Ever heard of a “rat king”? As urban legend tells us, that’s what happens when the tails of rats get knotted together. Well, apparently the same thing can happen to squirrels, as the startled residents of a Nebraska town learned last week.
“I heard a screech, and it was a noise I had never heard before,” Craig Luttman, the Elkhorn, Nebraska, homeowner who says he discovered the tangled mess, told Gizmodo. “It was clear they were in a lot of stress.”
Luttman, who claimed to have spotted the sextuplets on a tall, sap-covered pine tree in his neighbor’s yard, said he had never seen such a thing. The eight-week-old baby squirrels had somehow managed to get their tails knotted together—and they were in big trouble.
“The squirrels weren’t moving in unison, they all wanted to go in opposite directions,” he said. “It was like a game of tug-of-war. They looked tired and stressed out, and I figured they weren’t gonna make it—they were gonna die.”
Indeed, left in such a state, the squirrels would either starve to death or get picked off by a predator. Concerned, Luttman and his neighbor called the Nebraska Humane Society, which in turn contacted Nebraska Wildlife Rehab for help. Once at the scene, the wildlife experts couldn’t disentangle the squirrels, so the six-headed rodent was transported to a facility in Fort Calhoun.
Laura Stastny, the executive director of Nebraska Wildlife Rehab, said her team has seen this sort of thing before, and that the unfortunate squirrels likely got tangled on account of the sap pouring down from the tree, as the Omaha World Herald reports. Acting like glue, the sticky sap may have caused the tails of the squirrels to stick together, and possibly as they wrestled around in the nest, the tangling got progressively worse.
Prior to disentangling the tails, Stastny gave the squirrels a mild painkiller. She also covered them with a towel, as darkness works to keep them calm. The first step was to remove the copious amounts of sap that had accumulated, followed by the meticulous disentangling, which Stastny said was like working with a ball of knotted twine. The whole thing took about an hour. The squirrels are now being monitored by the staff, and all six are expected to be released back to the wild in a few weeks. Some may still require surgery to remove parts of their tails damaged during the tangling.
The tangling of tails is not unheard of in rodents, a phenomenon known as “rat kings,” although there is limited evidence of the phenomenon occurring naturally. As Lucas Reilly wrote in a Mental Floss post last year, “Owing to a lack of solid contemporary evidence, zoologists remain skeptical of rat kings—but open to the possibility that they are freak accidents.” Accounts of this phenomenon date back centuries, with examples found in Germany, Belgium, Estonia, Java, and New Zealand (examples outside of Europe are rare). In 2007, an Estonian study published in Proceedings of the Estonian Academy of Science, Biology and Ecology, suggested the phenomenon, while rare, is real. While many instances of rat kings are most certainly fakes, some occurrences do appear to be spontaneous.
Entwined squirrels are also well known, with recent examples appearing in Maine and Saskatchewan, Canada. In the case of the Elkhorn’s six tangled squirrels, human intervention seems unlikely; their nest was located near the top of a 30-foot-tall tree, which was on private property.