An (Almost) Comprehensive History of Rat Kings

Musées of Strasbourg, M. Bertola
Musées of Strasbourg, M. Bertola

Behold the rat king!

A ball of furry fury, a rat king occurs when the tails of rodents become twisted, wrapped, and warped into a knot so impossible that not even the world's most loyal Boy Scout could untangle it. Rat kings have been reported since the mid-16th century (almost entirely within Germany), and everything about them—from their name, to their cause, to their very existence—remains suspended in mystery.

To start, the origin of the term rat king is hazy. It may be a mistaken translation of the French rouet de rats, a "wheel of rats" (rat king in French is roi-de-rats). But this is an unlikely etymology. More likely, rat king harkens to the German Rattenkönig—an insult for the pope, but also a term used to describe elderly rats. (It was believed that senior rats would sit on the tails of younger rats to make their nests, and that, if the tails tangled, the elder rat would survive by having its meals delivered by the rodent world's proletariat. As the New York Tribune described in 1857, a rat king, “like so many kings, princes, and democratic officer holders, [depended] upon the labouring classes for support.”)

The rat king's existence is debatable; while there are several preserved specimens, they might be fakes perpetrated by hoaxers who wanted to make a quick buck. (Don't put it past our ancestors: “In medieval times, some sleazy European merchants glued bat wings to lizards and sold them as ‘dragons,’” notes Quail Bell magazine.) Owing to a lack of solid contemporary evidence, zoologists remain skeptical of rat kings—but open to the possibility that they are freak accidents.

Other rodents, after all, do get tied up in each other’s business. In 1951, a "squirrel king" appeared in a South Carolina zoo. In 2013, six more tangled squirrels were saved by veterinarians in Canada. And just this year in Maine, four baby squirrels were recorded on video with their tails linked like "a giant dreadlock," according to the man who discovered them.

If real, how do rat kings occur? Some theories are more crackpot than others: In the 17th and 18th centuries, naturalists suggested the tails had been woven during birth, glued by the afterbirth. Others suggested that healthy rats deliberately tangled the tails of weaker rodents to make a nest. Both theories are unlikely.

The most plausible explanation is that black rats—which have long, supple tails and reside in close quarters during winter—may come in contact with a sticky or frozen substance such as sebum (secreted from the critters’ skin), sap, food, feces, frozen urine, or frozen blood. The bonding agent may solidify as the animals slumber. Once the rodents realize their tails are glued, they might create a tighter knot as they attempt to wriggle free.

This explanation has a ring of truth: Most rat kings were discovered during the winter or a frosty shoulder season, and they’re usually found in a tight shelter.

Over the past five centuries, there have been 30 to 60 recorded rat king sightings. In 1973, the biologist and writer Maarten ‘t Hart tracked down all of them. Using Hart’s delightful book Rats as our primary guide, we now present a timeline of nearly every recorded rat king sighting since the 16th century.

(Note: We excluded approximately a dozen sightings that Hart argued were dubious, and we're certain that more instances exist. But, to be frank, after seeing the photographs below, you might understand why this timeline is the sort we’d prefer to never have to update.)

Rat King from Sabucus's 'Emblemata'
Rat King from Sabucus's Emblemata

1576: Johannes Sambucus, a Hungarian historian, releases the fourth edition of his popular Emblemata—essentially a 16th century picture book—called Emblemata cum aliquot nummis antiqui operis. In it, Sambucus describes how servants in Antwerp, Belgium discovered seven rats with knotted tails. (The same volume contains stories involving unicorns, so take that for what it’s worth.)

July 1683: In Strasbourg, France, a man named Würtzen discovers in his cellar six “strikingly large rats with their tails so intertwined and fused that they could not be separated without injury,” a contemporary report states. The varmints are exhibited at the town hall, and an illustrated print of the braided bunch is published in the Mercure Galant.

1690: After hearing his floorboards squeak for all the wrong reasons, a bigwig in Kiel, Germany, orders boiling water poured down a rathole. Four rodents scamper out, but when the squealing continues, the homeowner decides to remove the floor tiles. He discovers 14 tangled rats, which are promptly dumped in a privy.

