Morphology (biology)

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Morphology of a male shrimp, Caprella mutica Caprella mutica male morphology.jpg
Morphology of a male shrimp, Caprella mutica

Morphology is a branch of biology dealing with the study of the form and structure of organisms and their specific structural features. [1]


This includes aspects of the outward appearance (shape, structure, colour, pattern, size), i.e. external morphology (or eidonomy), as well as the form and structure of the internal parts like bones and organs, i.e. internal morphology (or anatomy). This is in contrast to physiology, which deals primarily with function. Morphology is a branch of life science dealing with the study of gross structure of an organism or taxon and its component parts.


The etymology of the word "morphology" is from the Ancient Greek μορφή (morphḗ), meaning "form", and λόγος (lógos), meaning "word, study, research". [2] [3]

While the concept of form in biology, opposed to function, dates back to Aristotle (see Aristotle's biology), the field of morphology was developed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1790) and independently by the German anatomist and physiologist Karl Friedrich Burdach (1800). [4]

Among other important theorists of morphology are Lorenz Oken, Georges Cuvier, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Richard Owen, Karl Gegenbaur and Ernst Haeckel. [5] [6]

In 1830, Cuvier and E.G.Saint-Hilaire engaged in a famous debate, which is said to exemplify the two major deviations in biological thinking at the time – whether animal structure was due to function or evolution. [7]

Divisions of morphology

Morphology and classification

Most taxa differ morphologically from other taxa. Typically, closely related taxa differ much less than more distantly related ones, but there are exceptions to this. Cryptic species are species which look very similar, or perhaps even outwardly identical, but are reproductively isolated. Conversely, sometimes unrelated taxa acquire a similar appearance as a result of convergent evolution or even mimicry. In addition, there can be morphological differences within a species, such as in Apoica flavissima where queens are significantly smaller than workers. A further problem with relying on morphological data is that what may appear, morphologically speaking, to be two distinct species, may in fact be shown by DNA analysis to be a single species. The significance of these differences can be examined through the use of allometric engineering in which one or both species are manipulated to phenocopy the other species.

A step relevant to the evaluation of morphology between traits/features within species, includes an assessment of the terms: homology and homoplasy. Homology between features indicate that those features have been derived from a common ancestor. [10] Alternatively, homoplasy between features describes those that can resemble each other, but derive independently via parallel or convergent evolution. [11]

3D cell morphology: classification

Invention and development of microscopy enable the observation of 3-D cell morphology with both high spatial and temporal resolution. The dynamic processes of these cell morphology which are controlled by a complex system play an important role in varied important biological process, such as immune and invasive responses. [12] [13]

See also

Related Research Articles

Outline of biology Hierarchical outline list of articles related to biology

Biology – The natural science that involves the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy.

Embryo drawing

Embryo drawing is the illustration of embryos in their developmental sequence. In plants and animals, an embryo develops from a zygote, the single cell that results when an egg and sperm fuse during fertilization. In animals, the zygote divides repeatedly to form a ball of cells, which then forms a set of tissue layers that migrate and fold to form an early embryo. Images of embryos provide a means of comparing embryos of different ages, and species. To this day, embryo drawings are made in undergraduate developmental biology lessons.

Recapitulation theory

The theory of recapitulation, also called the biogenetic law or embryological parallelism—often expressed using Ernst Haeckel's phrase "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"—is a historical hypothesis that the development of the embryo of an animal, from fertilization to gestation or hatching (ontogeny), goes through stages resembling or representing successive adult stages in the evolution of the animal's remote ancestors (phylogeny). It was formulated in the 1820s by Étienne Serres based on the work of Johann Friedrich Meckel, after whom it is also known as Meckel–Serres law.

Zoology is the branch of biology that studies the animal kingdom, including the structure, embryology, evolution, classification, habits, and distribution of all animals, both living and extinct, and how they interact with their ecosystems. The term is derived from Ancient Greek ζῷον, zōion, i.e. "animal" and λόγος, logos, i.e. "knowledge, study".

Cladogram A diagram used to show relations among groups of organisms with common origins

A cladogram is a diagram used in cladistics to show relations among organisms. A cladogram is not, however, an evolutionary tree because it does not show how ancestors are related to descendants, nor does it show how much they have changed, so many differing evolutionary trees can be consistent with the same cladogram. A cladogram uses lines that branch off in different directions ending at a clade, a group of organisms with a last common ancestor. There are many shapes of cladograms but they all have lines that branch off from other lines. The lines can be traced back to where they branch off. These branching off points represent a hypothetical ancestor which can be inferred to exhibit the traits shared among the terminal taxa above it. This hypothetical ancestor might then provide clues about the order of evolution of various features, adaptation, and other evolutionary narratives about ancestors. Although traditionally such cladograms were generated largely on the basis of morphological characters, DNA and RNA sequencing data and computational phylogenetics are now very commonly used in the generation of cladograms, either on their own or in combination with morphology.

Evolutionary developmental biology Field of research that compares the developmental processes of different organisms to infer the ancestral relationships

Evolutionary developmental biology is a field of biological research that compares the developmental processes of different organisms to infer the ancestral relationships between them and how developmental processes evolved.

