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I'm making a world where I want domesticated Mimics to be a thing.

These Mimics are pretty similar to the original concept of D&D Mimics: shapeshifters that imitate objects, and hunt by imitating something desirable to their prey, then attacking when the prey comes close using a sticky secretion and a bludgeoning pseudopod.

The questions I have are as follows:

  1. Why would a creature with this kind of lifestyle be trainable, let alone domesticatable?
  2. How might one go about domesticating and training them?

Animals that humans have domesticated tend to have similar characteristics: social, active, and preferably herbivorous (with a few exceptions). Mimics are none of these.

I want them to be roughly similar to dogs in intelligence: not civilized creatures, but smart enough to learn and sociable enough to train for various diverse purposes (the most obvious being as house guards, but can also make good pets, can be used by hunters as decoys, and can even help the disabled using the versatility a tentacled shapeshifter has to offer). As with dogs, they come in various different breeds that vary in size and disposition.

The exact details of their evolutionary progress aren't important (they can be presumed to have evolved from an already existing class of amorphous muscular blobs) but they are a natural creature that evolved in a natural environment, without magic or human involvement ("wild" Mimics usually imitate plants or dead animals to lure their prey). As such, their intelligence and disposition should make sense for a creature with their lifestyle to have.

(Interestingly, D&D does have a precedent for the occasional friendly Mimic and even talking Mimics, though these are rarely used. But this is more for gameplay reasons and isn't really explained in a plausible manner.)

The main goal is to design a creature that, while functionally a traditional shapeshifting Mimic, also has a plausible survival-based reason for having a "domestication-friendly" brain despite its solitary, ambush-predator hunting strategy.


Additional details about these Mimics:

Mimics are obligate carnivores. Like snakes and crocodiles, they prefer large single meals over regular small ones, at least in the wild.

While they can change their topography, color, and texture, and are capable of "locking" their muscles into place to remain stationary for long periods of time without expending excess energy, they are basically muscular blobs and can't really maintain a convincing shape while in motion (though they are capable of "jiggling" a part of their body to attract prey, and can form basic shapes like tentacles). They also can't change their mass, though some cleverer ones can change their apparent volume by expanding hollow spaces inside their bodies.

They are not good at moving quickly (the fastest they run is about the speed of a brisk human walk, and they don't like to do this often) but they can lash out with a pseudopod extremely fast, and they can climb walls using a combination of shapeshifting and their sticky glue. House Mimics can be trained not to "slime" but this is difficult.

Wild Mimics rarely prey on humans (not enough opportunity for the risk, and not enough overlap between the items humans go for and those that more common prey go for). Most "chest Mimics" are domesticated Mimics who have been specifically trained to guard a house by imitating an object that a thief is likely to go for. Some notorious Mimics have been known to target humans though; as with other "man-eating" animals they are usually hunted down and killed.

They can see using any part of their body, but their "eyes" must be dark and smooth for them to see effectively. This makes it difficult for them to disguise themselves perfectly and see at the same time.

Mimics are not born knowing how to shapeshift, nor can they imitate an object perfectly on sight: they learn through experience and observation (usually by extending an "eye" on a pseudopod to look at themselves). The more a Mimic has practiced a particular form, the quicker it is able to take that shape and the more accurate the imitation will be. Young Mimics can take a few hours taking on a new form; more experienced ones can adopt a shape in seconds.

Mimics can pass the mirror test, and learn much faster when they have a mirror available.

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    $\begingroup$ To fully domesticate them you are going to have to selectively breed them. Can you say how they reproduce (is it sexually with normal DNA?) and how rapidly? $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Dec 30 '18 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK I didn't specify that, but I wasn't expecting any especially exotic methods. Sexual reproduction with a relatively quick breeding rate works best for domestication. I wouldn't expect them to be explosive breeders though, because mimicry as a survival strategy loses effectiveness quickly as the population of mimics rises (the prey starts taking precautions). So let's say...maybe 5 or 6 children a year. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Dec 30 '18 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ What form, kind, and level of technology are you working with? What are the local dominant sapiens who will be doing the domestication? $\endgroup$ – nijineko Jan 3 at 2:28
  • $\begingroup$ you might wand to read everybody loves large chest, there's a chapter somewhere about domesticating mimics $\endgroup$ – LamaDelRay 7 hours ago
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Like cats, wild Mimics teach their children to hunt

Imitating one's general surroundings for purposes of camouflage is one thing, intentionally transforming into bait is much trickier, as it requires the Mimic to know what its prey will be attracted to. Randomly transforming into different objects and waiting until a prey animal happens to investigate is a very, very slow method of learning, and probably not a viable survival strategy (while some animals are naturally curious and will investigate anything unusual, animals living alongside Mimics will probably lose this behavior pretty quickly). Mimics' viability as a species improves substantially if their parent gives them a "head start" by teaching them which types of objects are useful to transform into.

Baby Mimics will instinctively transform into objects they find in their environment, and the parent or parents encourage transforming into useful forms by collecting such objects and surrounding their children with them, giving their children a head-start on hunting. A parent Mimic will also teach by transforming in front of their child, and the child will naturally mimic (ha) its parent. Adult Mimics can also learn by observing other Mimics, especially when arriving at a new location which might have different prey. (They can presumably identify other Mimics through smell.)