1694: In Krossen, Germany, 15 fused rats are found at a mill. They are killed with boiling water and strung from an oak tree, giving passersby a chance to gawk.

1705: A lump of snarled rats is discovered in Keula, Germany. It’s pickled in alcohol and later disappears.

1683 rat king
The 1683 rat king, as illustrated by Wilhelm Schmuck
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

July 1719: A rodent tumbleweed—population nine—appears in Roßla, Germany. (The naturalist Johann Heinrich Linck supposedly makes engravings of the monster.)

1722: Residents in the village of Dieskau, Germany, find another reason to avoid eating their vegetables when 12 tangled critters are found rooting through a barrel of peas. Euthanized by a cascade of boiling water, the rats are taken to Dresden’s Royal Natural History Collection. In 1849, this ratty rosette is presumed lost in a fire.

1722: A writhing cluster of rats (number unknown) grips Leipzig, Germany. The gnarled specimen is killed, pickled in a jar of alcohol, and paraded through the city. It’s later mummified in a private museum. Like any good mummy, it mysteriously goes missing.

1725: Eleven rats of various sizes—said to be a momma-rat and its young—are found entangled in Dorndorf, Germany.

1727: In a banner year for rat kings, naturalist Johann Linck reports that a whopping four rat kings are sighted in Germany. Hart, however, claims that only one of these is mildly credible: the rat king of the quaint mountainside town of Wernigerode, which is said to be preserved by a local count.

1748: German zoologist Johann Goeze reports that a gross ball of 18 rats has turned up in the town of Gross-Baullhausen, Germany.

An illustration of a Rat King from Henri Coupin's 1903 book Les Animaux Excentriques
An illustration from Henri Coupin's 1903 book Les Animaux Excentriques
Public Domain

1748: A lump of 10 plump male rats appears at a monastery in the spa town of Bad Langensalza, Germany. The sanctity of life apparently does not extend to rat kings: It’s killed, dunked in alcohol, and, like the other specimens, later goes M.I.A.

1759: A tinsmith in Arnstadt, Germany, is startled to find a buffet of six snagged vermin near the town market. The discovery becomes the subject of five oil paintings, four of which were lost during World War II. (According to Hart, the only surviving artwork is hung in Arnstadt’s Castle Museum.)

1772: Twelve twist-tied rats are discovered in Erfurt, Germany; the specimen is later illustrated by J. J. Bellerman in his 1820 book Ueber das Bisher Bezweifelte Dasein des Rattenkönigs, or On the Hitherto Doubted Existence of Rat Kings. (For those curious, the book does not sell very well.)

December 1774: Christian Kaiser, a miller’s assistant, finds 16 snarled rats in Lindenau, Germany, and drags them to an artist named Johan Adam Fassauer, requesting a painting. Instead, Fassauer begins exhibiting the rats to the public for a fee. When Kaiser realizes that the painter is profiting off his discovery, he demands for the specimen’s return. (According to Hart, “the end of the story is unknown,” but other reports suggest the dispute led to one of the strangest custody battles a courtroom has ever witnessed.)

1793: A Gordian knot of 10 rats appears in a stable in Wundersleben, Germany.

1793: In Brunswick, Germany, seven entangled rodents make a surprise visit to a local privy.

1810: Brunswick celebrates back-to-back rats! After days of interminable squeaking, a well-to-do citizen tears up his floorboards only to find a tangled jumble of seven rodents. “All of their tails had been joined together so firmly and so inextricably that they could not be pulled apart,” writes Hart.

December 1822: A thresher in Döllstädt finds two gobs of rats—one consisting of 28 rodents, the other 14—inside the main beam of a barn. “All 42 seemed to be very hungry, and squeaked continuously but looked perfectly healthy,” reported zoologist Alfred Brehm. “All were of equal and moreover of such considerable size that they must have been born during the last spring.” The rats are paraded through town before being thrown unceremoniously onto a dungheap.

