A combinatorial approach to angiosperm pollen morphology

Mander, Luke (2016). A combinatorial approach to angiosperm pollen morphology. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 283(1843), article no. 20162033.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.2033


Angiosperms (flowering plants) are strikingly diverse. This is clearly expressed in the morphology of their pollen grains, which are characterized by enormous variety in their shape and patterning. In this paper, I approach angiosperm pollen morphology from the perspective of enumerative combinatorics. This involves generating angiosperm pollen morphotypes by algorithmically combining character states and enumerating the results of these combinations. I use this approach to generate 3 643 200 pollen morphotypes, which I visualize using a parallel-coordinates plot. This represents a raw morphospace. To compare real-world and theoretical morphologies, I map the pollen of 1008 species of Neotropical angiosperms growing on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama, onto this raw morphospace. This highlights that, in addition to their well-documented taxonomic diversity, Neotropical rainforests also represent an enormous reservoir of morphological diversity. Angiosperm pollen morphospace at BCI has been filled mostly by pollen morphotypes that are unique to single plant species. Repetition of pollen morphotypes among higher taxa at BCI reflects both constraint and convergence. This combinatorial approach to morphology addresses the complexity that results from large numbers of discrete character combinations and could be employed in any situation where organismal form can be captured by discrete morphological characters.

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