Using data-driven phenotyping to investigate the impact of sex on 3D human facial surface morphology

Harold S. Matthews, Soha Mahdi, Anthony J. Penington, Mary L. Marazita, John R. Shaffer, Susan Walsh, Mark D. Shriver, Peter Claes, Seth M. Weinberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The effects of sex on human facial morphology have been widely documented. Because sexual dimorphism is relevant to a variety of scientific and applied disciplines, it is imperative to have a complete and accurate account of how and where male and female faces differ. We apply a comprehensive facial phenotyping strategy to a large set of existing 3D facial surface images. We investigate facial sexual dimorphism in terms of size, shape, and shape variance. We also assess the ability to correctly assign sex based on shape, both for the whole face and for subregions. We applied a predefined data-driven segmentation to partition the 3D facial surfaces of 2446 adults into 63 hierarchically linked regions, ranging from global (whole face) to highly localized subparts. Each facial region was then analyzed with spatially dense geometric morphometrics. To describe the major modes of shape variation, principal components analysis was applied to the Procrustes aligned 3D points comprising each of the 63 facial regions. Both nonparametric and permutation-based statistics were then used to quantify the facial size and shape differences and visualizations were generated. Males were significantly larger than females for all 63 facial regions. Statistically significant sex differences in shape were also seen in all regions and the effects tended to be more pronounced for the upper lip and forehead, with more subtle changes emerging as the facial regions became more granular. Males also showed greater levels of shape variance, with the largest effect observed for the central forehead. Classification accuracy was highest for the full face (97%), while most facial regions showed an accuracy of 75% or greater. In summary, sex differences in both size and shape were present across every part of the face. By breaking the face into subparts, some shape differences emerged that were not apparent when analyzing the face as a whole. The increase in facial shape variance suggests possible evolutionary origins and may offer insights for understanding congenital facial malformations. Our classification results indicate that a high degree of accuracy is possible with only parts of the face, which may have implications for biometrics applications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)274-283
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Anatomy
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Anatomy
  • Cell Biology
  • Histology
  • Developmental Biology

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