Thuringia Rat King contains 32 rodents.
The 1828 rat king from Thuringia, which contains 32 rodents, is the largest specimen in the world.
Naturkundliches Museum Mauritianum Altenburg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

May 1828: Doing spring cleaning, Miller Steinbruck of Thuringia, Germany, finds a scorched clump of 32 rodents in his chimney. The terrifying rat king is today held at the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, Germany.

May 1829: An artist gets creative with a coil of eight rats discovered in Flein, Germany. “The individuals constituting this king were not arranged in the usual circle but looked like a bunch of flowers with the tails representing the knotted stems,” Hart writes. Today it’s preserved at the Stuttgart Natural History Museum.

1837: A dirty dozen appears in Zaisenhausen, Germany, prompting the discoverer to call upon a pastor. The holy man gives the sample to a local museum director, but when the director dies, he brings any knowledge of the rat king's whereabouts to his grave.

1841: Half a dozen knotted rats appear in Bonn, Germany. They are preserved for more than a century at the University Zoological Institute, but it becomes one of many museum casualties during World War II.

March 1844: A smorgasbord of seven rats surfaces in the small Bavarian town of Leutershuasen, Germany.

1870: In Keula, Germany, a rat king of unknown number is discovered and preserved, but it, too, disappears during World War II.

February 1880: After hearing unusual squeaks from high up a wall, a postman in Düsseldorf, Germany uncovers a skein of eight rats, which is photographed and preserved, but (you guessed it!) is lost during World War II.

Illustration of a rat king from Picture Magazine
Illustration of a rat king from volume 6 of The Picture Magazine, 1895.
Public Domain

1883: In an attempt to determine if rat kings are a hoax, German zoologist Hermann Landois ties the tails of 10 dead brown rats together. According to Hart, the results must have been disappointing. “Anyone who ties up the tails of dead rats (I have tried it several times) will obtain something that in no way resembles the kings found in nature: the knots are too neat.” But Hart does not discount that there may be frauds out there: “[It was] lucrative to own a king, and so people began tying tails together. Kusthardt (1915) reports that many such sham kings were exhibited at fairs and similar gatherings.”

April 1883: After loud squeals emerge from underneath a merchant’s toilet in Lüneburg, Germany, a motley knot of eight rats is discovered. Like many others, it is purportedly preserved but lost during the Second World War.

1889: A young rat king numbering five or six turns up in Obermodern-Zutzendorf, Germany. Reports of the discovery make it to England, where the The Newcastle Weekly Courant spreads the myth that, like royalty, the rats were sustained by the charitable contributions of lowlier rodents: “The rats were in the very best conditions—conclusive that astonishingly good care had been bestowed upon them by their more fortunate rat brethren.”

Strasbourg rat king from 1894.
The 1894 Strasbourg rat king
Musées of Strasbourg, M. Bertola

April 1894: A frozen ratcicle containing 10 rodents—many of which are pocked with teeth marks and gnawed legs—is found under a hay-bale in Dellfeld, Germany. You can visit the specimen at the Strasbourg Zoological Museum.

November 1899: A ratpack of seven crosses the border and visits Courtalain, France. It’s currently kept at the Musee de Chateaudun, a two-hour train ride from Paris.

May 1905: Seven young rodents are reported in Hamburg, Germany, now preserved in the city’s Natural History Museum. (The next year, a lucky seven strikes again in le Vernet, France.)

January 1907: A potpourri of 10 black rats appears in Rudersdorf. It is preserved.

October 1914: An adolescent rat king is discovered (alive) in Moers, Germany. It is preserved (not so alive) and later disappears.

Courtalain rat king from 1899.
The 1899 Courtalain rat king, now preserved in the Musee de Chateaudun.

March 1918: The rat king takes a vacation to Bogor, Java! Not only is this weave of 10 rats one of the few reported outside of Central Europe, it’s the only report not to involve black rats.

1930s: In New Zealand, a cluster of eight contorted rats drops from the rafters of a shipping office. Clerks beat it generously with a pitchfork and then, also generously, donate it to the Otago Museum, where it now resides. (The tails, the museum discovered, were tangled with horsehair.)