A lot of domestic animal behavior is derived from a modified parent-child relationship, with the human taking the role of the parent (the domestication process often extends an animal's neotenous qualities, making it retain "child-like" behavior throughout its life). In addition to making the Mimic more sociable, this allows the owner to encourage the Mimic to adopt certain forms; since wild Mimics naturally imitate objects their parent presents them, a Mimic will naturally transform into objects that their owner presents to them.

A theory of mind?

Mimics also become much more viable as a species if they are able to learn new useful forms by observing prey and watching which objects their prey tend to be attracted to. This kind of adaptive behavior is one of the hallmarks of higher-level intelligence and suggests that Mimics are significantly smarter than your typical ambush predator to begin with.

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It is absolutely possible and has been done.

Stage 1 - Selective breeding

Domestic dogs are known to have descended from wolves. The exact how and why can only be guessed at. However we know from a famous experiment with Siberian foxes that domesticated behaviour can be selected for.

In the 1950s a Soviet geneticist began an experiment in guided evolution. He wanted to show how domestication works http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20160912-a-soviet-scientist-created-the-only-tame-foxes-in-the-world

The method is very simple. Reject or kill the most human-aggressive animals and breed from the least aggressive and most compliant.

In the case of the domestic dog we know that this process wasn't so straightforward. Dogs were bred to hunt, to run, to guard and so on. Thus many breeds will still be aggressive unless trained not to be.

Results can start to be seen quite quickly over just a few generations.

Stage 2 - Training

Almost any (if not every) intelligent animal can be trained by operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence (Skinner, 1938).

These days punishment is considered unnecessary most of the time and nearly everything can be achieved with rewards. Note that punishment does not necessarily mean violence - it could mean withholding a treat for example. With many dogs, a stern 'No!' will be sufficient punishment to stop an undesired behaviour.


There are big problems with training a wild carnivore (and some herbivores) without having bred for domestication. We regularly hear about trainers of big cats and of bears being seriously injured or killed. This is because no amount of training will on its own overcome natural instincts. Wild carnivores often fight and injure each other.

If you search for 'bear kills trainer' then you'll find plenty of examples.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a nice explanation of the process of domesticating any generic domesticatable animal but it doesn't explain why Mimics would be domesticatable. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Dec 31 '18 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps you could explain why they would be any different from other domesticated carnivores. You say, "Animals that humans have domesticated tend to have similar characteristics: social, active, and preferably herbivorous". Well it's debatable whether adult domestic cats have many of those qualities. Yet there are cat circuses - youtu.be/1RE5OB38stU - What specifically prevents the processes I have put forward from working with Mimics? I know quite a lot about this so I might be able to solve any problems. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Dec 31 '18 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ Though not as "group focused" as most domestic animals, wild (or feral) cats do have active, complex social relationships with other cats, and they have a parent-child relationship, which human domestication has largely taken advantage of. While the typical Mimic is usually presented as simple and instinctive, spending most of its time waiting for prey (comparable to a snake). The question's focus is more about designing a logical biological reason for why a Mimic would have a brain amenable to domestication in the first place (I suspect the title may be throwing people off). $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Dec 31 '18 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ I think there's an inconsistency between "as intelligent as a dog" and "simple and instinctive ... comparable to a snake". Snakes are incredibly stupid and some varieties that eat other snakes are even known to try and eat themselves by mistake. This has been documented since ancient Greece (Ouroboros) and is a phenomenon seen by pet snake owners today. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Dec 31 '18 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that's the point. Most low-activity ambush predators are not notable for their intelligence or ability to be trained. The challenge is to design a plausible one that is. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Dec 31 '18 at 20:11
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There's one detail that was left out of the mimic description. It's the same important detail that was left out of the velociraptor details for dramatic purposes in the Jurassic Park films.

They're only up to 10kg and about knee high.

We have successfully domesticate two predators, others can be tamed and trained, but only two are fully domesticated. The cat and the dog. Dogs are pack hunters, it's comparably easy to replace a pack member with a human. Cats are lone ambush predators, there's a theory that they domesticated themselves by virtue of lack of fear of humans allowing them to hunt the vermin attracted by our food stores and waste.

The mimics in your world replaced the domestic cats. They learned to hunt among our waste, slowly losing their fear of humans while we appreciated their removal of the scavengers attracted by our presence.

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One method comes to mind immediately:

Mimic Treats --- your mimics are of canine intelligence, sociability and are able to learn. I'd suggest finding out what it is mimics like best to eat (probably small to midsized rodents (squirrels, rabbits, field mice) and scavengers. Just make up a couple packets of rabbitsnax and whenever your mimic tries to mimic whatever it is you'd like him to mimic, you pop a rabbitsnax down his gullet!

Eventually, you might also train him to eat more delicately from your hand. Without actually sliming you and trying to eat you actual hand!

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I think the answer to any iteration of the question is "feed it".

Animals hunt to eat. There aren't too many animals that would continue to hunt (or at least to migrate) if a steady food supply presented itself.

Trapping and moving an animal certainly would place it in panic mode, and make any attempt to tame more difficult, but give it a big meal, and they usually calm down, at least for a bit.

Assuming a mimic doesn't need to "keep moving" like a shark, or need a large roaming/hunting area, a steady diet should calm it down pretty quickly. Having no information on family groups, it might be safe to assume they're solitary creatures, and not having any other mimics in the area might not be a problem.

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