Most people have heard of the rat kings as this creature has become something of a legend in literature and films. However, it is a creature that has caused controversy regarding whether they actually exist or they are simply a mythical creature.
If you ever visit the Otago Museum in Dunedin, New Zealand, you will find a vast array of interesting exhibits. These include a tooth from the largest shark to have ever existed, a display of taxidermied circus lions, and sea creatures depicted by delicate glass models. In the midst of these exhibits stands a rather unusual item; a jar containing eight rats that are connected by a jumble of knots in their tails. The jar is labeled ‘Rat King’.
The phenomenon of the rat king is something that has become mythologized over the centuries. However, it is not really known if this creature actually exists in nature or if the conjoined rats have simply been made at some point in history as a weird display piece.
Despite not knowing if these are a natural scientific occurrence, it has not stopped people in popular culture from elevating the rat king to myth status and including it in many stories and films. In these, it is often used to symbolize something negative or dangers. For example, it has been associated with the plague, witchcraft, and an omen of death.
Experts are more skeptical about their existence. Kevin Rowe is the senior curator of mammals at the Museum Victoria and he is also a rat expert. According to Rowe, it would be impossible for rats that were stuck together to survive, and they would probably experience distress and pain prior to their death or separation. He has also said that the creature should not represent kingship as it is nothing more than a ball of suffering.
Rat kings were first reported during the 1500s and there have been many reports of their existence every since from all four corners of the globe. People who have seen them have formed various theories on how a rat king is formed. Some people believe that a rat king is made up of the offspring of one mother who have fastened themselves together when they have been cold or in a confined space.
Although there are many different species of rat, the only variety that is documented to have become a rat king is the rattus rattus. This is also known as the black rat or the ship rat. However, there are reports of a similar phenomenon amongst other species of small mammals, such as squirrels.
Emma Burns works at Otago Museum as the curator of natural science. She explains that the rattus rattus is a climbing rat and this means that they have a grasping reflex in their tails that allow them to form a hold in their nest. This could potentially lead to the entanglement of their tails, thus creating a rat king.
Another factor that impacts on the likelihood of this happening is the presence of a binding agent that would prevent the tails from becoming untangled. This could be feces, urine, or sebum, which is a sticky oil that is produced by the skins of rats. This is the theory provided by Burns for how the rat king on display at Otago Museum was formed. It was discovered in the 1930s after dropping from the rafters of a shipping office onto the clerks seated below. One of the clerks allegedly beat the rat king to death with a pitchfork. It was then taken to the museum curator.
Other experts disagree with this theory. For example, Michael Parson, who is a rat expert from Hofstra University, argues that rat kings are probably more common than we think as they connect their tails when they are cold. When the temperature rises, they unwind their tails. If they cannot, he argues that they would bite off their tail or the tail of another rat.
There are also those who argue that the rat king is a myth that has been fabricated by producing fake rat kings. Matthew Combs, a doctoral student from Fordham University, argues that people have simply tied their tails together after they have died.