(CNN) An insect found on the side of a big box store in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has been identified as the species Polystoechotes punctata, which belongs to a family of insects that predates the dinosaurs.
Michael Skvarla, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Insect Identification Lab, spotted the Jurassic creature, otherwise known as a giant lacewing, on a shopping trip in 2012 when he was a graduate student at entomology at the University of Arkansas.
“I remember it clearly, because I went into Walmart to get milk and I saw this huge insect on the side of the building,” Skvarla said in a statement. “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 had initially misidentified Lacing as a marsh lion, a dragonfly-like insect that shares certain features, including long transparent wings, with Lacing. But after presenting the insect to his online entomology course in the fall of 2020, he realized that what he had all those years was something much rarer and more impressive.
He performed additional DNA analyzes to confirm the identity of the insect, and the giant snow fox has now become part of the Frost Entomological Museum’s collection at Penn State.
The disappearance of the giant snow fox
The giant snow fox disappeared in the 1950s from eastern North America, where it had previously been widespread, according to the paper Skvarla co-authored in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. Scientists believed that the species was completely wiped out in the region. The recent discovery of the snow fox in Arkansas is the first record of the species in the state.
“Entomology can serve as a leading indicator of ecology,” Skvarla said in the statement. “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.”
While the mysterious disappearance of the insect is suspected to have been due to efforts to suppress natural wildfires in eastern North America, according to the newspaper, the bigger mystery is how the insect ended up in a supermarket in an urban area of Arkansas.
“It may have been 100 years since (the species) itself was in this area – and it’s been years since it was spotted near it. The next closest place they were found was 1,200 miles away, so it’s highly unlikely that it would has traveled that far, Skvarla said, suggesting that the snow fox was attracted to the lights and flew at least a few hundred meters from where it had been living.
Skvarla’s discovery has opened the door to future lacing finds, as insect enthusiasts begin to check their own collections and look for the species in the wild in places they hadn’t thought to look before, said Dr. Floyd Shockley, the collection manager for the Department of Entomology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
“Anytime you find an insect species that’s not in a place you’re used to it being, it has a lot of implications for our understanding of that species—what kind of distribution it has, what kind of ecosystem it might require to complete its life cycle, Shockley said. “That means that something we thought was gone, at least from the eastern United States, may still be there, and it’s just hiding in little pockets.”
Shockley also noted the importance of museum collections, such as the one with the Smithsonian or at Penn State, where the snow fox resides, as they “help capture different snapshots of biodiversity over time and allow us to see what’s happening and why it’s happening.”
“Everybody always focuses on the big things — big birds and mammals and things like that. But this is an insect world… We just live off of it,” Shockley said. “It’s really important to have that kind of understanding. And one of the nice things about insects is that there’s so much diversity that you can appreciate, just in your garden.”