Rare 'rat king' taken to University of Tartu Natural History Museum

Photo: ERR

A rare 'rat king' has been taken to the University of Tartu Natural History Museum after being discovered in Põlva County. It is likely just the second registered finding of such a phenomenon in the world this century.

A "rat king" is a collection of rats whose tails are intertwined and bound together, either with hair or sticky substances or getting tied together. The Põlva County "rat king" was found in an auxiliary house meant for domestic birds.

"My mother went to feed the birds in the morning, opened the door and the rats were in front of the door as if on a tray. They had burrowed a tunnel right in front of the door and gotten stuck in that tunnel. My mother could not do anything. I tried untying them, but it was quite complicated to understand if their tails were tied or if they were stuck to the underlay," said Johan Uibopuu, one of the finders of the "rat king".

University of Tartu Natural History Museum curator Andrei Miljutin said a "rat king" can form in nests while rats sleep. If their tails are covered with sticky substances such as blood or sap, the ends of their tails can freeze together.

"And the rats start to move when they wake up and move in different directions, they end up tying their tails together and can no longer get free. The more they struggle and pull, the tighter the know gets," Miljutin said.

13 rats had gotten stuck in this particular situation. According to Miljutin, this is a very rare finding. There have been some 60 registered cases of "rat kings" found in the last 500 years. Usually, the rats are not alive when researchers get their hands on them, which is why video footage is also very rare.

"The last finding was in 2005 to my knowledge and according to Wikipedia, that was the only finding in the world this century. And now this one is the second this century," the museum curator said.

Interestingly enough, Wikipedia notes that the sighting in 2005 was also found in Estonia. That "rat king" is now part of a collection at the University of Tartu Museum of Zoology. Still, there seems to be at least one more sighting this year near Stavropol, Russia.

Since the rats in a "rat king" are unable to move and find food, they do not live long. Miljutin said this particular collection of rats would have likely lasted a day.

"Even if you operate on them, amputate their tails and heal them, you have nowhere to set them loose. No one wants them in their home, they are wild rats, they are not pets," the museum director said.

The rats were humanely put to sleep and will now be kept at the University of Tartu Natural History Museum.

The "rat king" found in 2005 is displayed at the University of Tartu Natural History Museum. Source: University of Tartu Natural History Museum

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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