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Symbiota is an open-source content management system built for the purpose of integrating virtual biodiversity databases. Currently used by over 700 natural history collections, containing more than 30 million specimens, Symbiota is an essential tool for digitizing biological specimen data. In an effort to expand modularity and accessibility, Symbiota2 is an improved, refactored version of the original Symbiota core code structure, designed based on user feedback. While packages do exist for accessing Symbiota portals (for instance, see the rSymbiota package), R users currently cannot access the data offered by Symbiota2. Here, we describe SymbiotaR2, a package built to address this need by allowing users to access Symbiota2 portals in an R environment.

Below, we provide a general workflow for using SymbiotaR2, a description of the command structure, code for installing the package, and examples of using SymbiotaR2 functions. The GitHub page for the Symbiota2 software can be found here, and instructions for setting up a new Symbiota2 portal can be found on the documentation site. Finally, a review of the original Symbiota platform is offered in Gries et al., 2014.


SymbiotaR2 allows R users to download data from specified Symbiota2 portals, granting access to thousands of digitized flora and fauna specimen records across the United States. It does this by querying endpoints in the Symbiota2 API, then downloading a JSON object containing the requested data to a temporary directory on the local computer. The JSON object is then converted into an R format that is straightforward and easy to use. The general argument structure of all SymbiotaR2 functions allows users to specify whether they want to pull a single resource or a collection of resources from the API.

In general, there are four steps for using SymbiotaR2:

  1. Determine the URL of the Symbiota2 portal you wish to access data from; its “API endpoint” is probably its web address with “api” appended to it (see below). Remember that your particular portal may not have enabled data download.
  2. Load the SymbiotaR2 package (see Installation below for install instructions).
  3. Find the function corresponding to the kind of data you wish to pull from the Symbiota2 portal (e.g., Coordinates for co-ordinate data).
    • Functions are named after the resources they download, and are grouped according to the relevant API call.
    • Note that, because each Symbiota2 portal owner can load their own plugins into the API, it’s possible that not every API endpoint will be covered.
    • You can find a full list by typing library(help=SymbiotaR2)
  4. Call the function, specifying the Symbiota2 portal using the url argument (see Example and Portal Specification below).


SymbiotaR2 can be downloaded by calling:


Once it has passed peer review, you will be able to install it by running:


Load the package using:


Portal Specification

SymbiotaR2_setup will save to your .Rprofile a default URL, for automatic reference. Specifying a different url argument will let you refer to a portal besides the default. The code below demonstrates this:

SymbiotaR2_setup("", append=TRUE)

Coordinates() # Download from
Coordinates("") # Download from a different portal


SymbiotaR2 consists of commands pulling from the Checklists, Collections, Crowdsource, Exsiccati, Glossary, ImageProcessor, Key, Media, Occurrence, Reference, Taxa, Traits, and UserRoles API families of the specified Symbiota2 portal. Note that because each Symbiota2 portal owner can load their own plugins into the API, it’s possible that not every possible API endpoint from the specified Symbiota2 instance will be covered.

Below, we provide an example of pulling a single Taxa resource into the R environment, by specifying an id argument in the command call (using a random, nonexistent URL). Please note that this example won’t work for users (as they need to specify a working Symbiota2 portal they can access), but is included to demonstrate typical usage:

myURL <- ""
myTaxa <- Taxa(id = 12, url = myURL)
List of 23
 $ @context             : chr "/api/contexts/Taxa"
 $ @id                  : chr "/api/taxa/12"
 $ @type                : chr "Taxa"
 $ id                   : num 12
 $ rankId               : chr "/api/taxa/ranks/31"
 $ scientificName       : chr "Polygonum bistortoides"
 $ unitIndicator1       : logi NA
 $ unitName1            : chr "Polygonum"
 $ unitIndicator2       : logi NA
 $ unitName2            : chr "bistortoides"
 $ unitIndicator3       : logi NA
 $ unitName3            : logi NA
 $ author               : chr "Pursh"
 $ phylogenySortSequence: logi NA
 $ status               : chr "AZTT-USDA Plants consistant"
 $ source               : logi NA
 $ notes                : logi NA
 $ hybrid               : logi NA
 $ securityStatus       : num 0
 $ modifiedTimestamp    : logi NA
 $ initialTimestamp     : chr "2019-01-11T21:44:39+00:00"
 $ modifiedUserId       : logi NA
 $ taxaAuthorityId      : list()

If a collection of resources from the Symbiota2 API needs to come into the R environment, then the page argument can be specified in place of id to retrieve a list of resources (here, as a data.frame):

myURL <- ""
myCoordinates <- Coordinates(page = 1, url = myURL)
'data.frame':   5 obs. of  2 variables:
 $ latitude : num  32.2 32.2 32.2 32.2 32.2
 $ longitude: num  -111 -111 -111 -111 -111

If neither an id or a page argument is provided, the functions are written to return the list of resources at page = 1. Once downloaded, these R objects can be taken and manipulated as needed for any downstream processes.


The code for SymbiotaR2 is structured hierarchically, and includes parameter type checking to ensure arguments are provided in the proper format. Additionally, all commands include a URL check (.check.url), which confirms the following:

  1. URL provided refers to an accessible website, and
  2. that website is a working Symbiota2 portal.

The second step consists of an API call made at the end of the URL check. If either step fails, the error below will be triggered:

Error in .check.url(badURL) : 
  URL cannot be reached; is it a valid Symbiota2 portal API?

If this error is received, make sure your portal address is spelled correctly. Note that functions are designed such that a forward slash (/) at the end of the URL is optional. If your URL is correctly spelled, make sure that the Symbiota2 portal manager has allowed you access to the portal.

(For developers) Unit tests

All SymbiotaR2 functions come with tests, for both pulling a single SymbiotaR2 resource (using the id argument), or a collection of resources (using page). Tests for each function are contained in the tests/testthat directory. Running these tests requires you have access to a fully configured SymbiotaR2 test instance, complete with demo data, which is both time-consuming to setup and then time/bandwidth-consuming to run the tests. We therefore release cached data downloads, generated using vcr, for use with this package. Information about the vcr package can be found on the vcr page on GitHub.

To run the package tests, do the following:

  1. Build the package as you would normally, with something like R CMD build SymbiotaR2 from the command line.
  2. Check the package as you would normally, with something like R CMD check SymbbiotaR2_0.0-1 from the command line.

If you want to add new tests, or new functions that address new API endpoints, do the following:

  1. Setup a Symbiota2 instance with the canned example data.
  2. If you are adding support for a new API endpoint, make a new file in tests/testthat for your tests. Otherwise, add to one of the existing files.
  3. Write your test, following the coding style of the other tests, particularly with respect to setting up the vcr cassette. Note that the folder fixtures contains the cassettes, and that SymbiotaR2 makes use of the file tests/testthat/helper-SymbiotaR2.R to setup the automatic tests. See point 4 below.
  4. When writing/checking your test, set the url variable at the top of the script to be wherever your test instance is. When committing your code to submit a pull request (see point 5), change it to the address at the top of the other tests (currently
  5. When you are finished, submit a pull request to the master branch of this repository. Please use the pull request template and follow the contributor guidelines.

Here is an example of what a piece of testing code may look like:

vcr::use_cassette(name = "AccessStats_id", {
  data <- AccessStats(id = 4, url = url)
test_that("AccessStats_id", {
  expect_equal(length(data), 12)
  expect_type(data, "list")

The data <- AccessStates(url = url, id = 4) line is the Symbiota2 call, and the test_that block below it contains the test conditions–here, that the data object is a list of length 12.