Science First Look

'Alien' insect in amber prompts scientists to add whole new branch to family tree

This bizarre bug is so unusual, entomologists say it belongs in its own, entirely new, order of insects.

This strange insect, found preserved in amber, represents a new species, genus, family, and order of insects.
Courtesy of George Poinar/Oregon State University
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Researchers have discovered a very old – and very rare – bug. 

The strange-looking creature has long legs and antenna similar to many insects that roam the Earth today. But this critter has a bizarrely oriented, triangular head that is reminiscent of Stephen Spielberg's "E.T."

Researchers from found the specimen preserved in a piece of amber found in the mines of Myanmar. Entomologists believe the insect lived 100 million years ago, roaming bark or fungi in the age of the dinosaurs.

Even more intriguing, two Oregon State University researchers say the bug is unlike anything entomologists have ever seen before. In their paper published in December in the journal Cretaceous Research, co-authors George Poinar Jr. and Alex Brown say the new insect, which they named Aethiocarenus burmanicus, warrants its own scientific order.

“This insect has a number of features that just don’t match those of any other insect species that I know,” said Dr. Poinar, an emeritus professor of entomology at Oregon State University’s College of Science and co-author of the study, in an OSU press release. “I had never really seen anything like it. 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.”

The rarity of A. burmanicus is especially noteworthy in light of the sheer number of insects already identified. According to the Smithsonian encyclopedia, there are more than 900,000 known species of insects, which represents about 80 percent of the world’s species.

Despite almost one million different types of insects living on Earth, all fit into the 31 pre-existing orders. A. burmanicus brings that number up to 32. Many scientists believe that the still-undiscovered insect species outnumber those that have already been named.

Orders, which supersede family, genus, and species in taxonomic rank, can group many similar species. Some well-known examples of orders include primates, bats, and beetles. 

“The distinguishing feature of Aethiocarenus burmanicus sp. et gen. nov. is its unique head, the dorsum of which is shaped like an isosceles right triangle with the hypotenuse at the top and vertex positioned at the base of the neck,” write Poinar and his co-author Alex Brown in the abstract of their study. “While insects with triangular-shaped heads are common today, the hypotenuse 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.”

And with its eyes so far apart on its triangle-shaped head, Poinar believes Aethiocarenus may have been able to see 180 degrees with a turn of the head.

“The strangest thing about this insect is that the head looked so much like the way aliens are often portrayed,” said Poinar. “With its long neck, big eyes and strange oblong head, I thought it resembled E.T.”