1880, February: Ludwig Beckmann Examines a Rat King

Ludwig Beckmann [1822-1903] was a German artist who was widely reknowned for his paintings and illustrations of natural scenes and animals. His animal studies in particular were beautiful and precise, and featured in many books, journals, and magazines of the time. And, for our purposes here, Beckmann happened to be present in February 1880 when a rat king was discovered and killed. Talk about having the right person in the right place at the right time!

        I don't know the circumstances of the discovery of the rat king; I only know what was reported in the Scientific American Supplement of June, 1880... maybe someday I'll find the earlier German newspaper that the story was originally run in. I do know that the event likely occurred in Germany, and that Beckmann was present when the rat king was taken to a local taxidermist who proceeded to clean the conglomerate of dirt and hair that surrounded the ends of the rats' tails, exposing the actual knot. Here's Beckmann's illustration of the tangle:

Ludwig Beckmann's study of a rat king. [Larger version here]

Several men of a scientific bent were also present to examine the rat king. It was found that the tails had in fact been entangled enough that merely cleaning them was not enough to free them up, but it was confirmed that the tails had not actually grown together or formed any form of permanent attachment to one another.

        The journal states that Beckmann believed this tangle was formed in this manner:

"The old rat lies upon the tails of the young rats, and throws the latter about with her snout, and thus produces the first knot, and as the young rats are helpless and do not move about much, a small quantity of clay or mud is sufficient to keep the tails united, and as that part of the rat grows very rapidly, the tails will be inseparably entangled in a short time."

...which runs on the unproven assumption that these animals had been stuck together since they were very young. It was noted that the rats in this tangle were "fullgrown and fat," which was taken as evidence that other rats had been taking care of them as per older beliefs regarding rat kings, which also relied on the assumption that the rats had been stuck together for a great deal of time. However, the only actual evidence that the rats had been tangled for any length of time was the dirt buildup in the tangle... the tangle may still have happened quite recently to the discovery.

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