One of the important problems in hydrology is the quantitative description of river system structure and the identification of relationships between geomorphological properties and hydrological response. Digital elevation models (DEMs) generally are used to delineate the basin's limits and to extract the channel network considering pixels draining an area greater than a threshold area S. In this paper, new catchment shape descriptors, the geometric characteristics of an equivalent ellipse that has the same centre of gravity, the same principal inertia axes, the same area and the same ratio of minimal inertia moment to maximal inertia moment as the basin, are proposed. They are applied in order to compare and classify the structure of seven basins located in southern France. These descriptors were correlated to hydrological properties of the basins' responses such as the lag time and the maximum amplitude of a geomorphological unit hydrograph calculated at the basin outlet by routing an impulse function through the channel network using the diffusive wave model. Then, we analysed the effects of the threshold area S on the topological structure of the channel network and on the evolution of the source catchment's shape. Simple models based on empirical relationships between the threshold S and the morphometric properties were established and new catchment shape indexes, independent of the observation scale S, were defined. This methodology is useful for geomorphologists dealing with the shape of source basins and for hydrologists dealing with the problem of scale effects on basin topology and on relationships between the basin morphometric properties and the hydrological response. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.