Trends in Human Population in the Cook Islands

In looking at larger scale trends in environmental quality, we have pulled together population data over time across the Cook Islands. This is the overall trend (summing across all 15 of the islands that comprise the Cook Islands):

Cook Islands Population (all islands merged)

Here is a bit more complicated graph wherein an island representing each of the temporal patterns we have seen is plotted.  We have seen some islands that have a declining population since record-keeping began (1901; Palmerston), islands that peaked in the 1950s (e.g. Mauke), the 1960s (e.g. Nassau), 1970s (e.g. Aitutaki & Atiu), and now (e.g. Rarotonga).          

Cook Islands Population Trends<br>representative islands


You can find the absolute population numbers below.
Cook Islands 1902-2011 Population
These data were all sourced from the 2011 Cook Island Census.


Well, it’s been a few weeks since we were on the island.  I sort of feel as if it didn’t really happen to me.  However when I look at the pictures I know it really did indeed happen and wasn’t just an amazing dream.  I am eternally grateful that I was one of the few people selected to go on this incredible trip.

The goals that I set for myself were; get to know people, learn a lot, and to just have fun.

I got to know just about everyone well… maybe a little too well.  I learned much about the coral, fish, plants, animals and the culture of the Cooks…I learned so much it is hard to put into words.  It was also a lot of fun to learn about how the Cook Islanders do things from the very people who cooked and all around took care of us.  I enjoyed every second that I was on those islands.  It was truly a life-changing event for me.

I want to thank everyone that came on this trip for making it so special.  A special thank you for Drs. Clare Steele, Sean Anderson and John Lambrinos.  Without you guys this trip would not have been even thought of.  Thank you to everyone that helped us out on the Islands while we were there.  Without you all having our backs this trip would have been chaotic indeed.  Lastly thank you everyone at CSU Channel Islands who made this trip possible via funding, logistics, and organization.  It was truly amazing!

Invertebrates Stole My Heart

I have always been fascinated with fish.  When I was growing up and people would ask me my favorite animal, my response was always “fish” or maybe “turtles.”  Before going to the Cook Islands the only places I had seen fish were in lakes, rivers, or right off the coast of California. The fish I had seen in those lakes and rivers were always bass or trout that tend to be dark green and brown.  Even though these fish may seem boring in terms of their color, I still found fish species to be extremely interesting!  The brightest and prettiest fish I saw in the ocean growing up were Garibaldi.  On our first day of the Cook Islands my eyes were opened to so many beautiful fish I had only seen in pictures and movies.  As soon as I got into the water, I immediately wanted to learn every species of fish.  My team member, Laura, also grew up with a fish fascination.  We were both apart of the reef team with Dr. Clare Steele who is a true fish expert.  This was very convenient as we were to soon spend long days in the water and were constantly seeing new fish.  Dr. Steele had taught us a large number of fish species by the end of our trip.  Of all the fish I saw over the course of those two weeks, my favorites tended to be tiny damselfish that swam in schools and inhabited Acropora corals.  Close seconds that often intrigued me while we were running our reef transects were the pipefish (Corythoichthys spp.). These small syngnathid fish normally were most frequently spotted by themselves on top of coral bommies looking like a tiny snakes swimming in throughout water.

At the beginning of our trip my interests were primarily fish-oriented.  I was blessed to be a part of the reef team where I was able to see a wide variety of fish while also monitoring invertebrates.  My contributions to the reef team included counting and identifying the invertebrates as well as measuring the height of the transect.  Originally I was not interested in invertebrates at all, but was thrilled with my task as I was able to see those fish I loved so much.  This quickly changed.  After being exposed to so many different invertebrates, my interest in them grew.  Tridacna clams are the so-called giant clams, but vary is size and are covered with so many amazingly different colors (thanks to their commensal zooxanthellae). Once I saw those in nature, I became interested in learning specific details about the Tridacna species we were seeing as well as other invertebrates.  My curiosity has grown and pushed me learn about the life cycles of these species…and I now plan to take an invertebrate biology class!



