Superfly find: Rare horned insect preserved in amber

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George Poinar reached into his trick-or-treat bag and came up with a horn-headed, five-eyed monster.

He discovered what some call the unicorn fly, a 100-million-year-old insect with features that have never been seen before. By humans, anyway.

The Oregon State University scientist found the fly in a chunk of Burmese amber, petrified tree resin that formed around the insect during earth’s Cretaceous period.

The preserved fly has a small horn emerging from its head, and the horn is topped by three eyes. Both features are absolutely unique to this creature, Poinar said.

“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 Poinar. He just announced the new species in the journal Cretaceous Research.

Insects have structures on the top of their head — simple eyes called ocelli — “which is why flies can see you coming from behind,” Poinar said. “But nothing like this, which acted like a periscope, in a way.”

Which actually sounds like a pretty good idea.

“It was a wonderful device. For some reason, it never took off,” the Oregon State zoology professor said. “We’re trying to figure out why it disappeared, and has not been found in other insects.”

Poinar named it “Cascoplecia insolitis,” from the Latin words for old (cascus) and strange (insolates).

One person who reviewed the study called the creature a monster, Poinar said, although there was nothing particularly fearsome about it.

The insect is between 2 and 3 millimeters long. Pollen grains found on its unusually long legs indicate that the fly probably crawled over tiny flower clusters and fed on pollen and nectar.

“If we had seen nothing but the wings of this insect, it would have looked similar to some other flies in the family Bibionomorpha,” Poinar said. “But this was near the end of the Early Cretaceous, when a lot of strange evolutionary adaptations were going on.

“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. So it went extinct.”

And it totally disappeared until this specimen was found.

“Amber mostly catches small, delicate creatures,” Poinar said. “The chances of this being fossilized any other way are negligible.”

Poinar’s specimen lacked only the rear left portion of the abdomen and a portion of the left hind leg. It’s rare to find specimens with essentially a complete body as well as wings, scientists noted in the report.

Poinar’s fossil came from an amber mine in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar, the Asian nation formerly known as Burma.

Poinar had no idea what was spending eternity inside that chunk of golden amber.

“People sell rough pieces of Burmese amber. It’s a grab bag,” Poinar said. “You never know what you’ll get.”

As he started to polish the sample, the fly came into focus.

“When I saw it, my goodness, am I seeing this correctly? I went back and forth repolishing, trying to get as close as I can. I was just amazed. I hadn’t seen anything like it,” Poinar said.

The fly probably would not have attracted much attention in its own era, since that was when dinosaurs were roaming the earth.

Poinar and his wife, Roberta, have written a book about that relationship, by the way: “What Bugged the Dinosaurs.”

Not all of Poinar’s efforts involving the unicorn fly have been along academic lines.

“I was thinking of making some masks based on it for Halloween,” he said.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558 or tom.vogt@columbian.com