Getting started

This document covers installation of pygplates and a tutorial to get you started using pygplates.


This section covers how and when to install pygplates. It also covers installing Python and telling Python how to find pygplates.

When to install pygplates

As covered in the introduction there are two ways to use pygplates:

  • with an external Python interpreter, and
  • with the GPlates embedded Python interpreter.


The embedded option is not yet available.

No installation is required for the embedded case since both pygplates and a Python interpreter are already embedded inside the GPlates desktop application. All that is required is the installation of GPlates.

However installation of pygplates is required for the external case since, in this situation, pygplates is provided as a separate Python library/module (that is not part of the GPlates desktop application).

The following sections cover the installation of pygplates in the external case.

Installing pygplates

Each release includes the following files:


If this is an internal (non-public) release then the above files come in a single zip file (


For public releases there are also Ubuntu packages (.deb files).

The pygplates documentation is in
If you extract this zip file to your hard drive and then open pygplates_rev12_docs/index.html in a web browser you will see the front page of this documentation.

The remaining zip files contain a pre-built pygplates library for MacOS X and Windows, and source code for Linux (and Ubuntu packages for public pygplates releases):

  • - pygplates for MacOS X (compiled for 64-bit Python 2.7).

    Extracting this zip file creates a directory pygplates_rev12_python27_MacOS64 containing the pygplates library and its dependency libraries.


    This pre-built pygplates library will only work with a Python interpreter that is version 2.7.x and is 64-bit. The operating system can be Snow Leopard or above.

  • - pygplates for Windows (compiled for 32-bit Python 2.7).

    Extracting this zip file creates a directory pygplates_rev12_python27_win32 containing the pygplates.pyd pygplates library and its dependency libraries.


    This pre-built pygplates library will only work with a Python interpreter that is version 2.7.x and is 32-bit. It will work on a 32-bit or 64-bit operating system (Windows 7 or above), but the installed Python must be 32-bit. A 64-bit Python installation will not work.

  • - pygplates source code (typically used to compile pygplates on Linux).

    Extracting this zip file creates a directory pygplates_rev12_src containing the pygplates source code.

    Unlike the pre-built pygplates libraries for MacOS X and Windows, here we have source code that needs to be compiled into a pygplates library. This is typically used to compile pygplates on Linux systems because they have binary package managers that make installing dependency libraries (of pygplates and GPlates) a lot easier than with MacOS X and Windows.

    To compile pygplates follow the instructions for building GPlates in the files BUILD.Linux and DEPS.Linux in the root directory pygplates_rev12_src of the source code. Once the dependency libraries have been installed this process essentially boils down to executing the following commands in a Terminal in the root source code directory:

    cmake .
    make pygplates

    ...which, on successful completion, should result in a library in the bin sub-directory of the root source code directory pygplates_rev12_src.

    Also if you have a dual-core or quad-core system then you can speed up compilation using make -j 2 pygplates or make -j 4 pygplates.


    The pygplates source code is actually the same as the GPlates source code except we build pygplates with make pygplates (whereas GPlates is built with just make). However the pygplates source code is currently a separate development branch (of the GPlates source code repository) that has not yet made its way into the development mainline (hence you won’t find it in regular GPlates source code releases yet).

  • pygplates-ubuntu_... - pygplates Ubuntu .deb packages (compiled for Python 2.7).

    To install pygplates on Ubuntu, double-click on the .deb file appropriate for your system.

    If you do not know which version of Ubuntu is installed, open a terminal and enter the following:

    cat /etc/lsb-release

    ...and note the codename displayed.

    pygplates will then be installed to /usr/lib/pygplates/revision12/.


    Ubuntu .deb packages are not available for internal (non-public) releases.

In the next section we will tell Python how to find our pre-built (or compiled) pygplates installation.

Telling Python how to find pygplates

The easiest, but least flexible, way to tell Python how to find pygplates is to directly modify your python scripts before they import pygplates. The following example demonstrates this:

import sys
sys.path.insert(1, '/path/to/pygplates')
import pygplates

However a better solution is to set the PYTHONPATH environment variable so that you don’t have to modify all your Python scripts.


If pygplates is found in the same directory as the python script you are running, it will be imported and any pygplates in PYTHONPATH will be ignored. This is because sys.path is initialised with the directory containing the python script and then PYTHONPATH.

Setting the PYTHONPATH environment variable:

  • MacOS X:

    Type the following in a Terminal window (or you can add it to your shell startup file):

    export PYTHONPATH=$PYTHONPATH:/path/to/pygplates

    ...replacing /path/to/pygplates with the actual path to your extracted pygplates_rev12_python27_MacOS64 directory, for example.

  • Linux:

    Type the following in a Terminal window (or you can add it to your shell startup file):

    export PYTHONPATH=$PYTHONPATH:/path/to/pygplates/bin

    ...replacing /path/to/pygplates with the actual path to your extracted pygplates_rev12_src source code directory, for example.


    The extra /bin suffix is because is in the local bin directory (once it has been compiled from source code).

