Raising awareness about the world's most evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered species

  • Organization Edge of Existence
  • Main Website URL www.edgeofexistence.org/
  • Contacts David Tryse, KML Developer; Alasdair Davies, Advisor; and Carly Waterman, EDGE Programme Manager
  • Tools Used Google Earth, Spreadsheet Mapper
"The loss of such a unique and charismatic species is a shocking tragedy. The Yangtze River dolphin was a remarkable mammal that separated from all other species over twenty million years ago. This extinction represents the disappearance of a complete branch of the evolutionary tree of life and emphasizes that we have yet to take full responsibility in our role as guardians of the planet."

— Dr. Sam Turvey, scientist at the Zoological Society of London.

The EDGE of Existence programme aims to conserve the world's most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species by implementing the research and conservation actions needed to secure their future.

Zoological Society of London (ZSL) researchers work closely with scientists from countries in which EDGE species occur. The programme also aims to train students from developing countries to monitor and protect threatened species. To build the top-100 EDGE list every species is given a score according to the amount of unique evolutionary history it represents, and its conservation status. These scores are used to identify EDGE species.

The EDGE of Existence programme Goals:

  • Raise awareness of the world's most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species
  • Identify the current status of poorly known and possibly extinct EDGE species
  • Develop and implement conservation strategies for all EDGE species not currently being protected
  • Increase conservation capacity in the countries in which EDGE species occur, through supporting and training local scientists and conservation professionals to undertake research into the focal EDGE species
  • Support all ongoing conservation activities for EDGE species

By using Google Earth to highlight the world's most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species, the EDGE of Existence programmes hopes to bring the species locations to life, and to create an interesting presentation that makes users want to find out about these animals and get more involved in the work to preserve them. Much of the conservation work associated with the EDGE of Existence programme has a geo-reference one way or another. For endangered species, it can be for example distribution range, place of last known sighting, location of a breeding or rehabilitation station or of a recent expedition searching for the species. Or alternatively, geospatial information can be used to point out threats like deforestation or mining and oil drilling within a species habitat.

How they did it

Our KML Implementation

The EDGE of Existence KML contains a list of the top 100 EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct, Globally Endangered) species. Each species has a placemark within its habitat area on the map, featuring a photo and summary information about the animal and the threats it is currently facing. The popup balloons also have links for where to find more information about this species on the Edge of Existence website.

In addition to the placemark each species also has a semi-transparent distribution overlay map that can be shown on top of the Google Earth satellite data (click on the small map image in each species popup balloons to access this feature).

As most of the resources used had already been created for the EDGE website, creating the EDGE KML required roughly one person/work-week for a beginner to KML, not using Spreadsheet Mapper. This estimate includes the time needed learn some more KML.

KML code generation

The popup balloon was designed by hand at first, which lets you edit the <BalloonStyle> and other settings that you cannot edit in Google Earth directly. We tried to keep the general design used by our species pages on the EDGE website.

Once the balloon design was finished, we initially used a script to generate the full KML file but later found it was more efficient to use Google Spreadsheets, as it saves time and should be easier to maintain in the future. In fact, we were trial users of the new Google Earth Outreach Spreadsheet Mapper tool, and our published KML was generated using this tool. A year layer, the EDGE team published a second top-100 list for Amphibians (the first one covers only mammals) using Spreadsheet Mapper to make the KML (see below section for more details).

Placing the placemarks in the correct locations and saving LookAt values (the viewing angle for each placemark) was done in Google Earth directly. The coordinates were then imported back into the spreadsheet from the edited KML file saved from the Google Earth client. Here's an example XSL file that can be used to pick out the Latitude, Longitude and LookAt values from a KML file, to make it easy to import back into a spreadsheet. Later on, I created Google Earth Position, a handy GUI tool for copying out the coordinates (and LookAt) variables, designed to complement Spreadsheet Mapper and copy and paste to the spreadsheet in the right format, which we used for the 2010 EDGE mammals update.

