The measurement of local variation in shape


Geometric morphometrics comprises tools for measuring and analyzing shape as captured by an entire set of landmark configurations. Many interesting questions in evolutionary, genetic, and developmental research, however, are only meaningful at a local level, where a focus on “parts” or “traits” takes priority over properties of wholes. To study variational properties of such traits, current approaches partition configurations into subsets of landmarks which are then studied separately. This approach is unable to fully capture both variational and spatial characteristics of these subsets because interpretability of shape differences is context-dependent. Landmarks omitted from a partition usually contain information about that partition’s shape. We present an interpolation-based approach that can be used to model shape differences at a local, infinitesimal level as a function of information available globally. This approach belongs in a large family of methods that see shape differences as continuous “fields” spanning an entire structure, for which landmarks serve as reference parameters rather than as data. We show, via analyses of simulated and real data, how interpolation models provide a more accurate representation of regional shapes than partitioned data. A key difference of this interpolation approach from current morphometric practice is that one must assume an explicit interpolation model, which in turn implies a particular kind of behavior of the regions between landmarks. This choice presents novel methodological challenges, but also an opportunity to incorporate and test biomechanical models that have sought to explain tissue-level processes underlying the generation of morphological shape.

Evolutionary biology