Leaf morphology, taxonomy and geometric morphometrics: a simplified protocol for beginners

PLoS One. 2011;6(10):e25630. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0025630. Epub 2011 Oct 3.


Taxonomy relies greatly on morphology to discriminate groups. Computerized geometric morphometric methods for quantitative shape analysis measure, test and visualize differences in form in a highly effective, reproducible, accurate and statistically powerful way. Plant leaves are commonly used in taxonomic analyses and are particularly suitable to landmark based geometric morphometrics. However, botanists do not yet seem to have taken advantage of this set of methods in their studies as much as zoologists have done. Using free software and an example dataset from two geographical populations of sessile oak leaves, we describe in detailed but simple terms how to: a) compute size and shape variables using Procrustes methods; b) test measurement error and the main levels of variation (population and trees) using a hierachical design; c) estimate the accuracy of group discrimination; d) repeat this estimate after controlling for the effect of size differences on shape (i.e., allometry). Measurement error was completely negligible; individual variation in leaf morphology was large and differences between trees were generally bigger than within trees; differences between the two geographic populations were small in both size and shape; despite a weak allometric trend, controlling for the effect of size on shape slighly increased discrimination accuracy. Procrustes based methods for the analysis of landmarks were highly efficient in measuring the hierarchical structure of differences in leaves and in revealing very small-scale variation. In taxonomy and many other fields of botany and biology, the application of geometric morphometrics contributes to increase scientific rigour in the description of important aspects of the phenotypic dimension of biodiversity. Easy to follow but detailed step by step example studies can promote a more extensive use of these numerical methods, as they provide an introduction to the discipline which, for many biologists, is less intimidating than the often inaccessible specialistic literature.

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Classification / methods*
  • Discriminant Analysis
  • Geography
  • Italy
  • Organ Size
  • Plant Leaves / anatomy & histology*
  • Plant Leaves / classification*
  • Population Dynamics
  • Quercus / anatomy & histology*
  • Quercus / classification*
  • Regression Analysis