With an alien-looking triangular head and protuberant, extraterrestrial eyes, Aethiocarenus burmanicus could easily pass for a distant cousin of E.T. or an extra from Star Wars wandering around the Mos Eisley cantina ... but this 100-million-year-old fossil is more science than fiction.
Even George Poinar Jr., Oregon State University professor emeritus of entomology and research lead in the case of the creature that phoned home from the Cretaceous period, thought the rare specimen looked like something not of this planet. "The strangest thing about this insect is that the head looked so much like the way aliens are often portrayed," Poinar remarked. "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."
Halloween costume inspiration aside, A. burmanicus started a new order. Literally.
While new species of creepy-crawlies are discovered hiding in the dark crevices of the world almost as often as new horror movies terrorize the box office, there were only 31 orders of bugs until this creature reared its bizarre head. Aethiocarenus is the new order created for this unprecedented Cretaceous period relic frozen in time and amber.
Aethiocarenus burmanicus was discovered in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar, apparently the land of weird fossils where paleontologists have unearthed several other extinct holotypes (unique specimens that new species names and descriptions are based on) and even several previously undiscovered orders of prehistoric insects unrelated to anything currently crawling around.
A. burmanicus' features are so strange that scientists had no choice but to set it apart. Wingless and reddish-brown, with long legs and antennae, a narrow flat body and glands that are thought to have produced anti-predator secretions, this species is distinguished most by its grotesquely unusual head. Bulbous compound eyes protrude from either side of an isosceles right triangle whose vertex is attached to its upper thorax (enter E.T. comparison).
This means A. burmanicus could probably rotate its head 180 degrees just by glancing sideways. Extant insects with triangular heads, like the praying mantis, have no such superpowers since their heads are attached at the neck by the hypotenuse.
The specimen was determined to be female, so scientists are unsure whether the male appeared as terrifying.
Magnified to 800 times its size under a microscope, the mouthparts of A. burmanicus revealed that it was most likely omnivorous. Unhindered by wings, its slender body seemed ideal for wriggling between the cracks of bark and moss on ancient trees. The miniscule monster eluded predators with its swift legs — and kept an enormous eye out by swiveling that nightmarish head.
While this fascinating fossil is thought to have vanished after the mass extinction of the late Cretaceous, its new order is something that couldn’t disappear with the dinosaurs.