A 2012 trip to a Fayetteville, Arkansas, Walmart to pick up milk turned out to be one for the history books. A giant insect that stopped a scientist in his tracks when he walked into the store and he ended up taking home turned out to be a rare flying insect from the Jurassic period.
Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State University’s Insect Identification Lab, found the mysterious bug — an experience he says he remembers “vividly.”
“I went into Walmart to get milk and I saw this huge bug on the side of the building,” he said in a Penn State news release. “I thought it looked interesting, so I put it in my hand and did the rest of the shopping with it between my fingers. I got home, mounted it and promptly forgot about it for almost a decade.”
Skvarla originally thought the bug he had picked from outside Walmarts was an ant lion. These insects, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, “look like fragile, sad damselflies, with an elongated body, four intricately veined wings spotted with brown and black, and clubbed or curved antennae about as long as the combined head and thorax.”
But in autumn 2020 when he was teaching an online course on insect biodiversity and evolution, Skvarla showed the students the mistake and suddenly realized that it was not what he originally thought. He and his students found out what it could be — live on a Zoom call.
“We looked at what Dr. Skvarla saw under his microscope and he talks about the features and then he stops a little bit,” said one of his students Codey Mathis. “We all realized that the insect was not what it was labeled and that it was actually a super-rare giant lacewing.”
A clear indicator of this identification was the bug’s wingspan. It was about 50 millimeters — almost 2 inches — a span that the team said made it clear the insect was not an ant lion.
“I still remember the feeling,” Mathis said. “It was so gratifying to know that the excitement does not subside, the wonder is not lost. Here we made a true discovery in the middle of an online lab course.”
Skvarla then worked with a team to conduct molecular analyzes of the bug. In November, his research on the specimen was published in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.
Giant lacewings were once found across the continent, but by the 1950s the insect had been exterminated in the eastern part of North America. Their disappearance is largely shrouded in mystery, with some theorizing that they may have disappeared due to increasing light pollution, new predators and potentially even new earthworms introduced into the environment that changed the soil’s composition.
The discovery of the Arkansas specimen “represents a new state record and the first specimen recorded in eastern North America in over 50 years,” Skvarla said in his research.
“This discovery suggests that there may be relict populations of this large, charismatic insect that have yet to be discovered,” he wrote, adding that the site where it was found may be “an ideal hiding place for a large, showy insect undiscovered.”
“It could have been 100 years since it was even in this area – and it’s years since it’s been spotted anywhere near it. The next closest place they’ve been found was 1,200 miles away, so highly unlikely it would have traveled as far,” he said. “…But a discovery like this really highlights that even in an ongoing situation, there is still an enormous amount of discovery to be made about insects.”