Woodcut of the mimick dog, from Edward Topsell's bestiary, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes and Serpents (1658)
European and Middle Eastern medieval mythology is populated not only by such famous examples of fabulous beasts as the dragon, griffin, basilisk, centaur, unicorn, and minotaur, but also by many lesser-known yet no less fascinating fauna, including a small furry mystery beast called the mimick dog.
It was also known as the Getulian dog, because it was said to originate in the Libyan province of Getulia as well as occurring elsewhere in the Middle East, particularly Egypt. A third name for it is Canis Lucernarius (Lucernarius is Latin for watch-dog). However, to discover the origin of its principal name, 'mimick dog', we need to consult the accounts of this intriguing little creature that can be found in two of the most famous European bestiaries. Namely, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner's five-volume Historiae Animalium (1551-1558) and English cleric Edward Topsell's The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes and Serpents (1658).
According to their commentaries, the mimick dog is capable of imitating anything that it sees, leading some observers to assume that it must have been conceived by a monkey (which were often termed apes in these bestiaries but were clearly monkeys rather than anthropoids). Moreover, it supposedly resembles a monkey in both wit and disposition, but differs markedly in morphology. Its face is described as being sharp and black like a hedgehog's, with a short recurved body, very long legs, shaggy fur, and a short tail. It is sometimes reared with monkeys, and while doing so it learns to perform all manner of very pleasing and unusual feats. During the time of the Graeco-Egyptian writer-scientist Ptolemy (90-c.168 AD), there were apparently plenty of mimick dogs in Egypt. According to his documentation of them in his scientific treatise Geography, they had been taught to leap, play, and dance when music was played, and they even functioned as servants in the homes of many poor people, where they performed a wide range of tasks for their masters.
Conrad Gesner, as portrayed in Vol. 1 of his Historiae Animalium
Any dog whose muddled morphology combined the face of a hedgehog with the body of a monkey would be a wonder to behold, but its talent for mimicry set the mimick dog even further apart from the typical canine creed. Consequently, they were much sought-after by travelling players and puppeteers, who would train them to participate in their performances.
One such performance took place during a public spectacle at Rome, attended by the emperor Vespasian (ruled 69-79 AD) and the famous Greek biographer Plutarch (46-120 AD) who became a Roman citizen. It featured an extremely versatile mimick dog that effortlessly imitated the behaviour and cries of a diverse range of different types of dog and other animals too. Its pièce de resistance, however, was its own tragic death, after eating some poisoned bread. During this act, it reeled and staggered to and fro like a drunken man before falling down to the ground and lying motionless for quite some time, as if dead. This was followed by its enthusiastic resurrection from the dead at the end of the play, which it executed with great verve, opening its eyes, then raising its head and looking around as if waking from sleep, before standing up and running to its master, its unexpected revival duly delighting the emperor and the other members of the audience.
Despite its onetime popularity, however, the mimick dog is largely forgotten today, and even among those few zoologists aware of its history there is no consensus regarding this strange animal's precise identity. Indeed, there is no guarantee that it was actually a dog at all.
A colour illustration of the mimick dog from Fabulous Beasts - written by Alison Lurie, illustrated by Monika Beisner, and published in 1981 by Jonathan Cape (© Monika Beisner/Jonathan Cape)
In his book Curious Creatures in Zoology (1890), John Ashton proposed that it was a poodle, but the animal depicted in a woodcut of the mimick dog appearing in Topsell's bestiary (in turn copied from Gesner's) looks nothing like this familiar breed, nor even like some early form of it. In any case, even the cleverest poodle would experience major difficulties in adequately carrying out the diversity of tasks habitually performed by human servants. And needless to say, the suggestion made by some early authorities that mimick dogs were the product of illicit liaisons between dogs and monkeys is untenable for basic genetic and taxonomic reasons.
A far more likely explanation for this furry caricaturist is that the mimick dog was not of the canine persuasion at all. Certainly, its gift for accurate impersonation and mimicry readily recalls a monkey. More specifically, its body, long limbs, dense fur, short tail, and slender muzzle are all consistent with baboons.
19th-Century engraving of an olive baboon Papio anubis
By the time of Egypt's New Kingdom (16th-11th Centuries BC), both the sacred baboon Papio hamadryas and the anubis or olive baboon P. anubis were being imported into Egypt (there was even a baboon-headed Egyptian deity, Babi – the attendant of Thoth).
19th-Century engraving of some sacred baboons Papio hamadryas
So too was the Barbary ape Macaca sylvanus - not an ape but a near-tailless species of macaque monkey, native to North Africa (including Libya long ago) but renowned for the colony on Gibraltar, thus making it Europe's only present-day species of monkey (it is also the only macaque species outside Asia).
A Barbary ape (public domain)
Furthermore, not only were they sometimes kept in Egypt as pets, these primates were also retained in colonies by temples, and buried in necropolises. There are also various depictions of these monkeys acting as servants to humans here, though some portray them carrying out various unrealistic tasks (for monkeys), so may not be reliable sources of evidence. Notwithstanding this, trained baboons accompanying travelling performers journeying northwesterly from Egypt could have reached Greece, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe (even England, as mimick dogs were indeed present here, according to Topsell).
Such an identity may also explain the strange idea that the mimick dog was a simian-canine crossbreed, because baboons have monkey-like bodies but very dog-like heads. Exemplifying this latter characteristic are the yellow baboon, referred to scientifically as Papio cynocephalus (which translates as 'dog-headed baboon'), and the anubis baboon, named after Anubis, ancient Egypt's wolf-headed god of embalmers and death. (Incidentally: Anubis was traditionally deemed to be jackal-headed – but in recent times, Egypt's supposed jackals were revealed to be wolves – a remarkable zoological discovery documented in my very first ShukerNature post, click here.)
A statue of Anubis (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Baboons are easily trained to perform tricks, they are often kept as intelligent pets, and sometimes have even been taught to carry out tasks normally reserved for humans. Perhaps the most famous example was a chacma baboon P. ursinus from the late 19th Century called Jack (died 1890), who worked for most of his life as a signalman, assisting his crippled human master, James Edwin Wide, to operate the railway line signals at a small train station in Uitenhage, South Africa. Throughout his amazing career, which spanned nine years, Jack never made a single mistake; moreover, after passing with ease a stringent series of tests set by the authorities in Cape Town, he was actually given an official employment number by the South African government!
During the 1970s, another baboon was fulfilling the same role at a railway station near Pretoria, and there was a baboon elsewhere in South Africa whose farmer owner had trained him as a shepherd!
James Edwin Wide with Jack, the amazing baboon signalman (public domain)
Having said that, however, the creature depicted in the bestiaries of Gesner and Topsell bears no resemblance to a baboon. True, medieval illustrations of animals were often notoriously inaccurate, but it just so happens that Topsell's bestiary also includes a woodcut of what is instantly recognisable as a baboon, accurately depicting its dog-like muzzle, short tail, and even its ischial callosities (rough spots on its protruding buttocks). This provides good reason for believing that the mimick dog woodcut is not a poor representation of a baboon. Nor does it look like the Barbary ape. In fact, the bestiaries' mimick dog woodcut does not recall any type of monkey.
At present, therefore, verification of the mimick dog as a baboon remains unproven, but perhaps this is fitting. After all, it would be nothing if not ironic if science quite literally made a monkey out of a creature best known for apeing around!
This ShukerNature blog post is expanded and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.