The ET-Like Insect That Inhabited Earth 100 Million Years Ago

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This strange insect found preserved in amber represents a new species, genus, family and order of insects. PhotoCredit: George Poinar, Oregon State University

The about million species of insects known to humanity thus far have managed to neatly fit into one of 31 existing scientific orders. However, when George Poinar, Jr., the world’s leading expert on plant and animal life forms found preserved in amber, saw the carcass of this 100-million-year-old insect, he knew it would require its own scientific order – an incredibly rare event.

According to the emeritus professor of entomology at Oregon State University’s College of Science, the insect had many features that did not match those of any other insect species he had encountered. The most prominent were its triangular head and bulging eyes that gave the female bug an “E.T.-like” appearance. To be clear, triangular heads are not unusual in insects. However, it is always the hypotenuse, or the longest side of the right angle, that is attached to insect’s neck. In the case of this mysterious insect, it was the vertex, or the highest point of the triangle, that connected to the neck. This enabled the bug to see almost 180 degrees by simply turning its head sideways.

Neck glands appear to release a substance that was probably used to repel predators. Photo Credit: George Poinar, Jr., Oregon State University

Poinar and his team, who published their findings in the journal Cretaceous Research in December 2016, believe that the wingless insect was an omnivore that resided in tree bark fissures and fed on mites, worms, and fungi. Its long, narrow, flat body and slender legs, indicate that it could move quickly. The researchers were also able to detect glands on the insect’s neck which they think may have secreted a chemical to repel predators.

The bug, categorized in a newly created order Aethiocarenodea, was named Aethiocarenus burmanicus in honor of the Hukawng Valley mines of Myanmar – previously known as Burma — where the amber was discovered. While the researchers are not sure how the arthropods became extinct, they speculate it was most likely due to the loss of their preferred habitat. Given that scientists have been able to find just one other amber preserved specimen of this alien-like insect, they expect the scientific order to be a very exclusive club with just two members. In comparison, Coleoptera, the largest order to which beetles belong, boasts hundreds of thousands of species.

The insect’s head, which researchers thought almost resembled the way aliens are portrayed, was so unusual it required the extinct insect to be placed in an entirely new scientific order. Photo Credit: George Poinar, Jr., Oregon State University

If you think the Aethiocarenus burmanicus looks scary, you are not alone. Poinar was so intrigued by his find, which “looked so much like the way aliens are often portrayed,” that he created a Halloween mask resembling the insect’s head. However, it was not as big a hit as he had hoped. The researcher says, “When trick-or-treaters came by, it scared the little kids so much I took it off.”

Resources: wired.com, phys.org, sciencedirect.com

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VocabularyPlay Game

amberarthropodsbulgingcarcasscategorizedemeritusentomologyextinctglandshabitathypotenuseintriguedomnivoreportrayedprominentrepelsecretedspecimenspeculatevertex
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Reading Comprehension (9 questions)

  1. How many scientific orders were all the insects classified in before the latest find?
  2. Why did George Poinar think the insect might need its own scientific order?
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Critical Thinking Challenge

Why would the insect’s ability to see 180 degrees be useful?

...
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Vocabulary in Context

“The researchers were also able to detect glands on the insect’s neck which they think may have secreted a chemical to repel predators.”

In the above...

399 Comments
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  • dudeWednesday, October 11, 2017 at 8:53 am
    this is epic!
    • nb240594
      nb240594Tuesday, October 10, 2017 at 5:56 am
      ET ... back.. from...100 million... years... ago
      • iluvhorses2
        iluvhorses2Sunday, September 24, 2017 at 2:37 pm
        Eeek.
        • LadybugSunday, September 24, 2017 at 1:52 pm
          cool but gross
          • AlexandriaP123 Monday, June 12, 2017 at 9:01 am
            Omg
            • AlexandriaP123 Monday, June 12, 2017 at 9:01 am
              Eww but cool lol
              • 5eagent0015
                5eagent0015Friday, May 12, 2017 at 10:52 am
                This... ant thing is... really cool but at the same time really weird.
                • thecoolkidyo
                  thecoolkidyoWednesday, May 10, 2017 at 7:24 am
                  guys when i was small i saw a large large large ant the size of a large oven glove it was scary i watched all day it fell and died i freaked out when it fell because it had BIG SHARP MOUTH THINGS LIKE A BEETLE!!!!!i threw its dead body in a hole and put dirt over it and ever since iv been checking up on it every day to make sure it was not a dream
                  • jordan45
                    jordan45Wednesday, October 4, 2017 at 6:00 am
                    like that hair
                  • thecoolkidyo
                    thecoolkidyoWednesday, May 10, 2017 at 7:18 am
                    awww the little bug is stuck in amber but it is so cool looking swag *dabs*
                    • thecoolkidyo
                      thecoolkidyoWednesday, May 10, 2017 at 7:18 am
                      the bug is really cool looking i want one as a pet
                    • loganTuesday, May 2, 2017 at 11:03 am
                      so cool

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