What are the Flora and Fauna of the Cook Islands?
The ultimate nature-lover’s getaway awaits on the atolls of the Cook Islands. Of course, marine life reigns supreme among the lagoons and bluewater of this island nation, but the endemic land birds, migratory seabirds, small selection of lizards and even its plantlife are nothing to turn your nose up at. In this guide to the flora and fauna of the Cook Islands, we’ll show you not only the wildlife in the Cook Islands that you’re likely to see but some of the best ways to see them.
What Animals are Native to the Cook Islands?
Before we begin our guide to wildlife in the Cook Islands, here are just 10 of the animals that are native to Rarotonga and the Cook Islands.
- Kakerori (Rarotongan monarch) – Native bird found on the islands of Rarotonga and Atiu
- Greenback turtles – Reptile species found in many of the lagoon passages
- Coconut crabs (unga) – The largest species of crab in the world
- Kopeka (Atiu swiftlet) – A native bird found in just one cave on the island of Atiu
- Giant clams – There are three species of giant (and not-so-giant) clams in the Cook Islands
- Spotted eagle rays – Seen gliding through the lagoon passages
- Red-tailed tropicbird – Attractive seabird that is also a food source on the atoll of Palmerston
- Moko (Polynesian gecko) – One of the noisy native gecko species of the Cook Islands
- Black lip pearl oyster – Used to produce black pearl jewellery
- Mangaian kingfisher – A bird only found on the island of Mangaia.
For more animals native to the Cook Islands, as well as introduced species, check out the 20 Animals & Birds in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Marine Species in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
Being an island nation in the midst of the vast Pacific Ocean, it’s no surprise that most of the Cook Islands’ wildlife can be found in its surrounding waters. There are a recorded 136 species of coral and around 650 species of fish in the Cook Islands’ waters.
Fish Species in the Cook Islands
There are said to be around 650 species of fish in the Cook Islands, categorised as either reef fish or bluewater fish. Some of the Cook Islands’ coastal reef species include Napolean wrasse, butterflyfish, parrotfish, triggerfish, angelfish, goatfish, bannerfish, groupers, unicornfish, damsels, surgeonfish, squirrelfish, emperors, flametail snapper, bannerfish, bluebox fish, starry pufferfish, moray eels, giant trevally and more.
Some of the bluewater fish found in the waters surrounding the Cook Islands are yellowfin tuna, flying fish (maroro), wahoo, mahimahi, moonfish, Pacific barracuda, blue marlin and just about anything you might like to reel in on a fishing charter. Find out more in our guide, Fishing in the Cook Islands: The Types of Fish in the Cook Islands.
Turtles in the Cook Islands
Many travellers come to Rarotonga and the Cook Islands for the opportunity to see endangered sea turtles living the high life! That’s right, there are dedicated turtle swimming tours in Rarotonga where you’ll swim with greenback turtles and quite possibly hawksbill turtles on the 7 Best Turtle Swimming Tours in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands. Loggerhead turtles are also seen but much more rarely in the Cook Islands.
Humpback Whales and Dolphins in the Cook Islands
The warm waters of the Cook Islands are the migration destination of many humpback whales coming from Antarctica between July and October. You can spot whales from shore during these months and even join whale watching tours. Find out more in our guide, The Best Time to See Whales in the Cook Islands.
Spinner dolphins have an interesting story in the Cook Islands; there were no permanent pods of dolphins spotted until around 2016. Now, there are around 32 pods of spinner dolphins around Rarotonga alone. Learn more about the story in our guide, Dolphins in the Cook Islands: The Best Time to See Dolphins in Rarotonga.
Are There Manta Rays in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands?
The largest species of ray in the world, manta rays are on everyone’s bucket list. While manta rays are found in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands, they can only be found in deep water, typically a feature on scuba diving trips. More commonly, spotted eagle rays are seen in the lagoon passages of Rarotonga when on snorkelling tours or with Go Local Cook Islands or Charlotte Piho Photography Tours as part of their turtle swimming excursions – check them out on Viator and Tripadvisor or find out more in the 7 Best Turtle Swimming Tours in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Are There Sharks in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands?
Yes, there are small sharks that make their way into the lagoons of Rarotonga and Aitutaki, but reef sharks are mostly spotted in the passages of the lagoon where people only tend to swim on scuba diving trips and turtles swimming tours. The most commonly spotted species of sharks in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands are whitetip reef sharks, blacktip reef sharks, grey reef sharks and hammerhead sharks.