Finally, we added an extra description text for some of the species explaining better the exact location of the placemark on the map. For example, for the Yangtze River Dolphin, the placemark is placed close to the last suspected sighting of this possibly extinct animal. And the placemark for the Echidna is placed in the mountains, where a recent EDGE expedition tried to confirm if Attenborough's long-beaked echidna is still alive (this particular species has only been seen once, in 1961).

Using the Google Earth Outreach Spreadsheet Mapper to generate the EDGE KML involved

  • Modifying a Template sheet to fit the EDGE design.
  • Editing the "Balloon Background Color", "Icon URL" etc. in the "KML Style Variables"
  • Making new "Static Template Variables" for those of the data bits that are shared between all species popup balloons; for example logo URL, footer text and "Support EDGE" image and text.
  • Setting up new "Unique Template Variables" for the data bits that are different for each placemark. For example Species nr#, Name, Latin Name, Photo URL, Main Text and Conservation Status etc.
  • Pasting in the HTML design for the EDGE species balloons; using the variables created by the spreadsheet to reference the variable data. For example use "{static_Logo_URL}" in the HTML code where the logo URL string should be inserted and "{unique_Main_Text}" where the variable with the species text should be inserted.
  • Importing the EDGE species information on the PlacemarkData sheet. This sheet automatically creates columns for all the "Unique Template Variables" entered in the previus step, and here we pasted in the Species Name, Latin Name, Photo URL and other data from our main EDGE species database.

For Latitude and Longitude coordinates - if you don't have these values in your source data then Google Earth itself is probably the easiest tool to use to edit them. Just fill in dummy data (0's) in the spreadsheet and then once the resulting file is loaded in Google Earth you can place and finetune all the placemarks, then save the KML again to a file. Afterwards, if you want to import the coordinates back into the spreadsheet use an XSL file (see previous section). LookAt values (viewing angle) can be handled similarly, leave them blank first then edit in Google Earth import back into the spreadsheet.

Altering balloon styles for different placemarks

Using the steps above allows you to create a KML with the same layout for all placemarks. For Landscape vs. Portrait photos we needed to change the HTML of the popup balloon slightly for some species. As the Google Earth Outreach Spreadsheet supports several different templates within the same KML file this was very easy. After copying all customizations from Template1 into Template2 in the spreadsheet and making the change to the HTML code all that was needed was to change the "Template #" column on the PlacemarkData sheet for these species from 1 to 2.

The "start here" sheet in the Google Earth Outreach Spreadsheet provides the basic instructions and lets you change the name and basic settings of your KML. It also creates a network link that you can copy straight into the Google Earth client to quickly see the resulting KML.

A little advice

If you plan to go beyond Spreadsheet Mapper and dive into KML coding, a good general tip before you begin is to look at both the design and raw KML code of existing presentations that you like, for example from the Gallery and Global Awareness layers within Google Earth directly, and from the Outreach KML Showcase. Writing KML isn't very difficult to learn, but I would keep a link to the KML Reference bookmarked.

On Locations:

  • Make sure that the placemark locations make sense also when zooming in close. In our example it would have been fast to just place all the species placemarks somewhere within their general distribution areas, but then when zooming closer you might find a forest species placed within a town, or a river dolphin placed 5km from the water. Users might not look at your KML at the same zoom level you use when creating it.
  • Take the extra time to save a nice viewing angle (right-click and "Snapshot view") for each of the placemarks (this saves the "LookAt" values in the KML). It makes the presentation much nicer when it is viewed as a slideshow using the "Play Tour" feature in Google Earth.

On Popup Balloons:

  • Don't try to include all possible content in the popup balloons. Keep the amount of information manageable and redirect users to your website instead for more detailed information.
  • Customize the style and color scheme of the popup balloons to match your website, so that the two make a more seamless experience together for the users.

EDGE data using the Spreadsheet Mapper


In many cases showing the species locations and remaining habitat areas directly on top of the Google Earth satellite imagery also makes it dramatically clear just how very little of the planet we have actually left for the millions of other species we share it with. Look for example at any of the species placemarks on Madagascar or Sumatra. Google Earth is an excellent way to deliver this message with a strong visual impact.

The Yangtze River dolphin, possibly extinct.