Taxonomic identification of pollen and spores uses inherently qualitative descriptions of morphology. Consequently, identifications are restricted to categories that can be reliably classified by multiple analysts, resulting in the coarse taxonomic resolution of the pollen and spore record. Grass pollen represents an archetypal example; it is not routinely identified below family level. To address this issue, we developed quantitative morphometric methods to characterize surface ornamentation and classify grass pollen grains. This produces a means of quantifying morphological features that are traditionally described qualitatively. We used scanning electron microscopy to image 240 specimens of pollen from 12 species within the grass family (Poaceae). We classified these species by developing algorithmic features that quantify the size and density of sculptural elements on the pollen surface, and measure the complexity of the ornamentation they form. These features yielded a classification accuracy of 77.5%. In comparison, a texture descriptor based on modelling the statistical distribution of brightness values in image patches yielded a classification accuracy of 85.8%, and seven human subjects achieved accuracies between 68.33 and 81.67%. The algorithmic features we developed directly relate to biologically meaningful features of grass pollen morphology, and could facilitate direct interpretation of unsupervised classification results from fossil material.
Keywords: Poaceae; computational image analysis; microscopy; palynology; pattern analysis.