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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Methodology article

Beyond bilateral symmetry: geometric morphometric methods for any type of symmetry

Yoland Savriama and Christian Peter Klingenberg

Author Affiliations

Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester, Michael Smith Building, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PT, UK

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:280  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-280

Published: 29 September 2011



Studies of symmetric structures have made important contributions to evolutionary biology, for example, by using fluctuating asymmetry as a measure of developmental instability or for investigating the mechanisms of morphological integration. Most analyses of symmetry and asymmetry have focused on organisms or parts with bilateral symmetry. This is not the only type of symmetry in biological shapes, however, because a multitude of other types of symmetry exists in plants and animals. For instance, some organisms have two axes of reflection symmetry (biradial symmetry; e.g. many algae, corals and flowers) or rotational symmetry (e.g. sea urchins and many flowers). So far, there is no general method for the shape analysis of these types of symmetry.


We generalize the morphometric methods currently used for the shape analysis of bilaterally symmetric objects so that they can be used for analyzing any type of symmetry. Our framework uses a mathematical definition of symmetry based on the theory of symmetry groups. This approach can be used to divide shape variation into a component of symmetric variation among individuals and one or more components of asymmetry. We illustrate this approach with data from a colonial coral that has ambiguous symmetry and thus can be analyzed in multiple ways. Our results demonstrate that asymmetric variation predominates in this dataset and that its amount depends on the type of symmetry considered in the analysis.


The framework for analyzing symmetry and asymmetry is suitable for studying structures with any type of symmetry in two or three dimensions. Studies of complex symmetries are promising for many contexts in evolutionary biology, such as fluctuating asymmetry, because these structures can potentially provide more information than structures with bilateral symmetry.