  • Ubuntu .deb package:

    Type the following in a Terminal window (or you can add it to your shell startup file):

    export PYTHONPATH=$PYTHONPATH:/usr/lib/pygplates/revision12


    Ubuntu .deb packages are not available for internal (non-public) releases.

  • Windows:

    Type the following in a command window (click the Start icon in lower-left corner of screen and type cmd):

    set pythonpath=%pythonpath%;"c:\path\to\pygplates"
    set path=%path%;"c:\path\to\pygplates"

    ...replacing c:\path\to\pygplates with the actual path to your extracted pygplates_rev12_python27_win32 directory, for example.

    Or you can change PYTHONPATH and PATH in the system environment variables:

    1. Open the Control Panel (eg, click the Start icon in lower-left corner of the screen and select Control Panel),
    2. Select System and Security and then System,
    3. Select Advanced System Settings and Environment Variables,
    4. Create a new PYTHONPATH variable (if not already present):
      • can be a user or system variable,
    5. Add the extracted pygplates folder path both to PYTHONPATH and PATH (they both contain a ; separated list of paths).


PYTHONPATH might already refer to a previous pygplates installation. In this case you will first need to remove the path to the previous pygplates installation (from PYTHONPATH) before adding the path to the newly installed/extracted pygplates (otherwise Python will load the previous pygplates).

Installing Python

In order to execute Python source code in an external Python interpreter you will need a Python installation. MacOS X typically comes with a Python installation. However for Windows you will need to install Python.

Python is available as a standalone package by following the download link at

Alternatively it is available in Python distributions such as Anaconda that also include common Python packages.

And as noted in Using the correct Python version you will need to install the correct version of Python if you are using pre-built versions of pygplates.

Using the correct Python version

As noted in Installing pygplates the pre-built MacOS X and Windows pygplates libraries have been compiled for a specific version of Python (such as 64-bit Python 2.7.x on MacOS X). So if you attempt to import pygplates into a Python interpreter with a different version then you will get an error.

For example, on Windows if you attempt to import a pre-built pygplates library compiled for 32-bit Python 2.7.x into a 32-bit Python 2.6.x interpreter then you will get an error similar to:

ImportError: Module use of python27.dll conflicts with this version of Python.

And on MacOS X the error message (in a similar situation) is more cryptic:

Fatal Python error: PyThreadState_Get: no current thread

...but means the same thing (a Python version mismatch between pygplates and the Python interpreter).

It is also important to use matching architectures (32-bit versus 64-bit).

For example, on Windows if you attempt to import a pre-built pygplates library compiled for 32-bit Python 2.7.x into a 64-bit Python 2.7.x interpreter then you will get the following error:

ImportError: DLL load failed: %1 is not a valid Win32 application.

To find out which Python interpreter version you are currently using you can type the following in the Terminal or Command window:

python --version

However, on Windows, this will only tell you the python version that will be used to run your script if you run your script like this:


But if you run it without prefixing python as in:

...then it might use the Windows registry and find a different version of python (different than the version returned by python --version). This can happen if you have, for example, an ArcGIS installation. If this happens then you might get an error message similar to the following:

'import site' failed; use -v for traceback

...or a more verbose version...

'import site' failed; use -v for traceback
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "D:\Users\john\Development\gplates\", line 20, in <module>
    import argparse
  File "C:\SDK\python\Python-2.7.6\lib\", line 86, in <module>
    import copy as _copy
  File "C:\SDK\python\Python-2.7.6\lib\", line 52, in <module>
    import weakref
  File "C:\SDK\python\Python-2.7.6\lib\", line 12, in <module>
    import UserDict
  File "C:\SDK\python\Python-2.7.6\lib\", line 84, in <module>
  File "C:\SDK\python\Python-2.7.6\lib\", line 109, in register
    if issubclass(subclass, cls):
  File "C:\SDK\python\Python-2.7.6\lib\", line 184, in __subclasscheck__
  File "C:\SDK\python\Python-2.7.6\lib\", line 84, in add, self._remove))
TypeError: cannot create weak reference to 'classobj' object

...where, in the above example, a Python 2.6.x interpreter was used (found in “C:\Python26\ArcGIS10.0” presumably via the Windows registry) but it loaded the Python 2.7.6 standard libraries (the PYTHONHOME environment variable was set to “C:\SDK\python\Python-2.7.6”).


The above error had nothing to do with pygplates (it could happen with any python script regardless of whether it imported pygplates or not).

So, on Windows, it is usually best to run your python script as:


Miscellaneous issues

Windows runtime library error

On Windows operating systems it is possible to get the following error when importing pygplates or other Python C extension modules (that use native libraries):


This can happen because a regular Python 2.7 installation contains these files in the main directory (the directory where the Python interpreter executable python.exe is located):

  • msvcr90.dll
  • Microsoft.VC90.CRT.manifest

If this is the case then a potential solution is to:

  1. Create a sub-directory called Microsoft.VC90.CRT, and
  2. Move the above files into that sub-directory.


This tutorial first provides a fundamental overview of functions and classes. And then covers the steps to set up and run a simple pygplates script.

