Automated identification of diverse Neotropical pollen samples using convolutional neural networks

Surangi W. Punyasena, Derek S. Haselhorst, Shu Kong, Charless C. Fowlkes, J. Enrique Moreno

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Pollen is used to investigate a diverse range of ecological problems, from identifying plant–pollinator relationships to tracking flowering phenology. Pollen types are identified according to a set of distinctive morphological characters which are understood to capture taxonomic differences and phylogenetic relationships among taxa. However, categorizing morphological variation among hyperdiverse pollen samples represents a challenge even for an expert analyst. We present an automated workflow for pollen analysis, from the automated scanning of pollen sample slides to the automated detection and identification of pollen taxa using convolutional neural networks (CNNs). We analysed aerial pollen samples from lowland Panama and used a microscope slide scanner to capture three-dimensional representations of 150 sample slides. These pollen sample images were annotated by an expert using a virtual microscope. Metadata were digitally recorded for ~100 pollen grains per slide, including location, identification and the analyst's confidence of the given identification. We used these annotated images to train and test our detection and classification CNN models. Our approach is two-part. We first compared three methods for training CNN models to detect pollen grains on a palynological slide. We next investigated approaches to training CNN models for pollen identification. Because the diversity of pollen taxa in environmental and palaeontological samples follows a long-tailed distribution, we experimented with methods for addressing imbalanced representation using our most abundant 46 taxa. We found that properly weighting pollen taxa in our training objective functions yielded improved accuracy for individual taxa. Our average accuracy for the 46-way classification problem was 82.3%. We achieved 89.5% accuracy for our 25 most abundant taxa. Pollen represents a challenging visual classification problem that can serve as a model for other areas of biology that rely on visual identification. Our results add to the body of research demonstrating the potential for a fully automated pollen classification system for environmental and palaeontological samples. Slide imaging, pollen detection and specimen identification can be automated to produce a streamlined workflow.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2049-2064
Number of pages16
JournalMethods in Ecology and Evolution
Issue number9
Early online dateJun 8 2022
StatePublished - Sep 2022


  • automated pollen identification
  • convolutional neural networks
  • image classification
  • neotropics
  • object detection
  • palynology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecological Modeling


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