The fieldwork aspect of our community-based research and service was typically what I enjoyed the most.  However, that is only the beginning of the research.  After long days in the field, all that collected data must be entered.  I actually enjoyed doing this task.  When we entered our data, we were able to look over numbers and see patterns emerge among the different sites.  For example, I noticed that the shallower sites had more sea cucumbers and sea stars, whereas the deeper sites had more Tridacna. I look forward to continue working with my team by analyzing the data more in depth! entering data

The Noni Tree

During our trip to the Cook Islands we were introduced to Morinda citrifolia, the noni tree. It bears about 50 flowers and creates a very unique looking fruit of a cream color. If your unsure of whether the plant your looking at is a noni, just take a nice whiff of the fruit. It is known for its repulsive cheesy smell. Although it is called the noni tree, it is a true shrub, ranging from 15-30 feet tall. The leaves are a dark green glossy color with vibrant veins.

Noni plant

Noni tree fruit.

This plant is known for it’s many medicinal purposes such as; treating bowel disorders, arthritis, allergies, healing burns, stings and most significantly Ciguatera fish poisoning. These are just a few of the many examples that were given regarding the healing powers of this incredible plant.

Cook Islands 080

I’ll Be Back One Day

Cook Islands 363 Cook Islands 191 Cook Islands 329 Cook Islands phone 116 Cook Islands 144

I experienced a vast amount of things going to the Cook Islands; it is almost hard to even put into words. I was able to go snorkeling several times, which I had only done once before this trip. I was in awe seeing all of the coral, beautiful organisms, and clear waters; I am excited and proud to have experienced that kind of snorkeling. Many people from our group hiked up to the highest point on Aitutaki, Maunga Pu Summit, and the views up there were beautiful. It was surreal to be able to see all the surrounding motus and light blue water in the lagoon. In addition, I ate foods I have never tried before; I am not a very adventurous eater, so I am proud of myself! We visited the Cook Islands Marine Park center, too. We were able to speak with Kevin Iro about the marine park, the challenges the Cook Islands face in regards to the park, and his hopes for the project. Honestly, I was pretty star struck because some of us watched a documentary at CSUCI on their marine park, and Kevin was in it! In addition, I was able to experience a completely different culture. This trip allowed me to familiarize myself with the daily lives of a society so removed from my own urbanized life. For instance, their daily struggles and life worries are just as important, yet living on an island does not make those difficulties any less valid than my own. Also, I made new friendships with the people in our “CI in CI” group, as well as with some of the locals from the Cook Islands. The people out there are so kind, and I am very grateful to have experienced such a friendly and welcoming community.


The biggest things I learned on this trip were the many aspects of research. I am fairly new to the concept of collecting, recording, and analyzing data. I did research more days than not, so it was important that I caught on performing field work quickly. I was in the lagoon group on this trip, so I learned the correct procedure when surveying the lagoon with the assistant of transect tape. Also, I quickly acquired the skill of efficiently recording data while performing these surveys. Neither writing big nor writing many full words is preferred because both take up too much room on the waterproof paper; every bit of space on the slate is valuable! In addition, I learned how to input data into Excel in a way that can be generated into a graph, if necessary. Doing this, we are able to analyze the data to find trends in the research we did. I am really glad that I was able to obtain these skills because this is the same kind of work that I will hopefully be doing once I graduate and to have these abilities will be vital when doing field work. On a more personal note, I learned a lot about myself on this trip. For instance, I learned that I am not as anxious on planes as I thought I would be, my tolerance for working in groups, and that I sort of (and by sort of, I mean really) freak out when I am in water. Mental note: a spring wetsuit is not enough for me to feel comfortable in the water. The whole trip was a learning experience, and I think I gained a lot from it personally, academically, and socially.


As I mentioned in one of my first posts, I am quite naïve when it comes to other cultures and general act of traveling. I would not say I experienced “culture shock” when staying in the Cook Islands, yet I loved seeing a culture that strayed far from the urbanized, hustling life I know. Being able to experience a society so completely different than my own, I am humbled. I think we often forget about other regions of the world that do not have similar living expectations as ours. With that, we lose the connection to the fact that each of our individual actions affects those that are out of site and out of mind. Now, I am much more aware of the repercussions of my personal choices, such as using plastic-based products, because I witnessed the depressing reality of where it ends up: on the shores of a small island nation far from the origins of these plastics. What I took away from this experience is that the world’s problems are much bigger than my own; however, that is not to say that my small, single efforts are not worth putting forward in attempts to ease the severity of the problem. With that, I hope we all realize that the world’s problems are each of our problems and our responsibility to help.


