When you hear the term “Rat King” the first time, your mind may go immediately to the villain from the Nutcracker Suite, or perhaps you’re just thinking of a very large rat that no other rat wishes to challenge.
In fact, rat kings are something quite different. Imagine a group of rats with their tails tangled. They’re still alive, and can move. In some cases, they live long enough for their tails to grow together, permanently sealing their loss of independence. But, so long as they can reach food and water, they’ll continue living.
Though uncommon, history and folklore have many stories of rat kings. It’s unclear why the name was chosen for a group of tangled rats. Some have suggested that these rats would allow a “king rat” to sit on their tails, and they’d carry them around. Martin Luther referred to the Pope as a rat king, but there’s no clear connection.
Animals with long tails who live in nests can find their tails tangled when nesting material or some foreign substance enters the nest. One famous case in New Zealand found a group of rats bound together by horse hair which the mother had used in the nest. Others have been linked with ice, blood, tree sap, tar… any sticky substance can do it. The more the animals move, the more tangled they become.
The largest known rat king contains 32 mummified individuals. It now resides in a German museum.
On a personal note, we received a call recently from my wife’s father who had discovered a squirrel king in the park behind his home. He bravely removed them from behind a fence, and my wife came over to try and free them. A bit of Googling reveals that olive oil and peanut butter are just the right things to use when you wish to dissolve pine tar, which was the adhesive in this case.
We’re happy to report that all six young squirrels survived, and they’re now in a local wildlife rehab facility awaiting release.
Update: here’s a video that tells the story of the squirrel king we found.