© 2018. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd. Brown adipose tissue (BAT) enables adaptive thermoregulation through heat production that is catalyzed by mitochondrial uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1). BAT is frequently studied in rodent model organisms, and recently in adult humans to treat metabolic diseases. However, complementary studies of many non-model species, which have diversified to many more ecological niches, may significantly broaden our understanding of BAT regulation and its physiological roles. This Review highlights the research on nonmodel organisms, which was instrumental to the discovery of BAT function, and the unique evolutionary history of BAT/UCP1 in mammalian thermogenesis. The comparative biology of BAT provides a powerful integrative approach that could identify conserved and specialized functional changes in BAT and UCP1 by considering species diversity, ecology and evolution, and by fusing multiple scientific disciplines such as physiology and biochemistry. Thus, resolving the complete picture of BAT biology may fail if comparative studies of non-model organisms are neglected.