Biodiversity on the move

Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 12:00 PM


Editor’s Note: Today’s guest author is Ari Daniel Shapiro from Atlantic Public Media (APM), a non-profit public media organization in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. APM was the recipient of a Google Earth Outreach Developer Grant, funded through the Google Inc. Charitable Giving Fund at the Tides Foundation. We’re excited to showcase how Atlantic Public Media has weaved Google Earth and KML tours into engaging stories about the diversity of life.

Life gets around. Tiny Arctic Terns soar from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and back, in a single year. A kind of sea algae known as “sea grapes” roam from Australia to the Mediterranean as stowaways, and then promptly conquer their new home.

As a radio producer, I’m used to telling these kinds of stories with audio, weaving together interview tape, ambient sound, and narration. For the last two years, I’ve worked with Atlantic Public Media and the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) to produce an audio series entitled One Species at a Time. Each episode pays homage to a different organism that gallops or creeps or pulses on our planet. We collaborate on these stories with Marie Studer, the EOL's Learning and Education Director, who has championed our podcast as way to make the natural world come alive and generate excitement amongst people who want to learn about it and explore.

While our podcast and public radio programming brought these tales of the natural world to listeners all over the planet, we always look for ways to tell these stories better and share them more widely. Eduardo Garcia Milagros, a biologist and KML developer in Spain, approached us last year with the idea to use Google Earth as a platform for these mini-documentaries. Brimming with enthusiasm, he shared “When I first opened Google Earth, I went to see my hometown. Once I started exploring KML capabilities, I realized that Google Earth can be an amazing educational tool, especially when you have a good story.” Inspired by his excitement, we decided to identify species whose stories could really be best illustrated through a map, such as the Arctic Tern’s annual migration.

Our tour on Arctic terns can be viewed on YouTube or downloaded and explored in Google Earth.

Incorporating Google Earth into our narratives proved to be an interesting challenge for me and Jay Allison, my editor on the project and the Executive Director of APM. We wanted to make the most of the map as a medium to bring to life the tale of the Arctic Tern and other species for viewers. By integrating geographic animation and imagery from all over the world with the audio and images from contributing scientists, we were able to support and enhance the story. For example, in the sea algae tour below, we circle the globe to the Amazon rainforest to illustrate a phenomenon in the ecology of the Mediterranean.

Our sea algae tour can also be found on YouTube or downloaded for viewing in Google Earth.

These tours combine voice, sound, images, video, and data-driven animations to explain how two creatures have been able to travel so much of our planet. Coming from a public radio documentary background, we tend to approach things from a purely narrative or poetic angle, but Google Earth tours allow for audio/visual dialogue as well. The movement isn't purely in the story. The map can become part of a “conversation,” and we're just beginning to explore the possibilities.

We hope to produce more of these Biodiversity on the Move tours in the future; we’d like to hear what you think of them and what we can improve next time. Drop us a line on the Encyclopedia of Life blog.