Deep learning approaches to the phylogenetic placement of extinct pollen morphotypes

Marc Élie Adaïmé, Shu Kong, Surangi W. Punyasena

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The phylogenetic interpretation of pollen morphology is limited by our inability to recognize the evolutionary history embedded in pollen features. Deep learning offers tools for connecting morphology to phylogeny. Using neural networks, we developed an explicitly phylogenetic toolkit for analyzing the overall shape, internal structure, and texture of a pollen grain. Our analysis pipeline determines whether testing specimens are from known species based on uncertainty estimates. Features from specimens with uncertain taxonomy are passed to a multilayer perceptron network trained to transform these features into predicted phylogenetic distances from known taxa. We used these predicted distances to place specimens in a phylogeny using Bayesian inference. We trained and evaluated our models using optical superresolution micrographs of 30 extant Podocarpus species. We then used trained models to place nine fossil Podocarpidites specimens within the phylogeny. In doing so, we demonstrate that the phylogenetic history encoded in pollen morphology can be recognized by neural networks and that deep-learned features can be used in phylogenetic placement. Our approach makes extinction and speciation events that would otherwise be masked by the limited taxonomic resolution of the fossil pollen record visible to palynological analysis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberpgad419
JournalPNAS Nexus
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2024


  • computer vision
  • fossil pollen
  • machine learning
  • neural networks
  • phylogenetic placement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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