Computer vision cracks the leaf code|
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> Peter Wilf, 3305–3310, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1524473113
Computer vision cracks the leaf code
Stefan A. Littlea,e,
Scott L. Wingf, and
Edited by Andrew H. Knoll, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and approved February 1, 2016 (received for review December 14, 2015)
The botanical value of angiosperm leaf shape and venation (“leaf architecture”) is well known, but the astounding complexity and variation of leaves have thwarted efforts to access this underused resource. This challenge is central for paleobotany because most angiosperm fossils are isolated, unidentified leaves. We here demonstrate that a computer vision algorithm trained on several thousand images of diverse cleared leaves successfully learns leaf-architectural features, then categorizes novel specimens into natural botanical groups above the species level. The system also produces heat maps to display the locations of numerous novel, informative leaf characters in a visually intuitive way. With assistance from computer vision, the systematic and paleobotanical value of leaves is ready to increase significantly.
Understanding the extremely variable, complex shape and venation characters of angiosperm leaves is one of the most challenging problems in botany. Machine learning offers opportunities to analyze large numbers of specimens, to discover novel leaf features of angiosperm clades that may have phylogenetic significance, and to use those characters to classify unknowns. Previous computer vision approaches have primarily focused on leaf identification at the species level. It remains an open question whether learning and classification are possible among major evolutionary groups such as families and orders, which usually contain hundreds to thousands of species each and exhibit many times the foliar variation of individual species. Here, we tested whether a computer vision algorithm could use a database of 7,597 leaf images from 2,001 genera to learn features of botanical families and orders, then classify novel images. The images are of cleared leaves, specimens that are chemically bleached, then stained to reveal venation. Machine learning was used to learn a codebook of visual elements representing leaf shape and venation patterns. The resulting automated system learned to classify images into families and orders with a success rate many times greater than chance. Of direct botanical interest, the responses of diagnostic features can be visualized on leaf images as heat maps, which are likely to prompt recognition and evolutionary interpretation of a wealth of novel morphological characters. With assistance from computer vision, leaves are poised to make numerous new contributions to systematic and paleobotanical studies.
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