An alien-like fossil of an insect trapped in amber from the time of the dinosaurs does not fit into any of the 31 orders of insects that scientists know about – so it's been put in another one all by itself.

The famous alien in Steven Spielberg's film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the first thing that sprang to mind for the scientist who discovered the insect. The find is not just a new species, it is so distinct from all other prehistoric or modern insects discovered so far that it is in its own order, called Aethiocarenodea. The research is published in the journal Cretaceous Research.

"This insect has a number of features that just don't match those of any other insect species that I know," said study author George Poinar Jr, an emeritus professor of entomology in Oregon State University, whose career has been devoted to studying amber specimens.

"I had never really seen anything like it. It appears to be unique in the insect world, and after considerable discussion we decided it had to take its place in a new order."

The most bizarre feature of the insect is its triangular head that has the opposite geometry to the majority of insects with triangular head such as ants, whose heads taper to a point at the front. The insect also has a flattened body, long slender legs, no wings, protruding eyes and a swollen abdomen.

The insect is thought to have lived in tree bark and preyed on mites, worms or fungi. It had glands on its neck that are thought to be for secreting a chemical to act as a repellent to predators. It was found in Myanmar, where only one other similar specimen has been be discovered.

"The strangest thing about this insect is that the head looked so much like the way aliens are often portrayed," Poinar said.

This insect specimen, trapped in amber, is unlike any other type of insect found on Earth so far. Scientists have created a new order just to accommodate it into the tree of life George Poinar, Jr. / Oregon State University

"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."

What is an 'order' in biology?

An order is a part of the way that life on Earth is classified.

  • A species is a group of related organisms that can interbreed.
  • A genus is the next level up: a group of related species.
  • A family, in evolutionary biology, is the next level up again: a group of related genera.
  • Then comes an order: a group of related families.
  • It does not stop there. A group of orders is a class.
  • A group of classes is a phylum.
  • A group of phyla is a kingdom.
  • A group of kingdoms is a domain.

There are three domains, and they cover all life that has ever existed on Earth.

The insect has glands in its neck that are thought to be for secreting a repellent to deter predators George Poinar, Jr. / Oregon State University