Thank you again to all of those who made this trip possible. I think it was extremely valuable, and I hope CSUCI and the others who joined us get the opportunity to continue this research on the Cook Islands.


Missing the Islands

 The Cook Islands definitely delivered when it came to giving us ample research opportunities. In particular, the Reef Team was able to travel all over the lagoon in Aitutaki studying and surveying reefs. From less than a meter to over 6 meters deep, the reefs provided us with a multitude of species to learn and study, including corals, invertebrates, and fishes. With our ability to see and learn from these amazing ecosystems, we now have the knowledge to delineate a healthy reef compared to an unhealthy one. We can use this baseline information in our future studies, whether it be in marine or terrestrial ecosystems, as we can determine indicator species and the abundance of algae within the habitat. Overall, I could not have imagined a more amazing place to study such important ecosystems. Healthy coral reefs are a major indicator of a healthy ocean (or lagoon, in this case). The amount of knowledge that I gained during my time in my wetsuit surveying is unbelievable, and I cannot wait to get back in the water and study more. 

The reef team all together (Vanessa, Aimee, Laura, Dr. Steele) on the last night in Aitutaki.

 After two weeks on an island, one can get quite tired. Of course, leaving such a magnificent area was difficult. However, I was beyond excited to get home and start our data analysis for all of the data that we collected (I was dreaming of data analysis in this picture).

Waiting for the airplane home: Aimee’s pillow became very comfortable.

I could not have imagined having a better group of students to learn with and professors to teach us. We all come from various backgrounds and have different perspectives on life, but we all share a common admiration for the world around us. I cannot put into words the amount of respect and compassion I have for these people. Studying with them on a remote island was a breeze and I am so excited for future research opportunities we may have together. 


The distribution of four identified crown-of-thorns starfish species based on genetic markers (barcoding).  Figure from Vogler et al. 2008.

Four species of crown-of-thorns

I wanted to toss up a quick post to clear up something we were talking about earlier in our trip.  We had several conversations earlier regarding the challenges of crown-of-thorn starfish (Acanthaster planci; often called simply “COTS”) surrounding their purported colonial nature.  This was a misconception.  The original stepping off point was the comment that this corallivorous echinoderm that has been decimating coral reefs across the Pacific for at least 70 years might indeed be some sort of amalgamation of four different organism.  The confusion spurred much debate while we were on Aitutaki and needs to be set straight.  It is not that a given individual is composed of four separate critters.  Rather, that what we have traditionally considered to be a single species is apparently four separate, identical-looking species.

COTS on a reef in Aitutaki Lagoon, August 2015

COTS on a reef in Aitutaki Lagoon, August 2015

Dead and desiccating crown-of-thron starfish at our Base 1 beach on Aitutaki.  July 29, 2015.  Killing individuals underwater can release larvae that bolster the population so the only sure way of killing these guys is to haul them up onto dry land and let them dry out in the air and sun.

Dead and desiccating crown-of-thorn starfish at our Base 1 beach on Aitutaki on July 29, 2015. Killing individuals underwater can release larvae that bolster the population. Hence the only sure way of killing these guys is to haul them up onto dry land and let them dry out in the war air and tropical sun.

See Vogler et al (2008) for the genetic data, but here is the upshot:

The distribution of four identified crown-of-thorns starfish species based on genetic markers (barcoding).  Figure from Vogler et al. 2008.

The distribution of four identified crown-of-thorns starfish species based on genetic markers (barcoding). Figure from Vogler et al. 2008.

