23 December 2019

Rat kings, squirrel kings - and their relation to a Christmas tradition

"Rat kings are cryptozoological phenomena said to arise when a number of rats become intertwined at their tails, which become stuck together with blood, dirt, and excrement. The animals consequently grow together while joined at the tails, which are often broken. The phenomenon is particularly associated with Germany, where the majority of instances have been reported...

Most researchers presume the creatures are legendary and that all supposed physical evidence is hoaxed, such as mummified groups of dead rats with their tails tied together. Reports of living specimens remain unsubstantiated

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 [above]. It consists of 32 rats. Alcohol-preserved rat kings are shown in museums in Hamburg, Hamelin, Göttingen, and Stuttgart. A rat king found in 1930 in New Zealand, displayed in the Otago Museum in Dunedin, was composed of immature Rattus rattus whose tails were entangled by horse hair.

The term rat king has often led to the misconception of a king of rats... The Nutcracker, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, adapts a tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann that features a seven-headed Mouse King as the villain..."
Image and text from Wikipedia. Credit to Neatorama.

Addendum #1:  Reposted to add this example of a "squirrel king" -
The Animal Clinic of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, got a surprise this week when a city worker brought in six squirrels fused together by their tails...

This particular group of six were nesting near a pine tree and sap fused their tails together. A city of Regina worker found the young squirrels and brought them to the clinic. The animals were sedated and the veterinarian team worked to untangle the mess of tails. Their tails were then shaved of the matted fur and they were given antibiotics to prevent infection.  (Via Nothing to do with Arbroath)

Addendum #2:  Reposted in order to add this related interesting phenomenon found by my wife at the Buck Manager website:

[T]hese three white-tailed bucks were found locked during the rut. The bucks were located on a ranch in east-central Texas and, from the information that I received, one of the bucks was still alive when the trio was found. Apparently, the antlers were cut from the dead deer and one very tired buck was lucky enough to run back off into the woods.
There are lots of comments at the site, some opining that the event was faked and arguing the method of death, and one who reported seeing a buck attack a pair that was already locked.   My wife found another example at the same website:

 "...there is nothing worse than finding a dead buck that you did not shoot, but how would you feel if you found not one, but three dead bucks on your property? Okay, it gets worse. What if those three bucks totaled 450 inches of antler? That is exactly what a hunter in the mid-West found on his Ohio farm..."
"They had the bank of this creek all tore up."
Addendum #3: And reader Lisa knew of a ancient example of the phenomenon involving Ice Age mammoths.

Addendum #4:  Reposted from 2013 to add this image found by an anonymous reader -

- of a squirrel king in Nebraska, with the victims, as in the example cited above, fused at their tails by pine tree sap.

Addendum #5:  Reposted yet again to add this "squirrel king" found locally here in central Wisconsin:

Their tails had become entwined with "long-stemmed grasses and strips of plastic their mother used as nest material," the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center wrote on Facebook... "It was impossible to tell whose tail was whose, and we were increasingly concerned because all of them had suffered from varying degrees of tissue damage to their tails caused by circulatory impairment," the post read.
See also: A squirrel king, which has this explanatory note -
In the wild, squirrels make their nests of dried leaves and branches...  A strange natural accident that sometimes occurs is sap from pine branches that the nest is constructed of can adhere to the squirrels' tails and ultimately to each other's tails. Squirrels normally have litters of 4 to 6 babies. As they are fed in the nest, they are quite "squirmy" and move around frequently. Once their tails become stuck together, movement is limited amongst them and they jump under and over each other trying to reposition themselves. In the process, they literally knot or braid themselves together. The squirrels pull in many directions, thereby worsening the situation. They can actually live quite a long time like this, as the mother continues to feed them.
Reposted yet again, to add some information from a Longread article "All Hail the Rat King" -
The Thuringian town of Altenburg houses perhaps the most spectacular exemplar. A mad bramble of no fewer than 32 rats sits mounted on a plexiglass pane in the entrance hall of the Mauritianum, the town’s small natural history museum. It was found in a village not too far away, in a warm space underneath a chimney...

The first visual representation of a rat king is in Johannes Sambucus’s Emblemata, from 1564, a collection of moral truths “wrapped up in certain figures.” Sambucus introduced the rat king as both natural phenomenon and symbol, and a sense that its sheer bizarreness has something to tell us has never gone away...

Some have considered the joke to be literal: as old as the discovery of rat kings is the suspicion that they cannot possibly be real. “We present it as a natural phenomenon,” says one of the curators in Strasbourg. “If someone made it a sport to tie rat tails together, it would be a major effort, unless you have steel mesh gloves.” The rat king is just as inexplicable when you think it’s a fake as it is when you assume it’s authentic...

