Sexual dimorphism in multiple aspects of 3D facial symmetry and asymmetry defined by spatially dense geometric morphometrics

J Anat. 2012 Aug;221(2):97-114. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7580.2012.01528.x. Epub 2012 Jun 18.


Accurate measurement of facial sexual dimorphism is useful to understanding facial anatomy and specifically how faces influence, and have been influenced by, sexual selection. An important facial aspect is the display of bilateral symmetry, invoking the need to investigate aspects of symmetry and asymmetry separately when examining facial shape. Previous studies typically employed landmarks that provided only a sparse facial representation, where different landmark choices could lead to contrasting outcomes. Furthermore, sexual dimorphism is only tested as a difference of sample means, which is statistically the same as a difference in population location only. Within the framework of geometric morphometrics, we partition facial shape, represented in a spatially dense way, into patterns of symmetry and asymmetry, following a two-factor anova design. Subsequently, we investigate sexual dimorphism in symmetry and asymmetry patterns separately, and on multiple aspects, by examining (i) population location differences as well as differences in population variance-covariance; (ii) scale; and (iii) orientation. One important challenge in this approach is the proportionally high number of variables to observations necessitating the implementation of permutational and computationally feasible statistics. In a sample of gender-matched young adults (18-25 years) with self-reported European ancestry, we found greater variation in male faces than in women for all measurements. Statistically significant sexual dimorphism was found for the aspect of location in both symmetry and asymmetry (directional asymmetry), for the aspect of scale only in asymmetry (magnitude of fluctuating asymmetry) and, in contrast, for the aspect of orientation only in symmetry. Interesting interplays with hypotheses in evolutionary and developmental biology were observed, such as the selective nature of the force underpinning sexual dimorphism and the genetic independence of the structural patterns of fluctuating asymmetry. Additionally, insights into growth patterns of the soft tissue envelope of the face and underlying skull structure can also be obtained from the results.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Anthropometry / methods
  • Face / anatomy & histology*
  • Facial Asymmetry / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Sex Factors
  • Young Adult