Scottish Daily Mail
Tangled tale of rodents
QUESTION Are rat kings — bunches of rats joined together by their tails — a hoax?
A RAT king describes a rare phenomenon where a group of dead rodents are found with their tails tied together.
The name dates from the Middle Ages and examples have been discovered in Germany, France, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia and Indonesia. At least 30 documented cases are considered genuine.
Nearly all rat kings are composed of the black rat, Rattus rattus, responsible for carrying the Black Death across Europe in the Middle Ages. Most rat kings date from the 1300s to the mid-19th century.
The black rat has largely been supplanted by the brown rat, Rattus
norvegicus, in Europe, which explains why modern rat kings are rare.
The Mauritianum Natural History Museum in Altenburg, Germany, has the largest known mummified rat king of 32 beasts, which was found in 1828 in a miller’s fireplace.
A seven-animal rat king discovered in 1963 by farmer P. van Nijnatten at Rucphen in the Netherlands has been studied by scientists. X-rays showed dried blood and the formation of callus, or healing skin, at the fractures of the tails, which suggests the animals survived for some time with their tails tangled.
One hypothesis is that in cold weather, rats huddle together when sleeping in the nest. Their tails become frozen together and the animals try to free themselves by moving in different directions.
These chaotic movements result in their tails becoming entangled in a tight knot.
John Evans, Cardiff. IN 2005, the discovery of a rat king in Estonia caused a sensation. On January 16, farmer Rein Kiiv discovered a 16- strong rat king under the floor of his shed in the village of Saru.
He had never heard of such a thing and put the rats on a pile of planks for visitors to see.
It was two months later that Evar Saar, a relative of the farmer’s wife and a local reporter, informed zoologists. The rat king of Saru has been preserved in alcohol and is on display at the Natural History Museum at the University of Tartu. Ellen Richardson, Huntingdon, Cambs.
QUESTION Why do Atlantic hurricanes head north-west towards the West Indies and southern U.S. and not in any other direction?
HURRIcANES are steered by global winds. The prevailing winds that surround a hurricane and move it along its path are called the wind field, which dictates its speed and direction.
True Atlantic hurricanes start life in the tropical region off the west coast of Africa. These are then swept westwards by easterly trade winds towards the caribbean and North American coasts.
Hurricanes are also affected by the Subtropical Ridge, a large belt of high pressure 30 degrees latitude in both hemispheres and characterised by calm winds.
A change in the ridge position of the Atlantic subtropical ridge, known as the Bermuda high, has a direct impact on the tracks of Atlantic hurricanes.
These typically start around the southwestern periphery of the subtropical ridge, riding along its strongest winds.
If the high is positioned to the east, then hurricanes move northeastward around the high’s western edge into the safety of the open Atlantic. However, if the high is to the west and extends far enough to the south, storms are blocked from curving north and forced to continue west, making a beeline on the caribbean, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.
Another factor affecting hurricanes is the coriolis effect, which is the impact of the Earth’s rotation on weather patterns and ocean currents.
This causes Atlantic hurricanes to rotate in a clockwise motion around a low-pressure centre (anticlockwise in the Southern hemisphere).
The coriolis effect is marginally stronger as the moving air moves toward the Earth’s poles, causing the low-pressure centre to sweep across and toward the nearer pole.
Alan Jackson, Plymouth, Devon.
QUESTION If Rasputin means immoral or disreputable, what does Putin mean?
DESPITE their similarity when translated into English, the original cyrillic forms of the names Rasputin and Putin are quite different, and they are not thought to be related.
Rasputin is a common surname in Russia. It is derived from the old Slavic name Rasputa or Rasputko, recorded in the 16th century, which means a badlybehaved child who opposes the will of his parents.
It could also be related to Rasputitsa, which means the muddy road season, referring to the spring when unpaved roads become almost impossible to traverse in Eastern Europe. Put means road or roadway.
The attempted invasions of Russia by Napoleon and Hitler were in part defeated by Rasputitsa, which sucked horses’ hooves, wagon wheels, truck tyres and tank treads into the gooey mire.
After the murder of Rasputin, the Mad Monk, who had gained influence over the family of Tsar Nicholas II by claiming he could cure the heir, Alexei, of haemophilia, the Russian word rasputnik was used to describe a lecher.
Despite its apparent similarity to Put, meaning road, Putin is solely a surname and is not used in any other context, so it does not really mean anything.
Andrea Combs, London E11.
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