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The Rat King Phenomena

While Wikipedia contains a plethora of information, there are times where I wish I had never stumbled upon certain pages. Wow, that’s just plain gross,or I really didn’t need to learn about that, are usually my reactions. But sometimes, when I’ve stumbled upon something so grotesque and horrifying, I cringe and feel my skin shift, as if bugs were crawling up my legs and arms. The rat king phenomena is one of these times.

At some point everyone has gone through the frustrating task of untangling a mess of wires and cords. No matter how hard you try to keep them organized, to ensure that they do not become entwined, it happens. Now, imagine that those cords were not stationary, that they moved upon their own freewill. Churning, twisting, and always lashing about each other, they are bound to become nestled into a nest of twists that no amount of swears could undo. This, my reader, is the rat king phenomena, and I wish we had rat king Halloween props.

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Rat king in the scientific museum Mauritianum Altenburg, Germany

Rats are known for their long tails, and when a group of rats are stuck inside a small area, their tails become tangled. Since rats are not the brightest of creatures, they panic and continue to pull away from each other, often resulting in even worse tangles. Compound this panic with multiple rats, possibly ten to twenty, and your nest of tangled cords is now a moving, chirping mound of furry flesh, who eventually starve to death.

Historically, the term rat king was used not to reference rats, but for people who lived off others. During the Medieval era, the term referenced an actual king sitting on a throne of knotted tails, as if forcefully keeping individuals under his power. When individuals began to discover the actual rat-rail nests, they believed it to be one animal with many bodies, with the word king referring to the animal’s size.

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Rat king phenomena (bottom left), as depicted in an ancient painting.

The earliest report of the Rat King phenomena was in 1564. Since rats are breeding grounds for diseases and the plague, these nests of tangled rats were viewed as very bad omens. The advent of the brown rat displacing the black rat in the 18th century helped to decrease the frequency of rat kings, but the phenomena has not been completely wiped out. The most recent discovery was on January 16th, 2005, in the Võrumaa region.