October 1937: Hark! A farmer’s servant discovers nine gnarled rats in a starling’s nest in Büngern, Germany.

1940: In what’s believed to be the Lictenplatte district of Offenbach, Germany, a king of five young rats is found squirming in a pigsty.

June 1949: In Berlin, Germany, three separate rats are tossed into a bucket on the evening of June 2. The next morning, the three rats have mysteriously tangled into a knot. Herr Otto Janack, an official with the local rodent extermination department, disentangles the rodents and comes away thinking that it’s all a bad joke—or one of nature’s weird, twisted miracles.

1951: A rat king of four adults is discovered in Châlons-sur-Marne, France (now renamed Châlons-en-Champagne).

The Limburg rat king of 1955.
The Limburg rat king of 1955, now displayed at the Museum of Maastricht.

1955: The Natural History Museum of Maastricht picks up a crowd-pleasing specimen: a seven-strong rat king found in Limburg, Netherlands.

1961: According to a Russian-language journal article about hollow-dwelling birds, a rat king of unknown size appears in Lithuania.

February 1963: A Dutch farmer in Rucphen, Netherlands, hears a loud squeal and follows the noise to a pile of bean sticks in his barn. When he notices a rat, he kills it and attempts to pull it from the pile. It refuses to budge—until the farmer realizes that six more rodents are connected to the original rat. These, too, are exterminated and the specimen is later X-rayed.

1966: A man by the name of Wierts attempts to make his own rat king by gluing the tails of six live albino lab rats. When the animals attempted to wriggle free, their tails became entangled in a knot. Wierts then anesthetized the rats and removed the glue to see if they remained knotted like a pretzel ... and they did.

The Vendée rat king of 1986
The Vendée rat king of 1986, now held at the Natural History of Museum in Nantes, France.
© Patrick JEAN / Muséum de Nantes, France

1986: A roi-de-rats of nine turns up in Vendée, France. Today you can see it in the Natural History Museum in Nantes.

2005: In Saru, Estonia, a farmer discovers a cluster of 16 rats—nine of which are alive—in a shed, their tails tangled by frozen sand. It is taken to the Natural History Museum at the University of Tartu, where it is preserved in alcohol. (It’s reported that two other rat kings were discovered in Estonia in the 20th century, one of which contained 18 live rats [PDF]!)

The Saru, Estonia rat king of 2005
The Saru, Estonia rat king of 2005 at the Natural History Museum at the University of Tartu.
Permission of Andrei Miljutin

25 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Recycle

iStock.com/Orbon Alija
iStock.com/Orbon Alija

According to the EPA, Americans generate approximately 262 million tons of waste each year—and that amount keeps growing. In honor of Earth Day, which we'll celebrate on April 22, here are a few things you may have been throwing out that, with a little effort, you can actually recycle.

1. Dentures

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Grandpa's choppers may hold $25 worth of recyclable metals, including gold, silver, and palladium. The Japan Denture Recycling Association is known to collect false teeth, remove and recycle the metals, and discard the rest of the denture (which is illegal to reuse). The program has donated all of its earnings to UNICEF.

2. Holiday lights

Bundle of holiday string lights

Got burnt out holiday lights? The folks at HolidayLEDs.com will gladly take your old lights, shred them, and sort the remaining PVC, glass, and copper. Those raw materials are taken to another recycling center to be resurrected.

3. Sex toys

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The first step in recycling your toy is to send it to a specialty processing plant, where it's sterilized and sorted. There, all "mechanical devices" are salvaged, refurbished, and resold. Silicone and rubber toys, on the other hand, are "ground up, mixed with a binding agent, and remolded into new toys," according to the aptly titled website, Sex Toy Recycling. Metals, plastics, and other leftovers retire from the pleasure industry and are recycled into conventional products.

4. Hotel soap

Hotel bathroom counter with cups, shampoo, and soap

Not all hotels throw out that half-used soap you left in the shower: Some send it to Clean the World. There, soap is soaked in a sanitizing solution, treated to a steam bath, and then tested for infections. Once deemed safe, the soap is distributed to less fortunate people across the globe. So stop stealing soap from hotels—you may be stealing from charity.

