One of the central features of Symbiota is its ability to integrate multiple collections within a single interface. Specimens serve as the foundation of data used to build species distribution maps, dynamically generated species list, and vouchered inventories. Furthermore, each specimen is reproducible, scientific proof that a particular species actually occurs within a given area. If there is any doubt, one can inspect the physical specimen to verify or change the identification as necessary. Since accurate field identifications are difficult even for the most talented biologist, maintaining physical specimens ensures a quality that simple observation could never obtain. Specimens deposited within public collections (herbaria for plants) are regularly reviewed by taxonomic experts, and adjustments are made to the identification when a specimen is misidentified or there has been a taxonomic revision. Establishing a virtual flora/fauna framework upon such a wealth of high-quality data ensures a resource that is focused on the accuracy of solid scientific methods.
The Symbiota specimen search engine enables collections to be queried by taxonomic, geographic, and collector details. Taxonomically, a user can search by scientific name, family, or common name. Since collection managers have various taxonomic opinions of how to manage their collections, it is necessary to establish a method of searching for synonyms. For example, one manager might consider Berberis repens as the accepted name while another prefers Mahonia repens. Even though both names reference the same species, a simple search of one of the names will not return all specimens of that species. To resolve such taxonomic discrepancies, an option is available to run the search through a taxonomic thesaurus, which would include all relevant names.
Geographically, the collections can be filtered by a combination of country, state, county, general locality, and latitude/longitude coordinates. For geographic coordinate (lat/long points) searches, interactive pop-up maps are available to assist the user in defining a bounding box or point radius locality limits. Note that queries including text searches (country, state, county, or locality) will return all records containing words matching the request, while searches using latitude/longitude coordinates will only return specimens that have matching georeference points. If a collection has not yet been fully georeferenced, results may be a poor representation of the specimens collected within the area. Finally, specimens can be searched by collector and collector number.
By default, results are displayed as a concise list. Full collection details, including images of that particular specimen, can be accessed through the appropriate link. Clicking on the scientific name will display the Species Profile Page, which will display details such as synonyms, common names, taxon authors, distribution maps, and all images relevant to the scientific name. By clicking on the map tab, one can view the distribution of the specimens that have been georeferenced. Distribution maps can be viewed using Google Maps or Google Earth. Clicking on a specimen marker will display the full collection details for that specimen. Results can also be compiled as a unique species list by selecting the checklist tab. As the default, the species list is displayed based on the taxonomy of how the specimens are treated within the collections searched. For this reason, it is common for the same taxon to be listed multiple times under various synonyms. One can use the Taxonomic Filter to run the search results through the taxonomic thesaurus and produce a list consisting of a single taxonomic option. For example, within SEINet, one can filter the list according to the ASU Taxonomic Thesaurus or the USDA PLANTS taxonomic option.