A base for biodiversity data

A multimedia database records the biodiversity of the Cook Islands

Gerald McCormack

For the last 20 years, the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust has been collecting the details of the country’s fauna and flora in one multimedia database.

The Cook Islands, a small island developing state (SIDS), has an online database designed to record details of its biodiversity: marine and terrestrial species, indigenous and introduced species, mammals and plants, fungi and bacteria.

The country consists of fifteen small islands covering only 240 km², but it is spread over an area of about 2 million km² in the central South Pacific. Agriculture, mainly horticulture, brings in approximately US$ 15 million a year, around 5% of its GDP.

No other small developing country is known to be creating a comprehensive biodiversity database, probably because there has been little international support for making such information available in SIDS. But in 1990, the Cook Islands government supported a proposal to develop an electronic, multimedia-focused database to make information on local plants and animals available, including related traditional and community knowledge.

Since then, the government has invested more than NZ$ 1 million into the Natural Heritage Trust to run the project. The Trust has one professional staff member responsible for collecting and collating information on local plants and animals.

Recognition

It took many years of fieldwork, but the database, which is hosted at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, USA, finally went online in 2003 and regularly receives 1,000 visitors a week, mainly from people in developed countries. The Trust also published the database on interactive CDs for schools in the Cook Islands, which have limited or expensive web access.

The database presently records 4,500 species out of an estimated total of around 7,000 socially or biologically significant species in the country. About 2,500 species (55%) on the database have one or more images to aid recognition. The main challenge is to identify and photograph species in the field, which is where the public will encounter and hopefully recognise them.

The Trust’s primary goal was to tabulate data on the social and biological significance of a species and then list key identification features along with a detailed image. This data is reasonably comprehensive for the larger or otherwise conspicuous terrestrial species, but the lack of available biologists to input data has meant that the detailed information is often inadequate for many groups. There is still an immense amount of basic fieldwork required on Cook Islands biodiversity.

Although it is not the purpose of this database to record the location of all collected specimens, it increasingly refers to a few specimens or photographs for each island to vouch for the claimed presence of a particular species. In the future, collection points will be georeferenced and displayed on active maps.

The database entry for each species includes an image to aid identification and, where possible, supporting secondary images, videos and audio files. The image files are as small as possible so that they load rapidly in a web browser, but can still be viewed well on a screen and when printed to show the main species features. Database videos are also small, under 20 seconds in duration, to make it possible for users to download them on a dial-up or slow broadband internet connection.

More input

The database had the advantage of growing slowly, which provided time to experiment with many data options and to develop the search menus for different user groups, from taxonomists to biosecurity staff to home gardeners. Over the last 20 years, the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust has learned some valuable lessons and discovered some important strengths and weakness in their biodiversity database.

Strengths

- all biological groups are available within a single database
- searches are available for Latin, English and Maori names, and names of higher taxa
- users can search for more than one species or taxa by name in one search
- users can search across taxa for socially and biologically significant groups, such as medicinal use
- default results are displayed as thumbnail images, which presently cover about 60% of the species
- the thumbnail zoom enlarges images to allow more detailed comparison on the results page
- primary images are of live specimens to assist with field identification

Weaknesses

- users cannot find species by listing or selecting their features
- voucher data is not georeferenced to enable active GIS displays
- users cannot currently contribute images and other information

From the lessons learned in developing the database, the Trust will launch a new, improved version in 2010. Registered editors will be able to edit data online and general users will be able to add information at the bottom of each species page, with the possibility to upload images and other data directly into the database, although these will be moderated before appearing online.

The new database will be a major advance in the management, retrieval, display and editing of data. It is based on open source software and the application supports editing via compatible web browsers on a variety of devices, including desktop computers, laptops, PDAs and smartphones. The system can also be delivered as a stand-alone application from a computer hard disk, USB thumb drive or CD/DVD.

The main work in the future, as in the past, will be finding, identifying, photographing and uploading information on unrecorded species. But with more people able to contribute, thanks to the new database developments, the load should become much lighter.

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Gerald McCormack is director of the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust. Visit the Cook Islands Biodiversity Database at http://cookislands.bishopmuseum.org

26 November 2009

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