Ranitomeya imitator from the Huallaga Canyon in central Peru. Photo by Jason Brown.

Distribution

This species is widely distributed through northern San Martin and Loreto in Peru. Though most widely distributed in the lowlands, many montane forms exist and can be found up to 950 m elevation. View type locality in Google Maps.

Natural history

These frogs are strict phytotelm specialists, breeding in Heliconia, Dieffenbachia, and Xanthosoma. Host-plant choice seems to be a function of availability rather than preference. Eggs are normally laid in pairs among the bracts of the host plant. Upon hatching, tadpole transport is carried out by the male, who will later help the female locate tadpoles so she can provide the developing tadpoles with unfertilized food eggs. Males are highly territorial and will defend breeding resources vigorously.

Call recording

Conservation status

There are several morphs of R. imitator that are a conservation concern simply due to their tiny range sizes. For example, a certain 'intermedius' morph in the Huallaga canyon may only have a range size of a few square kilometers, most of which has been or will soon be converted to cattle pastures, banana fields, or coffee farms. Furthermore, many imitator morphs, particularly those near Chazuta, have been devastated by smugglers for the past 10 years.

Notes

Member of the vanzolinii group. Appears to be sister to Ranitomeya vanzolinii + R. flavovittata.

Striped morph

This morph is the most widely distributed imitator morph, occuring broadly throughout the lower Huallaga drainage. This morph is a mimic of the local striped R. variabilis. Behaviorally, it similar to the highland imitator, although this morph seems to be more frequently found breeding in Dieffenbachia and Xanthosoma.

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Spotted morph

This morph occurs in the highlands of northern San Martin department. It is highly variable, although typically contains more blue-green colors than other imitator. Some populations of this morph are more yellow, for example, those living near the city of Tarapoto. This morph is a Muellerian mimic of the highland spotted R. variabilis.

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Varadero morph

This is another lowland form of imitator, first discovered in 2004 by Craig Greenhalgh on a lowland trek across part of Peru. This frog is strange in that it occurs in close proximity to the yellow-striped lowland imitator with no major barriers separating the two morphs. And as is apparent, the two morphs look nothing alike. This suggests that the frog has undergone strong local adaptation, either due to mimicry, sexual selection, or a combination of the two. In 2005 we were able to find this frog in very high densities in old secondary/young primary forest breeding in some sort of Heliconia, as well as in tree-holes. This morph was heavily smuggled from 2006 to present, although it is now legally available through imports from Understory Enterprises. This morph appears to be a mimic of the "orange-and-blue" fantastica morph.

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Banded morph

This morph occurs in the middle Huallaga and tends to inhabit areas that are somewhat drier than many imitator habitats. Most frequently these frogs are found in Dieffenbachia and Heliconia plants. This morph is a mimic of Ranitomeya summersi.

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Huallaga Canyon

To say the Huallaga Canyon is utterly amazing is an understatement. In a short stretch along the Huallaga river (~20 km), one can find nearly any imitator morph imaginable, many of which are perfect mimics of the sympatric R. summersi (first photo, imitator is on top). Also present are the imitator sometimes referred to as 'intermedius', which simply denotes that they are blotched rather than spotted or striped, although, certain frogs (i.e. second photo) do not seem to fall into either category. These frogs breed in Heliconia (when present), but are also quick to use Dieffenbachia and Xanthosoma. Most of these morphs could technically be considered lowland, since they were typically found at lower than 300m, although most were at the foothills of mountains. This is a good place for a shout-out to John Bates (last photo, on left), a tourist that (bravely) accompanied the INIBICO field party to the Huallaga in August 2005 as part of the dendrobatid field biology workshop. He is the only man we know to have willingly put fish in oatmeal (that is what is in the cup). These frogs have been hit hard by smugglers in the past decade, hence the prevalence of imitator 'intermedius' in the hobby.

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© 2009 Evan Twomey & Jason Brown | Hosting donated by Mark Pepper of Understory Enterprises