What are functions and classes ?


Essentially a function accepts arguments, does some work and then optionally returns a value. The function arguments allow data to be passed to and from the function. Input arguments pass data to the function and output arguments pass data from the function back to the caller. The function return value is also another way to pass data back to the caller. A function argument can be both input and output if the function first reads from it (input) and then writes to it (output).

An example pygplates function call is reconstructing coastlines to 10Ma:

pygplates.reconstruct('coastlines.gpml', 'rotations.rot', 'reconstructed_coastlines_10Ma.shp', 10)


The pygplates. in front of reconstruct() means the reconstruct() function belongs to the pygplates module. Also this particular function doesn’t need to a return value.

All four parameters are input parameters since they only pass data to the function (even though 'reconstructed_coastlines_10Ma.shp' specifies the filename to write the output to).

A similar use of the pygplates.reconstruct() function appends the reconstructed output to a Python list (instead of writing to a file):

reconstructed_feature_geometries = []
pygplates.reconstruct('coastlines.gpml', 'rotations.rot', reconstructed_feature_geometries, 10)

# Do something with the reconstructed output.
for reconstructed_feature_geometry in reconstructed_feature_geometries:

The parameter reconstructed_feature_geometries is now an output parameter because it is used to pass data from the function back to the caller so that the caller can do something with it.


Primarily a class is a way to group some data together as a single entity.

An object can be created (instantiated) from a class by providing a specific initial state. For example, a point object can be created (instantiated) from the pygplates.PointOnSphere class by giving it a specific latitude and longitude:

point = pygplates.PointOnSphere(latitude, longitude)


This looks like a regular pygplates function call (such as pygplates.reconstruct()) but this is just how you create (instantiate) an object from a class with a specific initial state. Python uses the special method name __init__() for this and you will see these special methods documented in the classes listed in the reference section.

You can then call functions (methods) on the point object such as querying its latitude and longitude (this particular method returns a Python tuple):

latitude, longitude = point.to_lat_lon()

The point. before the to_lat_lon() means the to_lat_lon() function (method) applies to the point object. And to_lat_lon() will be one of several functions (methods) documented in the pygplates.PointOnSphere class.

These class methods behave similarly to top-level functions (such as pygplates.reconstruct()) except they operate on an instance of class. Hence a class method has an implicit first function argument that is the object itself (for example, point is the implicit argument in point.to_lat_lon()).


A complete list of pygplates functions and classes can be found in the reference section.

Introductory pygplates script


Before starting this section please make sure you have installed pygplates.

Source code

Our introductory pygplates Python script will contain the following lines of source code:

import pygplates

pygplates.reconstruct('coastlines.gpmlz', 'rotations.rot', 'reconstructed_coastlines_10Ma.shp', 10)

The first statement...

import pygplates
...tells Python to load pygplates.
This needs to be done before pygplates can be used in subsequent statements.


There are other ways to import pygplates but this is the simplest and most common way.

The second statement...

pygplates.reconstruct('coastlines.gpmlz', 'rotations.rot', 'reconstructed_coastlines_10Ma.shp', 10)

...will reconstruct coastlines (loaded from the coastlines.gpmlz file) to their location 10 million years ago (Ma) using the plate rotations in the rotations.rot file, and then save those reconstructed locations to the Shapefile reconstructed_coastlines_10Ma.shp.

Setting up the script

First of all we need to create the Python script. This is essentially just a text file with the .py filename extension.
To do this copy the above lines of source code into a new file called (eg, using a text editor).


You may want to create a sub-directory in your home directory (such as pygplates_tutorial) to place the Python script and data files in.

Next we need the data files containing the coastlines and rotations.
This data is available in the GPlates sample data.
For example, in the GPlates 1.5 sample data, the coastlines file is called Seton_etal_ESR2012_Coastlines_2012.1_Polygon.gpmlz and the rotations file is called Seton_etal_ESR2012_2012.1.rot.
Copy those files to the pygplates_tutorial directory and rename them as coastlines.gpmlz and rotations.rot. Alternatively the filenames (and paths) could be changed in the script to match the sample data.

Next open up a terminal or command window (on MacOS and Ubuntu this is a Terminal window, and on Windows this is a Command window).

We may need to let Python know where to find pygplates by setting an environment variable as covered in Telling Python how to find pygplates.
For example on MacOS this can be done by typing:
export PYTHONPATH=$PYTHONPATH:/path/to/pygplates

...where /path/to/pygplates is replaced with the directory where you extracted pygplates.

Next change the current working directory to the directory containing the file.
For example, on MacOS or Linux:
cd ~/pygplates_tutorial

Running the script

Next run the Python script by typing:


If any errors were generated they might be due to a version incompatibility between the Python you are using and the pygplates you have installed - please see Using the correct Python version for more details.


We are running our Python script through an external Python interpreter - see External versus embedded pygplates.

Output of the script

There should now be a reconstructed_coastlines_10Ma.shp file containing the reconstructed coastline locations at ten million years ago (10Ma).
This Shapefile can be loaded into the GPlates desktop application to see these locations on the globe.