Homology (biology) Shared ancestry between a pair of structures or genes in different taxa

In biology, homology is similarity due to shared ancestry between a pair of structures or genes in different taxa. A common example of homologous structures is the forelimbs of vertebrates, where the wings of bats and birds, the arms of primates, the front flippers of whales and the forelegs of four-legged vertebrates like dogs and crocodiles are all derived from the same ancestral tetrapod structure. Evolutionary biology explains homologous structures adapted to different purposes as the result of descent with modification from a common ancestor. The term was first applied to biology in a non-evolutionary context by the anatomist Richard Owen in 1843. Homology was later explained by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in 1859, but had been observed before this, from Aristotle onwards, and it was explicitly analysed by Pierre Belon in 1555.

Comparative anatomy Study of similarities and differences in the anatomy of different species

Comparative anatomy is the study of similarities and differences in the anatomy of different species. It is closely related to evolutionary biology and phylogeny.


Vestigiality is the retention during the process of evolution of genetically determined structures or attributes that have lost some or all of the ancestral function in a given species. Assessment of the vestigiality must generally rely on comparison with homologous features in related species. The emergence of vestigiality occurs by normal evolutionary processes, typically by loss of function of a feature that is no longer subject to positive selection pressures when it loses its value in a changing environment. The feature may be selected against more urgently when its function becomes definitively harmful, but if the lack of the feature provides no advantage, and its presence provides no disadvantage, the feature may not be phased out by natural selection and persist across species.

Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire

Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was a French naturalist who established the principle of "unity of composition". He was a colleague of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and expanded and defended Lamarck's evolutionary theories. Geoffroy's scientific views had a transcendental flavor and were similar to those of German morphologists like Lorenz Oken. He believed in the underlying unity of organismal design, and the possibility of the transmutation of species in time, amassing evidence for his claims through research in comparative anatomy, paleontology, and embryology.

Robert Edmond Grant

Robert Edmond Grant MD FRCPEd FRS FRSE FZS FGS was a British anatomist and zoologist.

Karl Gegenbaur

Karl Gegenbaur was a German anatomist and professor who demonstrated that the field of comparative anatomy offers important evidence supporting of the theory of evolution. As a professor of anatomy at the University of Jena (1855–1873) and at the University of Heidelberg (1873–1903), Karl Gegenbaur was a strong supporter of Charles Darwin's theory of organic evolution, having taught and worked, beginning in 1858, with Ernst Haeckel, 8 years his junior.

Body plan A set of morphological features common to members of a phylum of animals

A body plan, Bauplan, or ground plan is a set of morphological features common to many members of a phylum of animals. The vertebrate body plan is one of many: invertebrates consist of many phyla.

Structuralism (biology)

Biological or process structuralism, also known as formalism, is a school of biological thought that objects to an exclusively Darwinian or adaptationist explanation of natural selection such as is described in the 20th century's modern synthesis. It proposes instead that evolution is guided differently, basically by more or less physical forces which shape the development of an animal's body, and sometimes implies that these forces supersede selection altogether.

Plant morphology Part of botany

Phytomorphology is the study of the physical form and external structure of plants. This is usually considered distinct from plant anatomy, which is the study of the internal structure of plants, especially at the microscopic level. Plant morphology is useful in the visual identification of plants. Recent studies in molecular biology started to investigate the molecular processes involved in determining the conservation and diversification of plant morphologies. In these studies transcriptome conservation patterns were found to mark crucial ontogenetic transitions during the plant life cycle which may result in evolutionary constraints limiting diversification.

Étienne Serres

Antoine Étienne Renaud Augustin Serres was a French physician and embryologist. Étienne Serres was the son of Jean Jacques Serres, "maître chirurgien" and Marie Roussel.

Deep homology Control of growth and differentiation by deeply conserved genetic mechanisms

In evolutionary developmental biology, the concept of deep homology is used to describe cases where growth and differentiation processes are governed by genetic mechanisms that are homologous and deeply conserved across a wide range of species.

The Cuvier–Geoffroy debate of 1830 was a scientific debate between the two French naturalists Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. For around two months the debate occurred in front of the French Academy of Sciences. The debate centered primarily on animal structure; Cuvier asserted that animal structure was determined by an organism's functional needs while Geoffroy suggested an alternative theory that all animal structures were modified forms of one unified plan. In terms of scientific significance, the discussion between the two naturalists showed stark differences in scientific methods as well as general philosophy. Cuvier is generally considered the winner of the debate, as he always came better prepared to the debate with overwhelming amounts of evidence and more logical arguments, as well as having more political and academic influence. Despite this, Geoffroy's philosophy is seen as early support of evolution theory and parts of the theory of the "unity of composition" are generally more accepted over Cuvier's fixed species philosophy.

Alternatives to evolution by natural selection

Alternatives to evolution by natural selection, also described as non-Darwinian mechanisms of evolution, have been proposed by scholars investigating biology since classical times to explain signs of evolution and the relatedness of different groups of living things.


Homoplasy, in biology and phylogenetics, is when a trait has been gained or lost independently in separate lineages over the course of evolution. This is different from homology, which is the similarity of traits can be parsimoniously explained by common ancestry. Homoplasy can arise from both similar selection pressures acting on adapting species, and the effects of genetic drift.


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  9. "Polymer Morphology". Retrieved 2010-06-24.
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  12. A. D. Doyle, R. J. Petrie, M. L. Kutys, and K. M. Yamada, “Dimensions in cell migration,” Curr. Opin. Cell Biol., vol. 25, no. 5, pp. 642–649, 2013.
  13. A. C. Dufour, T. Y. Liu, D. Christel, T. Robin, C. Beryl, T. Roman, G. Nancy, O.H. Alfred, and J. C. Olivo-Marin. "Signal Processing Challenges in Quantitative 3-D Cell Morphology: More than meets the eye." IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 30-40, 2015.