Image: Ancient fly
George Poinar
An ancient fly that lived about 100 million years ago sported a horn at the center of its forehead capped with three tiny, functional eyes (shown here in an artist's rendering).
By Senior writer
updated 10/27/2009 3:33:16 PM ET 2009-10-27T19:33:16

An ancient fly sporting a horn on its head topped with three eyes would have easily seen predators coming where it lived in the jungles of what is now Myanmar some 100 million years ago.

The fly was also equipped with a pair of large compound eyes, similar to those found in today's insects, for a grand total of five peepers.

A specimen of this bizarre-looking insect had been preserved in Burmese amber and was discovered in a mine in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar. The amber dated back some 97 million to 110 million years ago. Back then, the gooey tree sap would have flowed over the fly before hardening and preserving its features in lifelike detail, the researchers say.

The newfound species, now called Cascoplecia insolitis, gives scientists more details about ancient ecosystems and the creatures that inhabited them.

"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 researcher George Poinar, Jr., a professor of zoology at Oregon State University who just announced the newfound species in the journal Cretaceous Research.

World's oddest animalsThe horn and triple-eye set would have given the fly visual prowess 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 told LiveScience, adding that the danger may have come from predators that included cockroaches, predator bugs, preying mantids and lizards that lived in the ancient Burmese forest.

The fly showed other freaky features, including antenna with S-shaped segments, unusually long legs that would have helped it crawl over flowers, and tiny vestigial mandibles that would have limited it to nibbling on very tiny particles of food.

Pollen grains found on the fly's legs suggest the insect mostly relied on flowers for food. "It was probably a docile little creature that fed on the pollen and nectar of tiny tropical flowers," Poinar said.

And the oddball may have been in good company when alive, during the age of the dinosaurs.

"This was near the end of the Early Cretaceous when a lot of strange evolutionary adaptations were going on," Poinar said. "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."

He added, "This 'unicorn' fly was one of the oddities of the Cretaceous world and was obviously an evolutionary dead end."

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Photos: Incredible insect photos

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  1. Robber fly

    Nature photographer Thomas Shahan specializes in amazing portraits of tiny insects. It isn't easy. Shahan says that this Robber Fly (Holcocephala fusca), for instance, is "skittish" and doesn't like its picture taken. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Shahan found this adult male Paraphidippus aurantius jumping spider at Red Bud Valley Nature Preserve near Catoosa, Okla. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Damselfly

    This close-up of the head of a damselfly is Shahan's first of this species. "Generally, these guys won't let you," he said. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Horse fly

    Shahan caught this female Tabanus horse fly in a toothpick container, took the insect home, then smeared some honey on a stone (in foreground) to get it to stand still for its close-up. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grasshopper

    A close-up look at the head of a grasshopper, courtesy of photographer Thomas Shahan. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Female jumping spider

    This female jumping spider (Platycryptus undatus) was at least three-fourths an inch long, one of the largest Shahan had seen before he spotted a 1-inch one nearby. Unfortunately, it jumped and disappeared. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Wet bee

    Shahan found this this wet bee face sitting immobile on top of a flower. "I don't think he was dead," he said, "maybe just too cold and wet to fly away." (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Ladybug

    Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Fortunately, this Cycloneda munda didn't, at least not before Shahan snapped its picture. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Praying mantis

    This mantis, about an inch and a half long, was chewing on its own foot for some reason when Shahan photographed it. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. White face fly

    This white face fly (Archytas apicifer) was quite a large representative of its species. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Weevil

    This tiny weevil, around 4-5mm or so, was captured atop a flower. A weevil is a type of beetle. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Green sweat bee

    Shahan said this was one of the first "decent photos" he had gotten of a green sweat bee, of the family Halictidae. This one was quite small, about 10mm in length. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Striped lynx spider

    Shahan found this male striped lynx spider (Oxyopes salticus) on the railing of his own deck. He said the male is more difficult to photograph than the female of the species. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Katydid

    The head of a katydid nymph (Scudderia). Shahan believes that the insects lose most of these vibrant colors by the time they become adult. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Striped horse fly

    Shahan captured the image of this male striped horse fly (Tabanus lineola) on a white railing, which reflected his flash, providing good lighting. He said it made bizarre movements with its legs, "totally different than any other fly I have seen." (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Crane fly

    This was the first tiger crane fly (Nephrotoma ferruginea) that Shahan was able to photograph up close; normally, he said, they were "just too flighty." (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Harvestman

    This harvestman (Palpatores) was photographed at Devil's Den state park in Arkansas. Although it is an eight-legged arachnid (one of this one's legs is missing), it is not a spider. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Female jumping spider

    This close-up of a female jumping spider (Maevia inclemens) clearly captures the vivid colors of its eyes. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Say 'cheese'

    Photographer Thomas Shahan hard at work in the wild, getting a shot of a robber fly in August 2009.

    See more of Shahan's work (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
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