From Vogler et al. 2008’s Introduction:

Coral reefs, the most species-rich marine ecosystems, are subjected to growing anthropogenic pressure, limiting their resilience to natural threats such as corallivorous predators (Bellwood et al. 2004).  Among those, the crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) Acanthaster planci is infamous for its dramatic population explosions (called outbreaks) that have devastated coral reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific for decades, making it a major management issue (Birkeland & Lucas 1990Veron 2008).  But despite extensive research into COTS biology, the causes of outbreaks are still not clear; they probably involve a variable set of interacting natural and anthropogenic factors that lead to increased recruitment (Engelhardt & Lassig 1997).  An important consideration in both COTS research and management is that A. planci has been regarded as a single species throughout its distribution, and therefore the same ecological and behavioural traits are assumed worldwide.

Acanthaster planci‘s long-lived pelagic larva—surviving from three to four weeks in normal conditions (Yamaguchi 1973) to about seven weeks in marginal food regimes as found in oceanic conditions (Lucas 1982)—would be expected to promote genetic homogeneity.  But this species appears to be highly structured (Benzie 1999), in line with other recent studies of widespread marine invertebrates (e.g. Becker et al. 2007).  Using sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase subunit I gene (COI) from samples covering its entire distribution, we show that A. planci consists of four deeply diverged clades that form a pan-Indo-Pacific species complex (as identified by DNA taxonomy; Vogler & Monaghan 2007).

And from their discussion:

Our discovery of four highly differentiated clades in one of the world’s most destructive coral predators has significant conservation implications.  Identifying cryptic speciation is essential to adequately study and contain species that require management (Bickford et al. 2007).  Although the status of A. planci is relatively poorly documented from the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, outbreaks there do not appear to be as massive and widespread as in the Pacific (Zann 2000), suggesting that outbreak patterns might vary between the different sibling species.  Up to now, however, the overwhelming majority of COTS research has been performed in the Pacific.  Failure to recognize the existence of the sibling species could have contributed to a lack of understanding of the processes that lead to outbreaks in the different COTS lineages, by extrapolating results obtained from the Pacific studies to A. planci‘s entire distribution for both research and management purposes.

Future research will be required to investigate whether the life history, behavioural patterns and/or ecological requirements that may affect the outbreak dynamics of these four independent evolutionary COTS lineages have diverged sufficiently to necessitate lineage-specific management.  This could prove to be crucial for the design of appropriate management strategies to minimize the impact of future catastrophic COTS outbreaks in different regions of the world.

While still interesting, they are no chimera.

What an amazing trip….

I am so lucky to have been able to go on this research trip. The experience was amazing and I will never forget the beautiful Cook Islands.   The people there are extremely welcoming and kind, the water was clear and beautiful, the marine life was spectacular.  I learned so many new things and have a list of new skills for my field resume.  Something I cannot put a price on as a student that will be looking for a job next year.

If you ever get a chance to go, Do It!  

Missing the Islands

Isn’t it funny how before one takes off to a place unknown they picture it in a differently than it may actually be?  And one may visualize and be expecting things that may not even be present when you finally see the environment itself?  

When I arrived in Aitutaki my initial thought was that it felt alright.  It felt like home.  I wasn’t expecting these feelings to exist within me on the first day.  I felt welcomed and I felt excited.  I felt relatively established and proud to be there doing something good for the benefit of good people and to be doing so based on their terms and not ours.  I learned a few of the things that are culturally significant and may even be lessons to the wider world itself.  In Aitutaki, Sundays are “off” for religious purposes, families pass down their land to other family members so that it is never lost to the lineage, people don’t have huge houses or necessarily a personal bedroom (as far as I saw).  Most importantly, the people themselves were very connected, generous, loving and patient.  Regarding the marine life of the Cooks, I don’t think I’ll ever quite picture the lagoons the same as I sunk at least 4 feet deep into muck of the back lagoon (between the two lobes of the island) too many times to count, but I will remember the beautiful things such as the way the majority of the reefs flickered against the sun and the water that flashed aqua blue.  The cascading abundance of fish species never let me down although many that I saw such as parrotfishes, the moray eels, snappers and giant trevally were know to have ciguatera poisoning.  A sad but honest truth, one that I am hoping will improve as our research evolves.

What I may miss most is the culture and having the opportunity to explore it alongside my fellow classmates and island residents alike.  I will miss how the people of Aitutaki interacted with their surrounding environment and the learning experience it brought to the table for us all.  Although I was pleased to return home, the Cook Islands will always have a special place in my heart.