Back in 2012, entomologist Michael Skvarla stopped at a Walmart in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to pick up some milk. On the way in, he spotted a large, unusual insect on the side of the building. So he snagged it, took it shopping, brought it home and mounted it, thinking it was an antlion, a type of flying insect. Years later, he discovered it was something much rarer: an insect with an ancient history. 

Penn State shared the story of Skvarla’s find on Monday. Skvarla is director of the university’s Insect Identification Lab. “The Polystoechotes punctata or giant lacewing is the first of its kind recorded in eastern North America in over 50 years — and the first record of the species ever in the state,” Penn State said in a statement. 

Skvarla corrected the initial misidentification while teaching a Zoom class in 2020 where he shared his personal insect collection with the students. Together, they worked out the new ID, which DNA analysis later confirmed. The results appear in a study published late last year in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.

Researchers have found giant lacewing fossils dating back to around 165 million years ago during the Jurassic era. The one found in Arkansas has a wingspan of about 2 inches (50 millimeters).

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Scientists are unsure why giant lacewings disappeared from eastern North America. Predators, urbanization or changes in the insects’ forest environments may have played a role. “This discovery suggests there may be relictual populations of this large, charismatic insect yet to be discovered,” the study said. Essentially, there could be hidden groups of giant lacewings flying under the radar in Arkansas. The one on the side of the Walmart may have been attracted to the store’s lights at night.

This is a story of rediscovery, but also one about the joys of science. Penn State entomology doctoral student Codey Mathis remembers the class and the process of identification, saying, “It was so gratifying to know that the excitement doesn’t dim, the wonder isn’t lost. Here we were making a true discovery in the middle of an online lab course.”  

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