Ancient Insect Found in Amber Is Literally One of a Kind

A 100-million-year-old bug with an extraterrestrial look is so unique, it has been classified in a new insect order.

There's a new entry in the ancient bug-stuck-in-amber category: a 100-million-year-old, bulbous-eyed, alien-looking insect with an "E.T." head and a wide field of vision.

Found in Myanmar by George Poinar Jr., Oregon State University entomology professor emeritus, the bug – a wingless female – is such a bizarre, unique find that it has become a new insect order unto itself.

For the taxonomically inclined, that's a big deal. The roughly 1 million insect species known today are classified in just 31 orders (wasps, bees, and ants, for example live in the order Hymenoptera).

Now, though, make that 32 insect orders.

What wins the insect its new order are its unique features. It's a bug unlike any other, starting with its triangular head, which is reminiscent of the stereotypical space alien seen often in science fiction.

The way the "right triangle" head rests at the base of the creature's neck is unlike any insect ever known, according to Poinar.

"While insects with triangular-shaped heads are common today," Poinar and co-author Alex Brown wrote in a study just published in the journal Cretaceous Research, "the hypotenuse [the longest side] of the triangle is always located at the base of the head and attached to the neck, with the vertex at the apex of the head."

This bug turned that situation on its, well, head: The vertex was at the base of the neck. The head, then, along with its large lateral eyes, would have given the insect nearly 180-degree vision when it turned sideways, offering the ability to keep an eye out for things happening behind it, watching its own back, as it were.

As if that weren't enough, the insect secreted a chemical from its neck glands that, Poinar thinks, probably served to repel predators.

Poinar discovered the new bug in Myanmar's Hukawng Valley. Now it has a name, Aethiocarenus burmanicus, and the only seat in its new order Aethiocarenodea.

Long, thin legs propelled Aethiocarenus burmanicus' slender, flat body through its life among the dinosaurs. It likely lived in cracks within tree bark - an omnivore that dined on fare such as worms, mites and fungi. Despite features that probably helped it survive day to day, such as the see-behind-it vision, the amber-entombed insect went extinct, for reasons yet to be uncovered. Poinar and Brown think it may have disappeared due to the loss of its preferred habitat.

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"I had never really seen anything like it," said Poinar, in a statement about his find. "It appears to be unique in the insect world, and after considerable discussion we decided it had to take its place in a new order."

Poinar is well positioned to make such a judgment. He's an expert on plants and animals that have been preserved in amber, like this insect exoskeleton, this flea with Black Death bacteria or this wingless wasp from about the same time as the new "E.T." insect.

Ultimately, the new bug's otherworldly appearance most struck the researcher.

"The strangest thing about this insect is that the head looked so much like the way aliens are often portrayed," Poinar said. "With its long neck, big eyes and strange oblong head, I thought it resembled 'E.T.' I even made a Halloween mask that resembled the head of this insect. But when I wore the mask when trick-or-treaters came by, it scared the little kids so much I took it off."

Top Photo by George Poinar Jr., courtesy of Oregon State University WATCH VIDEO: Do Insects Sleep?