Automated morphological phenotyping using learned shape descriptors and functional maps: A novel approach to geometric morphometrics

Oshane O. Thomas, Hongyu Shen, Ryan L. Raaum, William E.H. Harcourt-Smith, John D. Polk, Mark Hasegawa-Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The methods of geometric morphometrics are commonly used to quantify morphology in a broad range of biological sciences. The application of these methods to large datasets is constrained by manual landmark placement limiting the number of landmarks and introducing observer bias. To move the field forward, we need to automate morphological phenotyping in ways that capture comprehensive representations of morphological variation with minimal observer bias. Here, we present Morphological Variation Quantifier (morphVQ), a shape analysis pipeline for quantifying, analyzing, and exploring shape variation in the functional domain. morphVQ uses descriptor learning to estimate the functional correspondence between whole triangular meshes in lieu of landmark configurations. With functional maps between pairs of specimens in a dataset we can analyze and explore shape variation. morphVQ uses Consistent ZoomOut refinement to improve these functional maps and produce a new representation of shape variation, area-based and conformal (angular) latent shape space differences (LSSDs). We compare this new representation of shape variation to shape variables obtained via manual digitization and auto3DGM, an existing approach to automated morphological phenotyping. We find that LSSDs compare favorably to modern 3DGM and auto3DGM while being more computationally efficient. By characterizing whole surfaces, our method incorporates more morphological detail in shape analysis. We can classify known biological groupings, such as Genus affiliation with comparable accuracy. The shape spaces produced by our method are similar to those produced by modern 3DGM and to auto3DGM, and distinctiveness functions derived from LSSDs show us how shape variation differs between groups. morphVQ can capture shape in an automated fashion while avoiding the limitations of manually digitized landmarks, and thus represents a novel and computationally efficient addition to the geometric morphometrics toolkit.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1009061
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Molecular Biology
  • Ecology
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics
  • Modeling and Simulation


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