If you really want to see sharks in the Cook Islands, the best island is Penrhyn in the Northern Group, nicknamed “Shark Island” for its abundance of sharks in the lagoon that the locals like to feed.
Corals and Anemones in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands has around 136 species of coral. Unfortunately, there are spots of coral bleaching caused by sea temperatures rising and the locals say that even 20 years ago, the coral was much more vibrant. Nevertheless, some coral is regenerating and comes in the form of massive coral, blue coral, razor/mushroom coral and fan-like fire corals.
Needless to say, you should never touch corals, not only because they are easily damaged and takes a long time for coral to grow, but because coral cuts can give nasty infections – see our Cook Islands Safety Tips.
Not to be forgotten are the glorious sea anemones that can also be seen close to shore in the Cook Islands. The anemones in the Cook Islands are literally called “magnificent sea anemones” because of their magnificent display of colours.
Giant Clams, Oysters, Crabs, Starfish and More
Our final aspect of marine wildlife in the Cook Islands is hard-shell and soft-shell marine animals, starting with giant clams. There are three native species of clams and giant clams in the Cook Islands, locally known as “paua”: the elongate giant clam, fluted giant clam and Noah’s giant clam. Due to the rapid depletion of clams that are harvested as a food delicacy, there are conservation efforts in place to keep the populations stable, for instance, the giant clam nursery at the Marine Research Centre in Aitutaki. You can also see giant clams while snorkelling anywhere in the Cook Islands but particularly in the Aitutaki Lagoon.
Crabs are in abundance across the islands of the Cook Islands, most commonly, you’ll see hermit crabs scuttling across the beaches, while, although not a marine mammal since it always stays on land, coconut crabs (unga) are the largest species of crab in the world. Crayfish (lobsters) are prolific on the reefs, especially on the island of Mitiaro.
A few other honourable marine species mentions include the blue starfish which you’re likely to see in the lagoons of Rarotonga and Aitutaki. There are also octopus and the bluebottle jellyfish known as the “man-o-war”, whose venomous tentacles are unlikely to be seen in the lagoons where most people swim.
Birds of the Cook Islands
On land, some of the most interesting wildlife in the Cook Islands are its birds. There are around 88 species of birds in the Cook Islands, only around six of which are endemic.
Endemic Birds in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
Some of the Cook Islands’ endemic bird species include the kakerori (Rarotongan monarch), kopeka (Atiu swiftlet), tanga’eo (Mangaian kingfisher), Cook Islands fruitdove, Rarotonga starling, mysterious starling and Cook Islands red warbler. Find out more about the endemic species you are most likely to see listed in the 20 Animals & Birds in the Cook Islands.
Other Bird Species Found in the Cook Islands
Some of the Cook Islands’ other bird species include the Pacific pigeon, Pacific golden plover, bristle-thighed curlew (on the island of Manuae), common myna bird, red junglefowl (chickens), grey duck, Pacific reef heron, spotless crakes and chattering kingfisher.
Seabirds in the Cook Islands
Unsurprisingly, the islands of the Cook Islands are a refuge for many seabirds. Some of the commonly sighted seabirds include white terns, sooty terns, red-tailed tropicbirds, white-tailed tropicbirds, lesser frigates, great frigates, red-footed boobies, masked boobies, black noddies and brown noddies.
The best islands for bird watching are outlined in the 7 Best Places for Bird Watching in the Cook Islands where you can learn about where to see all of the bird species mentioned above. Plus, check out the 20 Animals & Birds in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for more details about the birds you’re most likely to encounter.
Reptiles in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
Reptiles in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands mostly consist of three species of turtles (see the Marine Species in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands above), and a few species of geckos and skinks.
Are There Lizards in the Cook Islands?
Yes, there are lizards in the Cook Islands, the most common types you’ll find are geckos and skinks.
Geckos in the Cook Islands
Geckos are easy to spot in the Cook Islands, happy to hang around urban areas and resorts and are most active at night. There are eight species of gecko, including the Polynesian gecko (moko), house gecko, mournful gecko and more. Learn more about the moko, in particular, in the 20 Animals & Birds in the Cook Islands.
