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Royal Rat Rosette

Certainly not your normal “Ratatouille”

Who has heard of the “rat king”? Chances are you are now thinking of some fairy tale or contemplate whether the “boss” of a community of rats, the decision-making individual, the “leader of the pack”, mightn’t be referred to as the king of the rats. Or was it perhaps the manager of the pop group “The Boomtown Rats”, who answered to that nickname? And what about Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet “The Nutcracker” – wasn’t there a rat king?

Far from it, all wrong, for a rat king describes a rosette of rats of usually 5 to 15 individuals haplessly caught by their intertwined tails and doomed to stay together until a tail breaks or an individual can somehow wriggle itself free. Several well preserved specimens of rat kings exist in museum collections and live ones have been observed as well. Since rats in a rat king assemblage are all connected by their tails, movement of the entire rat king rosette is not straight forward, but a wheeling around in this and that direction.

Numerous scientific exploits and even a book have been written to explain this strange phenomenon, but none of the ideas advanced appears to explain all cases of reported rat kings. The tails are intertwined and knotted, sometimes containing bits of straw and string, but they are never fused, which rules out a genetic abnormality like that of “Siamese twins”. Most, but not all, rat kings discovered, consisted of individuals of the same age, which suggests they could be litter mates. However, a famous French rat king specimen of 30 individuals is incompatible with that theory.

Since rat kings were more frequent in very cold winters, it was suggested that initially frozen urine and faeces could have stuck together tails of rats huddling together, who then in attempts to free their tails would have got them more and more entangle to an extent when freeing them became impossible. While this, to me, seems the most plausible explanation, it cannot explain the report of a rat king from Indonesia, a tropical country.

The idea that human interference, in other words a hoax, could be at the bottom of the rat king discoveries must be rejected on the basis that the pattern of intertwined rat tails is so complicated that it is inconceivable that a human could have done this to, say, ten or so live rats. The tails of the individual rats of a specimen kept at the Hamburg Zoology Museum show zones of natural wear and tear, constrictions with muscular dystrophy, reduced blood supply and scale damage as well as stretches of helical twists, which could only have been produced over many months. And in any case, who would have had the patience and desire to plait the tails of squealing rats?

Although the site of a rat king to most people of Western cultural background must have seemed like an image of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of “The Visions of Hell”, there are people, who would have been delighted to encounter a rat king, because for them (as I have reported) the tails are the most desirable and delicious part of the rat to eat.

blog meyer rocou essay science mouse zoology

Keep it cool!

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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