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This 100-Million-Year-Old Insect Trapped in Amber Defines New Order

These now-extinct creatures are thought to have been able to secrete a chemical repellant and rotate their heads 180 degrees

Aethiocarenus burmanicus (George Poinar, Jr.)

New insect species are discovered on a regular basis—just this month researchers detailed a wasp that takes over another species' mind, a moth that was named after Donald Trump and two species of katydid in Borneo whose females are pink. But adding another order of insects to the 31 divisions already part of the tree of life is very rare indeed. But researchers at Oregon State University claim to have done just that, adding a whole new branch of insects.

George Poinar, Jr., emeritus professor of entomology at Oregon State University and the man who first suggested amber could trap ancient DNA (Jurassic Park style) says that he and his team found an unusual wingless female insect trapped in an amber chunk. This fossilized tree resin was collected from mines in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar. They described their findings in the journal Cretaceous Research

“This insect has a number of features that just don’t match those of any other insect species that I know,” Poinar says in a 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.”

That new order is called Aethiocarenodea and the species is named Aethiocarenus burmanicus. The tiny 0.2-inch-long flat-bodied insect dates from 100 million years ago and likely hunted mites, worms and fungi in the cracks of tree bark, reports Jeanna Bryer for Live Science. While the insect had a pair of glands in its neck that it likely used to secrete a chemical repellent, its most unusual attribute is its triangular-shaped head.

“The strangest thing about this insect is that the head looked so much like the way aliens are often portrayed,” Poinar says in the press release. “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.”

Bryer reports that the unusual shape would have allowed the insect to turn its head 180 degrees and look behind itself, a trick that no modern insect is known to perform.

The last insect order discovered, Mantophasmatodea, was confirmed in 2002. Also identified as an insect stuck in ancient amber, the discovery was the first time since 1914 that a new order had been described, the BBC reported at the time. This 45-million-year-old creature was discovered in Balitc amber and resembled some unclassified specimens in museum collections. An expedition to Namibia later uncovered two species of living Mantophasmatodea, bringing the total number of known species in the order to three.

“This discovery is comparable to finding a living mastodon or sabre-tooth tiger.” Entomologist Piotr Naskrecki told the BBC at the time. “It tells us that there are places on Earth that act as protective pockets, preserving tiny glimpses of what life was like millions of years ago.”

It’s unlikely that that entomologists will find any remnant populations or descendants of Aethiocarenodea. The researchers believe the order likely went extinct when its habitat disappeared over several million years.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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