The search page on the database allows the user to find a species by typing the first part of one of its names in Latin, English or Maori. The species are arranged in a hierarchical system of taxonomy and higher taxon names are also searchable. Users can input multiple names with semi-colon separators to find multiple species or higher taxa, or allow for spelling uncertainties. And, although Cook Islands Maori is often written with standard letters only, there is a character input function on the site to enable searches using orthographically correct Maori.
Searching for the taxonomic group – butterfly or mammal, for example – works well for most users trying to identify an unknown animal. In contrast, many large groups, such as the 1,200 local flowering plants, are not easily divided into subgroups by the public. In the future, the Trust will develop a system so that users can find the species by easily observable features, such as leaf shape and flower colour.
Currently, however, it is the advanced search criteria that are perhaps most useful for the general public. These menus enable the user to search for habitat, distribution, threatened status, medicinal usefulness or biosecurity significance. For example, a student on the island of Atiu can find the birds that are native and endangered in the Cook Islands and that exist on Atiu.
Since most of the islands are a long way from each other, the names for many plants and animals evolved independently. The database records and maintains these differences, and gives users the opportunity to select species names according to region. For example, on Rarotonga, the White-tailed Tropicbird is the Rakoa, while on other islands it is the Tara, Pirake, Pirake or Tavake Mokomoko.
An alternate results page consists of one line of text per species to provide a concise list. The list includes the scientific, English and national Maori names, along with the family name and a concise English descriptor, such as wasp, fern, seaweed. The group descriptor is particularly useful for interpreting the diverse taxa found using the Advanced Search Criteria menus.