-existence.
- Evoking deeper themes of man vs. nature and our struggle to understand the mysteries of the natural world.
So while scientifically intriguing, rat kings also resonate with the human experience on emotional and philosophical levels, ensuring their enduring legend.
Scientific significance of rat kings
Though rare, rat kings hold some genuine scientific interest for researchers:
- They illuminate the social behavior of rats living in close quarters.
- They provide insight into rats’ survival instincts and adaptability.
- Documented occurrences add to our data on real-world cases.
- They allow study of rats physically attached and forced to coordinate actions.
- Lab experiments on induced rat kings further scientific understanding.
Analysis of rat kings under controlled conditions can provide valuable data to improve scientific knowledge of rat psychology, social dynamics, locomotion, and responses to constrained environments.
Cultural references to the rat king
The rat king has embedded itself in various aspects of culture:
- Art – Rat kings are depicted in paintings, drawings, and sculptures such as the Rat King art carving in Belgium.
- Literature – Rat kings appear in fiction books such as “It” by Stephen King and “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents” by Terry Pratchett.
- Movies and TV – The documentary “Rat Kings” explores the history and legends behind the phenomenon.
- Music – American metal band Raunchy has an album titled “Rat King.”
- Gaming – Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons feature rat kings as monsters.
The rat king’s striking appearance and symbolic overtones have inspired inclusion across many forms of media. It represents broader themes of pestilence, survival, and interconnection.
The rat king stands as one of the more intriguing phenomena in nature. While legends of massive rat kings are unsubstantiated, smaller naturally occurring rat kings are empirically documented. Though exceedingly uncommon, their existence is supported by modern cases.
Beyond scientific interest, the rat king’s resonance with human experience helps explain its prominence in culture and folklore. Its deeper symbolic meanings tied to survival and community ensure the rat king a permanent place as an enduring legend and cultural curiosity. While its reality was once in question, science supports the rat king as a true and thought-provoking natural wonder.