5. Mattresses

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You don't need to dump your old box spring at the landfill. Because they're equipped with special saws, mattress recycling factories can separate the wood, metal, foam, and cloth. The metal springs are magnetically removed, the wood is chipped, and the cloth and foam are shredded and baled. In its future life, your saggy mattress could become a cute sundress or even wallpaper.

6. Cooking oil

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When you’re finished making French fries at home, it can be tempting to toss the spent frying oil down the drain. But you shouldn’t—nearly half of all sewer overflows are caused by fat and oil. There are a few curbside programs in the United States that accept used cooking oil, which may send the oil to a biodiesel plant that will transform it into fuel. To see if there’s a collection point near you, use this online tool.

7. Dirty diapers

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The average baby soils 6000 diapers before being potty trained—that's one ton of diapers rotting in a landfill per child. But not all poo-packages have to suffer this fate. The company Knowaste collects and recycles dirty diapers at hospitals, nursing facilities, and public restrooms. After sanitizing the diaper with a solution, they mechanically separate the "organic matter" from the diaper's plastic, which is compressed into pellets and recycled into roof shingles. Meanwhile, paper pulp in diapers grows up to become wallpaper and shoe soles.

8. CDs

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CDs are made of polycarbonate and won't decompose at a landfill. But if you send your discs to The CD Recycling Center, they'll shred them into a fine powder that will be later melted down into a plastic perfect for automotive and building materials—even pavement!

9. Shoes

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Send your beat-up sneaks to Nike Grind and you'll help build a running track. Nike's recycling facility rips apart worn shoes, separating the rubber, foam, and fabric. The rubber is melted down for running track surfaces, the foam is converted into tennis court cushioning, and the fabric is used to pad basketball court floorboards.

10. Animal poop

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Why turn animal poop into fertilizer, manure, or trash when you can make it into a greeting card? Or a bouquet of arficial flowers? The folks at Poopoo Paper do that, plus more—they can transform the poop of a wide variety of animals (cows, horses, elephants, and more) into cards, bookmarks, keychains, magnets, jewelry and more!

11. Trophies

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Is your room full of plastic bowling trophies from fifth grade? If the thrill of victory fades, you can recycle your old trophies at recycling centers like Lamb Awards. They'll break down your retired awards, melting them down or reusing them for new trophies.

12. Human fat (warning; illegal) 

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If it weren't for legal complications, America's obsession with cosmetic surgery could solve its energy problem. In 2008, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon lost his job when police caught him fueling his car with a biofuel created from his patients' liposuctioned fat. (Convicting him wasn't hard, since he advertised the substance online as "lipodiesel.") That's not the first time fat has powered transportation: In 2007, conservationist Peter Bethune used 2.5 gallons of human fat to fuel his eco-boat, Earthrace.

13. Aluminum foil

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Foil is probably one of the most thrown away recyclable materials out there. (Americans throw away about 1.5 million tons of aluminum products every year, according to the EPA.) But foil is 100 percent aluminum, and as long as you thoroughly clean it of any food waste, you technically should be able to recycle it with your aluminum cans (but first check with your local recycling plant to ensure they’re equipped to process it; some aren’t).

14. Crayons

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Don't toss those stubby Crayolas! Instead, mail them to the National Crayon Recycle Program, which takes unloved, broken crayons to a better place: They're melted in a vat of wax, remade, and resold. So far, the program has saved more than 120,000 pounds of crayons.

15. Dead pets

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When Fluffy bites the dust in Germany, you can memorialize your beloved pet by recycling her. In Germany, it's illegal to bury pets in public places. This leaves some pet owners in a bind when their furry friends die. A rendering plant near the town of Neustadt an der Weinstraße accepts deceased pets; animal fat is recycled into glycerin, which is used in cosmetics such as lip balm.

16. Shingles

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The EPA estimates that 11 million tons of shingles are disposed each year [PDF]. Most of them are made out of asphalt, which is why more than two dozen states pulverize the old shingles and recycle them into pavement. For every ton of shingles recycled, we save one barrel of oil.

