Dr Jakob Vinther

"Science is a big puzzle and we all have independent observations that we can bring together to paint the bigger picture. I’d like to inspire people to think about evolution through a holistic lens."

Dr Jakob Vinther joined Bristol University in 2012 in an interdisciplinary role that straddles Earth Sciences and Biological Sciences. His research is focussed primarily towards integrating the fossil record with molecular biological techniques in order to understand evolution.

It was while he was studying for his PhD at Yale University that Jakob and a team of researchers first discovered the presence of melanin in fossilised dinosaur feathers, documented in the seminal 2008 paper ‘The Colour of Fossil Feathers’, which eventually led to the first ever realistic reconstruction of colour patterns in feathered dinosaurs.

Jakob’s research sees him travelling to Morocco and North Greenland, from where he has amassed thousands of fossils that form the bedrock of his work in mapping the process of evolution across a variety of species, primarily molluscs and other invertebrates.

As a lecturer in macroevolution, he hopes that by sharing the emerging findings of this exciting new integrative discipline, he can inspire others to forge new approaches to science.

"From the age of about eight, growing up in Denmark, I used to have a lot of animals; I had the weirdest collection you could ever imagine – I had eight different fish tanks, turtles, frogs, fish, lizards, a rabbit and a parakeet.

I also had lots of plants; I was particularly interested in orchids and insect-eating plants. I’d read a Mickey Mouse story where they went to Africa to look for a black orchid and I wanted to know more about them.

Then I realised how spectacular they were and started growing orchids myself. For a long time I thought I wanted to be a botanist and spent a lot of time visiting the botanic gardens, for several years I’d go every week just to walk around.

Then I started finding fossils on the beach and found there were lots of places where you can go fossil hunting. Then I worked out that I could marry both interests because if you could find fossil plants you could find fossil animals too.

I was never really interested in birds, or dinosaurs, and one thing I promised myself when I started palaeontology was that I’d never work on dinosaurs. I thought too many people work on dinosaurs already.

Another thing I promised myself was that I was never going to work on molluscs. I work on both dinosaurs and molluscs now.

You can use molecular biology to infer how animals are related to each other but you can also get some estimates of the timing of the divergence using the molecular clock – which basically calculates the mutation rate, so if you can calibrate the organisms you are interested in with some fossils that you know well, you can test when other groups diversified that you don’t necessarily have much information in the fossil record.

One thing we haven’t had until recently when we look at fossils is colour. When I was a PhD student I discovered that melanin is actually preserved and we find that in many organisms.

That was a really interesting thing to explore. Birds oftentimes use colour to advertise themselves whereas mammals are more discrete. What we can see from this discovery of fossilised colours in dinosaurs is that they were actually advertising a lot.

We also see that feathers evolved for the purpose of colourising dinosaurs a lot earlier than the ability to fly. So given that some of the most primitive dinosaurs had evolved spectacular colour patterns, perhaps the reason they created this membrane was not for flight but as a billboard. Our theory is that the pinnate feather, which we usually associate with flight, was actually an advertisement structure.

I’m mainly an expert on invertebrates, so I work on the evolution of early animals from the era of the Cambrian explosion, such as the Halkieria, an extinct organism from around 520 million years ago.

As a palaeontologist I’m really interested in how these animals looked and how they fit into the tree of life. Halkieria come from all over the world, but only their isolated scales can be found so people didn’t know what they looked like for decades until their fossils were found in a particular locality in North Greenland.

When I started to work on invertebrates, I always thought that something like a gastropod was not an appealing animal. I never thought I was going to work on molluscs.

It was when I did my undergrad thesis on the Halkieria that I realised there’s lots of interesting questions you can address with molluscs, things we don’t understand about how they have evolved. That’s the thing with animals and evolution – there’s always going to be something interesting that needs figuring out.

There is no mollusc that looks like Halkieria today so we could never have inferred that something like that existed back in ancient history. The same applies to dinosaurs – they were ancestors to birds, but based on current biodiversity and birds today you would never guess that something like a Stegosaurus existed.

Therefore, the fossil record is an important document of how and why the world has come to look the way it is today.

Molecular biology is actually a paleontological tool; it tells us something about evolutionary history and as palaeontologists, we are essentially historical biologists.

But it’s only recently that it’s been easier to be an integrative scientist – in the 1980s, you had to spend your entire life becoming good at molecular biology, which meant to study palaeontology at the same time would have been nearly impossible. Now we can easily extract much more data at faster speeds and at cheaper prices.

As soon as you’ve got even a little bit of a platform of knowledge from where you can spread your interest, that’s all you need to start out in science. Some people have a much more focused mind and a sense of where they want to go, say those who want to work on bees for their entire life and dream of being a bee expert at the British History Museum.

Others like to be all-embracing of the bigger picture. There’s nothing wrong with either approach – in fact you need both kinds of scientists.

I’d like to inspire people to think about evolution through a holistic lens, because that’s where you can learn the most. I want to inspire people to do the kind of science that I do, merging molecular biology and palaeontology, because not a lot of people are doing that right now.

When I was a student, science was very much about disparate and distinct disciplines. There was a big gap between different disciplines and departments and nobody was thinking about the fact that you could gain so much by joining up and thinking about evolution together.

It’s all a big puzzle and we all have independent ideas that we can bring together to paint the bigger picture."

Dr Jakob Vinther, Lecturer in Macroevolution, School of Biological Sciences, School of Earth Sciences

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