Rat King at Otago Museum Is the Stuff of Nightmares

At the Otago Museum, they have a rat king, and it’s probably not what you think it is. The truth is more terrifying and disgusting than you might believe. Rats as a species are said to be intelligent. Science uses them to solve mazes and replicate human tissues. While the reality of being a king in the Middle Ages may be romanticized, royalty is still thought to be the haven of luxury and opulence. In the animal kingdom, a “king” is something huge and magnificent. The lion is the king of the jungle. King penguins are the second largest penguins; they stand tall and regal in their Antarctic kingdoms. A king cobra is dangerously beautiful as it unfolds its hood and sways its lithe form. A rat king is something else.

What Is a Rat King?

In one of the most disturbing displays at the Otago museum, there is a rat king preserved in a bottle of, what I assume to be, formaldehyde. Eight black rats attached at the tail fell from the rafters of shipping company shed. They were discovered and killed. The tails show signs of broken vertebrae, signifying that the rats had tried to free themselves from the entanglement. These eight rats were tied together by the horse hair of their own nest, and they lived that way for an unspecified amount of time.

Why Is It Terrifying?

I just keep imagining two scenarios. The first is “what if the eight rats had combined their intelligence and started working together?” They could meld their particular strengths together and create a superior rat being – a true rat king. The second is “what would it have been like to be one of those rats?” The panic sets in, you can’t think, you’re squeaking, the rats around you are squeaking. Everyone is running in a different direction. You strain, the bones in your tail audibly crack; the pain shoots through your back and into your brain. All of the sudden, you’re falling and a giant black shape pounds hard against your comrades as their movements cease until it’s your turn. Neither of those things appeal to me.

After they were killed, the rat king was preserved and sent to the museum. Apparently, rat kings are seen as a bad omen in Germany. They portend the plague, which makes sense because the fleas of rats are responsible for the black plague. When the rats die, the fleas find human hosts and transfer the disease.