17. Prescription drugs

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You can—and should—properly dispose of expired prescription drugs. But what about unneeded pills that are still good? Some states let you donate unused drugs back to pharmacies. Some charities also accept leftover HIV medicine from Americans who have switched prescriptions, stopped medicating, or passed away. These drugs are shipped overseas and distributed to HIV victims around the world.

18. Fishing line

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Fishing line is made from monofilament, a non-biodegradable plastic that you can't put in your everyday recycling bin. At Berkley Fishing, old fishing line is mixed with other recyclables (like milk cartons and plastic bottles) and transformed into fish-friendly habitats. So far, Berkley has saved and recycled more than 9 million miles of fishing line.

19. Wine corks

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Your recycling center probably doesn't accept wine corks, but companies like Terracycle and Yemm & Hart will. They turn cork into flat sheets of tile, which you can use for flooring, walls, and veneer. Another company, ReCORK, has extended the life of over 4 million unloved corks by giving them to SOLE, a Canadian sandal maker.

20. Pantyhose

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Most pantyhose are made of nylon, a recyclable thermoplastic that takes more than 40 years to decompose. Companies like No Nonsense save your old stockings by grinding them down and transforming them into park benches, playground equipment, carpets, and even toys.

21. Toothbrushes

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If you buy a plastic toothbrush from Preserve (which makes its toothbrushes from old Stonyfield Farms yogurt cups and other everyday items), it will take back your used toothbrush and give it a new life—this time as a piece of plastic lumber!

22. Tennis balls

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The company reBounces doesn’t really recycle tennis balls, it resurrects them. If you’ve got at least 200 balls sitting around, the company will send you a prepaid shipping label to help get the box on the road and repressurize the balls.

23. Yoga mats

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Most yoga mats are made from PVC, the same material in plumbing pipes, heavy-duty tarps, and rain boots. While many local yoga studios will accept well-loved mats and find them a new home, the company Sanuk has an appropriately squishy vision for each mat’s future: It will transform your old yoga mat into flip flops.

24. Defunct currency

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All governments have a way of dealing with old, worn money. (In 2016, the Indian government shredded old bills and turned them into hardboard.) But what about currency that is no longer legal tender? It turns out you can donate your old French francs, Spanish pesetas, or Dutch guilders to Parkinsons UK, who will recycle the old coins and banknotes.

25. Pet fur

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All of the pet fur on your sweaters, your couches, and your carpet could help save the ocean from oil spills. Hair is excellent at sopping up oil from the environment (hairball booms were used to soak up oil from the 2010 BP Oil Spill), so non-profit organizations such as the San Francisco-based Matter of Trust will accept pet fur to make oil-absorbing mats of Fido's fuzz.

This piece was updated for 2019.

There’s a Supermarket in Croatia With UNESCO Protection

The Palace of Diocletian in Split, Croatia
The Palace of Diocletian in Split, Croatia
iStock.com/majaiva

The Billa store in Split, Croatia, doesn’t look like your average supermarket. There are Roman columns jutting out of the floor, and it’s housed inside a complex that contains a palace dating back to the 3rd century CE. Because of its unique location within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the grocery store is technically protected by the United Nations, according to Atlas Obscura.

Split, which can be reached by ferry from the Game of Thrones-famous city of Dubrovnik, is known among travelers for its beaches and ancient Roman and medieval monuments, but also for its nightlife and modern conveniences. The Billa supermarket is representative of what happens when these two worlds collide.

The store has since been acquired by SPAR grocery, but you can still find it on the ground floor of the Mala Papalićeva Palača complex, which was reportedly built in the 13th century and once belonged to a noble family. The building is part of a larger complex known as Diocletian’s Palace, which Atlas Obscura describes as “a city within a city that comprises the historic center of Split.”

The area became a UNESCO site in 1979, but the ground floor remained privately owned, which allowed the grocery store to legally buy the unit and set up shop in 2014. Some locals were shocked, according to Croatia Week, but officials reportedly had no means of stopping the development. So the next time you want to peruse the cheese selection while admiring ancient architecture, you’ll know exactly where to go.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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