Skinks in the Cook Islands
There are six species of skinks in the Cook Islands. Unlike geckos, they are more active in the daytime and have long slender toes instead of padded toes. They are more likely to be spotted in forested areas.
Are There Snakes (or Poisonous Snakes) in the Cook Islands?
No, there are no snakes in the Cook Islands, therefore there are no poisonous snakes in the Cook Islands – win-win!
Land Animals and Mammals in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
The only native land mammals in the Cook Islands are Pacific fruit bats. Otherwise, there are plenty of introduced species of mammals on land in the Cook Islands, particularly dogs and pigs.
Are There Bats in the Cook Islands?
Yes, there are native bats in the Cook Islands called Pacific fruit bats. They can only be found on the islands of Rarotonga and Mangaia and are most likely to be seen returning to the inland forests to roost at sunrise.
Wandering Animals in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
It’s worth taking a moment here to mention that there are a lot of domestic animals, like dogs and pigs, that wander freely in the Cook Islands. In particular, there are around 4,000 dogs wandering the streets and beaches of Rarotonga (but interestingly, not on any other of the Cook Islands). The wandering animals you’re likely to see on almost all of the Cook Islands, however, are pigs and chickens. You’re highly likely to encounter all of these animals while visiting the Cook Islands, whether it’s dogs greeting you on the beach, roosters waking you up at 5am or pigs rummaging in the rubbish bins of your accommodation.
Plants and Vegetation in the Cook Islands
Of course, the Cook Islands is alive with vibrant vegetation and plant species with many island interiors lush with forest, while flowers decorate the gardens of the Cook Islands’ resorts.
Flowers in the Cook Islands and the National Flower
Summertime is the best time to see colourful tropical flowers in bloom, of which there are around 200 native flowering plants. The blooming of the local flowers is celebrated with the Tiare Flower Festival on Rarotonga named after the national flower: the tiare Maori (gardenia). Learn more about the flower festival of Rarotonga in the 10 Biggest Festivals in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Cook Islanders are particularly proud of their gardens, as are the resorts which hire multiple gardeners to keep resort gardens looking neat and vibrant all year round. Some tropical flowers found in the Cook Islands include tipani, hibiscus, gardenia (tiare Maori), yellow bells, heliconia, birds of paradise, flame tree, fringed hibiscus and giant red ixora.
Medicinal Plants in the Cook Islands
The local plants and vegetation play an important part role in the culture of the Cook Islands due to their medicinal purposes. A popular medicinal plant is the noni tree, producing pungent noni fruit made into juice or a tea. Head on any one of the medicine or nature walks in the Cook Islands and your local guide will point out some of the amazing vegetation and how they are used for all sorts of remedies. Check out such walks in the 8 Best Guided Walks in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Fruit and Vegetables in the Cook Islands
With fertile volcanic soil on some islands and natural irrigation systems on the uplifted coral atolls combined with favourable all-year-round weather, tropical fruit and vegetables grow in abundance in the Cook Islands. Needless to say, the coconut tree is the most utilised for its fruit, as well as its fibres and wood which has many uses. Join any cultural tour, such as those listed in the 10 Best Cultural Activities in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands, to learn more about the “tree of life”.
Other fruit grown in the Cook Islands includes mango, pineapple, green oranges, guava, breadfruit, soursop and much more which we list in the 15 Exotic Fruits in the Cook Islands You HAVE to Try!
Some vegetables grown in the Cook Islands include taro, arrowroot and sweet potato, which you can find out where to try in the 10 Foods to Try in the Cook Islands.
Banyan Trees in the Cook Islands
Banyan trees are always worth mentioning as there are some of the oldest and largest trees in the Cook Islands. These fig trees are undoubtedly impressive with their strangler roots draping from the branches above. Mitiaro is home to the largest banyan tree in the South Pacific or you can drive through a banyan tree on the island of Aitutaki.
More About Wildlife in the Cook Islands
That’s it for our ultimate guide to wildlife in the Cook Islands, including wildlife in Rarotonga and Aitutaki. If, for some ungodly reason, you need more information about wildlife in the Cook Islands in your life, then check out these other articles:
- 10 Best Nature & Wildlife Tours in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
- 10 Best Eco Tours in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
- The Top 10 Natural Wonders in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
Finally, plan everything you need for a smooth trip to the Cook Islands using The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide. Plus, discover more experiences in the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List.