One element that stays mysteriously stable across the centuries is rat kings’ geographic spread: the history of the rat king is uncannily, at times uncomfortably entwined with the history of Germany. Rattus rattus exists across the globe: it spread across Europe and North Africa with the Romans, then across the rest of the globe with European colonizers. And yet rat kings come from a curiously limited area. All but one of the specimens preserved today are from Western and Central Europe. Marten t’ Hart notes that “from 1564 to 1963, fifty-seven rat kings were discovered and described.” The vast majority of those discoveries took place in areas that make up present-day Germany.  This curious geographic concentration has led some researchers to suggest that rat kings are cultural, rather than natural phenomena. More bluntly put, they could be elaborate, centuries-old hoaxes...

In 1816, two years before Arndt published “Rat King Birlibi,” E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote Nutcracker and Mouseking, which inspired (via Alexandre Dumas père) Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s inescapable ballet.

If you watch The Nutcracker today, the mouse king has gone missing several times over. He has disappeared from the title, only shows up in one of the acts as the leader of an evil army of mice, and goes through a busy and less-than-iconic mass scene before exiting the stage as Masha explores the Land of Sweets with her nutcracker-cum-prince. But Hoffmann’s rendition not only lavishes a great deal of attention on the army of mice and their vicious battle with the nutcracker’s tin soldiers, but also makes it clear that the mouse king is a close relative of the rat king. This is how we first meet the monarch:
Seven mouse heads with seven shiny crowns rose, hissing and whistling dreadfully, rose out of the ground. Soon after the mouse body to which these seven heads were attached emerged fully, and three times the entire army squeaked in triumph at the great mouse garlanded with seven diadems…
So, just in time for Christmas - a new way to interpret the "Nutcracker." My next step was to search Google Images for Rat Kings in the Nutcracker.  Most of them are benign and cuddly.  At NPR I found Maurice Sendak's version -

- which has a certain menace to it, but this one at Deviant Art was the best:

Your choice how much of this to share with your impressionable children before taking the family to a Nutcracker performance at your local school or concert hall.

Merry Christmas to all !!


  1. Our local PBS affiliate did a segment for NOVA ScienceNow about two mammoths who died with their tusks tangled.

  2. It defies belief that this many rats would stand butt-to-butt long enough for this to happen.

    Also, I used to raise rats when I was young, and I don't recall that their tails were flexible enough to get entangled in another tail. My guess is the tails of the ones in the rat king were broken because someone bent them more than the bones inside the tail would allow in order to make them look entwined.

  3. Terry Pratchett used the idea of the Rat King in The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. Very creepy.

  4. I too used to raise rats, and even when they're in massive rat piles I have never seen their tails get even close to tangled -- and if they did to the point where it would cost their lives, I've no doubt that they would chew off their neighbors' in order to get away.

  5. This post needs the Rat King Rug


  6. I have seen this twice and know of another confirmed example....all in grey squirrels. The two I saw (in 2012 and 2009) were nesting in white pine trees on the Saint Michael's College campus in Vermont and handled by a wildlife rehab person. The most recent case was in my neighborhood; the squirrels somehow self separated one with a bent tail; 2 with severed tails. All three survived into the Fall and I have not seen them yet this Spring. I suspect they perished in the winter.

  7. Yeah, nah, I'ma gonna call hoaxes
    The rats here at my place ...guessing neighbour's kids had some, let them escape, they bred, moved to my back garden, moved into my roof space, got live caught by yours truly, got re-homed into a large cage out the big side garden ... groom themselves more than my super clean cats and rabbits.
    The only way they could get stuck together 'naturally' is by the addition of some glue of the super type, whilst they were held down, so hence, un-naturally.
    The whole concept discredits how clever and resourceful rattus rattus are/is.
    Not to mention clean and cute.

  8. i have a small piece of pine tree sap with some hawk feathers stuck in it.


  9. Rats will hibernate when the temp falls which could plausibly put them together in a pile w/o a struggle. Competing for the bottom of the pile amid tough nesting material could explain how all them managing to become tied together w/o chewing each others tails off. Some evidence might be provided by testing the mummified individuals DNA for immediate siblings.

    So maybe they froze like that, and localized occurrences might stem from purely local awareness (Folk Knowledge) that the phenomena is even possible. It may happen in other or even all areas where it might be odd but not traditionally noteworthy. Like data surveys that only ask a certain group but then extend it to represent everyone.

  10. I'm sorry for your Vikings! I was rooting for them ~

  11. Regarding the term "rat king," I wonder if the term is a misunderstanding of some other term, for instance: "rat skein"? A skein is a complicated arrangement, etc.

    The use of "king" simply doesn't make sense, at least in our current sensibilities. I have to think this is either a misunderstanding of the original...or we're missing something...like "Oh, my goodness! This is king of all rat problems!"

    1. The term wouldn't have started in English. This is what I've found -

      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.

  12. Rare but legitimate! In 2005, one turned up in a small Estonian village near where I lived. A farmer/journalist I know of impeccable integrity documented it. It produced some local drama because the farmer had informed the major national (and national language) media about its discovery, but then allowed this local-language (Voro) paper to have the scoop (and wouldn't show it to the national media). Its preserved image from the University of Tartu is here. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240640974_Rat_kings_in_Estonia/figures?lo=1


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