Newly Identified Fossil Insect Used 360 Degrees

image: exophthalmos of Palaeotanyrhina
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Credit: George Poinar Jr., State of Oregon

CORVALLIS, Ore. – With bulging eyes, an elongated mouth and feet that ooze resin, a fossil insect identified by Oregon State University research is so unlike anything living today that it had to be placed in his own extinct family.

George Poinar Jr., professor emeritus at the OSU College of Science, named the insect Palaeotanyrhina exophthalma in an article published in Complete BioOne. Encased in 100-million-year-old amber from Burma, P. exophthalma is part of the order Hemiptera — a “true insect,” Poinar said.

“It’s a small predator that used its beady eyes to locate prey,” said Poinar, an international expert in using plant and animal lifeforms preserved in amber to learn about the biology and l ecology of the distant past.

More than 80,000 species, including cicadas, aphids, leafhoppers, leafhoppers, bed bugs, and shield bugs, make up the order Hemiptera, an ancient Greek word meaning half-winged. True insects vary greatly in size, ranging from as small as 1 millimeter to as large as 15 centimeters, but they all have a similar arrangement of sucking mouthparts.

P. exophthalma has a body length of just over 5 millimeters. It shares some characteristics with members of the superfamily Reduvoidea, which includes the assassin bug and the kissing bug, but its long labium (lower mouth), head shape, and anterior veins disqualify it for placement in any modern Reduvoidea family. Poinar said.

He therefore assigned it to a new extinct family: the Palaeotanyrhinidae.

“Its eyes provided a clear 360-degree view of its habitat so it could see prey that could spawn from any side,” Poinar said.

It reminded Poinar of the phrase “Big Brother is always watching you” from George Orwell’s “1984” novel in which security cameras tracked individuals’ every move.

The other strange feature of this fossil is an elongated sheath on the last leg segment of the front tarsus, he added.

“This sheath was filled with a resinous substance,” Poinar said. “The sticky substance was produced by the dermal glands and helped the insect to grasp potential prey.”

Péter Kóbor of the Plant Protection Institute of the Budapest Agricultural Research Center collaborated in this research, as did Alex E. Brown of Berkeley, California.

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