Research article

Can morphotaxa be assessed with photographs? Estimating the accuracy of two-dimensional cranial geometric morphometrics for the study of threatened populations of African monkeys

Andrea Cardini, Yvonne A. de Jong & Thomas M. Butynski
The Anatomical Record, 304 (October 2021)
DOI: 10.1002/ar.24787

The classification of most mammalian orders and families is under debate and the number of species is likely greater than currently recognized. Improving taxonomic knowledge is crucial, as biodiversity is in rapid decline. Morphology is a source of taxonomic knowledge, and geometric morphometrics applied to two dimensional (2D) photographs of anatomical structures is commonly employed for quantifying differences within and among lineages. Photographs are informative, easy to obtain, and low cost. 2D analyses, however, introduce a large source of measurement error when applied to crania and other highly three dimensional (3D) structures. To explore the potential of 2D analyses for assessing taxonomic diversity, we use patas monkeys (Erythrocebus), a genus of large, semi-terrestrial, African guenons, as a case study. By applying a range of tests to compare ventral views of adult crania measured both in 2D and 3D, we show that, despite inaccuracies accounting for up to one-fourth of individual shape differences, results in 2D almost perfectly mirror those in 3D. This apparent paradox might be explained by the small strength of covariation in the component of shape variance related to measurement error. A rigorous standardization of photographic settings and the choice of almost coplanar landmarks are likely to further improve the correspondence of 2D to 3D shapes. 2D geometric morphometrics is, thus, appropriate for taxonomic comparisons of patas ventral crania. Although it is early to generalize, our results corroborate similar findings from previous research in mammals, and suggest that 2D shape analyses are an effective heuristic tool for morphological investigation of small differences.

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Details of the patas skull samples used in this study, including landmark data (Excel file)

Eastern Patas Monkey Erythrocebus patas pyrrhonotus along the Ole Naishu Ranch – Borana Ranch border, Laikipia County, central Kenya. Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski.