George Poinar Jr. of Oregon State University has been studying insects – living and extinct – for decades. But when he peered inside a 100-million-year-old piece of amber and found two bulging eyes on a strange triangular head staring back at him, he was taken utterly by surprise. That's because the creature he'd found is something entirely new to science.

With its bulging eyes and strange triangular head, Aethiocarenus is like nothing else we've found in the insect world. Image: George Poinar/Oregon State University

There's an order to life on earth: all species are related in one giant family tree. Poinar's new bug is definitely an insect (it has three body segments, six legs, etc.), but it doesn't fit into any of the more than 30 known major branches of insects.

"I had never really seen anything like it," he says in a press release. "It appears to be unique in the insect world."

Its name is Aethiocarenus. That narrow, flat body with long legs and no wings would have suited a life of creeping nimbly around trees and low-lying plants. "I could see it amongst mosses and liverworts … or in crevices in the bark," Poinar says in a SciNews video.

But what's really striking about this bug is its weird triangular head.

A triangle-shaped head isn't new for insects, but in every known example, the neck is attached along one of the flat sides of the triangle (think praying mantis). In Aethiocarenus, on the other hand, the head meets the neck at one of the triangle's points. This is no small detail – it's a body plan no other insect has.

Poinar says the shape of the bug's head reminds him of the classic image of big-eyed, narrow-necked aliens. He even claims to have built an Aethiocarenus-inspired Halloween mask. "But when I wore the mask when trick-or-treaters came by, it scared the little kids so much I took it off."

That bizarre head was a boon for the bug. Poinar explains that it would have been able to twist its head almost 180 degrees around in a very unique way. This may have been useful for tracking prey, keeping an eye out for predators, or both.

If it's swivel head and long legs weren't enough to escape (or creep out) a potential predator, Aethiocarenus had another trick in store: special glands on its neck that probably secreted a chemical to ward off any hungry attackers.

The amber that entombed the two specimens of Aethiocarenus came from the famous Hukawng Valley Mines in Myanmar (formerly Burma, hence the name "Burmese amber"), making this creature about 100 million years old – that's older than T. rex, but younger than Stegosaurus. These are the same mines that produced the amber-preserved dinosaur tail that caused such a stir recently.

Burmese amber is famous among jewellers and scientists alike for the preserved treasures that are often found inside it. Over the past few years, exquisite Burmese amber discoveries have included a "unicorn ant" with massive slicing jaws, a scale insect carrying its eggs and young around, and a spider in the process of devouring a wasp.


This new discovery was published in the journal Cretaceous Research. 

Top header image: George Poinar/Oregon State University