'Unicorn' fly discovered
Researchers in Myanmar unearth an oddball insect with a horn and five eyes, characteristics that were an advantage 100 million years ago.
Wed, Oct 28 2009 at 6:57 PM
SHOO FLY: An artist's rendering of a horned insect that lived 100 million years ago. (Photo: George Poinar)
A bizarre-looking insect sporting a horn and five eyes has been found in the jungles of what is now Myanmar.
Preserved in Burmese amber, the “unicorn” fly specimen was discovered in a mine in the Hukawng Valley in 2001, according to researchers at Oregon State University who just now announced their discovery of the new species in the journal Cretaceous Research. Estimated to be between 97 million and 110 million years old, the fly was preserved in lifelike detail in hardened tree sap.
"No other insect ever discovered has a horn like that, and there's no animal at all with a horn that has eyes on top," said George Poinar Jr., a professor of zoology at Oregon State University, according to MSNBC.com.
Researchers are calling the new species Cascoplecia insolitis, from the Latin words for old, strange and unusual. Indeed, the fly had some odd features, specifically a horn on its head topped with three eyes. It also had a pair of large compound eyes. Researchers said the raised eyes would have let the fly see predators in its forest habitat.
"I think the horn was to raise up the three simple eyes, which would have made it easier to detect approaching danger," Poinar said, mentioning predators such as cockroaches and lizards that lived in the ancient Burmese forest.
Researchers said the fly lived about 100 million years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs but also when Triassic and Jurassic species were becoming extinct. This fly had other unusual features like antenna with S-shaped segments, unusually long legs and tiny vestigial mandibles.
"This 'unicorn' fly was one of the oddities of the Cretaceous world and was obviously an evolutionary dead end," Poinar said. But in the age of the dinosaurs, it was in good company as other evolutionary adaptations were happening.
Researchers who found pollen grains on the fly’s legs said the horned insect was probably a “docile” creature that fed on pollen and nectar.
“Its specialized horn and eyes must have given this insect an advantage on very tiny flowers, but didn’t serve as well when larger flowers evolved,” Poinar said. “So it went extinct.”