Giant Jurassic-era insect discovered at Arkansas Walmart sets historical record

Polystochotes punctata

This Polystochotes punctata or giant lacewing was collected in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2012 by Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab. The specimen is the first of its kind recorded in eastern North America in over fifty years – and the first record of the species ever in the state. Credit: Michael Skvarla/Penn State

Recent identification of the giant snow fox points to deeper ecological questions.

A giant insect plucked from the facade of a Walmart in Arkansas has set historical records. The Polystochotes punctata or giant lacewing is the first of its kind recorded in eastern North America in over 50 years – and the first record for

Skvarla found the specimen in 2012, but misidentified it and only discovered its true identity after teaching an online course based on his personal insect collection in 2020. He recently co-authored a scientific journal article about the discovery Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.

“I remember it clearly, because I went into Walmart to get milk and I saw this huge bug on the side of the building,” said Skvarla, who was a graduate student at the University of Arkansas at the time. “I thought it looked interesting, so I put it in my hand and shopped the rest with it between my fingers. I got home, assembled it and promptly forgot about it for almost a decade.”

It wasn’t before

When he went to demonstrate the features of a specimen he had previously called a “mylion”, Skvarla noticed that the features did not quite match those of the dragonfly-like predatory insect. Instead, he thought it looked more like a shoelace. A giant lacewing has a wingspan of about 50 millimeters, which is quite large for an insect, a clear indicator that the specimen was not a marsh lion, as Skvarla had mistakenly labeled it. The students started working on comparing functions – and a discovery was made, directly on Zoom.

“We looked at what Dr. Skvarla saw under his microscope, and he talks about the features and then he stops a little bit,” said Codey Mathis, a doctoral candidate in entomology at Penn State. “We all realized that the insect was not what it was labeled and that it was actually a super-rare giant lacewing. I still remember the feeling. It was so gratifying to know that the excitement is not dampened, the wonder is not lost. Here we made a true discovery in the middle of an online lab course.”

For further confirmation, Skvarla and his colleagues performed molecular

Discovery or recovery?

The fact that a giant lacewing was discovered in the urban area of ​​Fayetteville, Arkansas, may reveal a larger story about biodiversity and a changing environment, Skvarla explained. He said explanations vary for the giant lacewing’s disappearance from North America — and it remains largely a mystery.

Scientists hypothesize that the insect’s disappearance may be due to the ever-increasing amount of artificial light and pollution of urbanization; forest fire suppression in eastern North America, if the insects depend on post-fire environments; the introduction of non-native predators such as large ground beetles; and the introduction of non-native earthworms, which significantly altered the composition of forest leaf litter and soil.

“Entomology can serve as a leading indicator of ecology,” Skvarla said. “The fact that this insect was discovered in a region where it hasn’t been seen for over half a century tells us something more general about the environment.”

The researchers analyzed extensive collection records of giant lacewings, including museum holdings and social science submissions, and placed them on a single map to determine their distribution. The records span a large geographic area, from Alaska to Panama, and include several ecoregions in both eastern and western North America. The map revealed that the Arkansas specimen was the first to be discovered in eastern North America in over 50 years.

Fayetteville lies within the Ozark Mountains, which are a suspected biodiversity hotspot, according to Skvarla and his co-author J. Ray Fisher of the Mississippi Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University.

They said dozens of endemic species, including 68 species of insects, are known from the Ozarks and at least 58 species of plants and animals have highly disjunct populations with representatives in the region. They explain that the area is understudied compared to regions with similar biodiversity, such as the southern Appalachians.

“This combination makes the region an ideal place for a large, showy insect to hide undetected,” they said.

The mystery remains as to how the insect arrived outside a Walmart. The fact that it was found on the side of a well-lit building at night suggests that it was probably attracted to the lights and may have flown at least a few hundred meters from where it originated, Skvarla explained. “It could have been 100 years since it was in this area – and it’s many years since it’s been discovered anywhere near it. The next closest place they’ve been found was 1,200 miles away, so highly unlikely it would have traveled that far far.”

The researchers note that they suspect the new specimen represents a rare, surviving eastern population of giant lacewings that eluded detection and extinction.

“Discovery doesn’t always have the same kind of hold on people that it might have 100 years ago,” Nastasi said. “But a discovery like this really highlights that even in an ongoing situation, there is still a huge number of discoveries to be made about insects.”

Reference: “Rediscovery of Polystochotes punctata (Fabricius, 1793) (Neuroptera: Ithonidae) in Eastern North America” ​​by Michael J. Skvarla and J. Ray Fisher, 30 Nov 2022, Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.
DOI: 10.4289/0013-8797.124.2.332

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