Rare giant lacewing found in Arkansas Walmart parking lot

Photo of an attached insect with large clear wings

This giant snow fox (Polystoechotes punctata) was the first of its kind to be found in the eastern United States in more than 50 years—and the first ever collected in Arkansas.
Photo: Michael Skvarla / Penn State.

Formerly a rare species common but believed to be extinct in the eastern United Stateshas been rediscovered strolling at a Walmart.

When Michael Skvarla first picked the big wing insect off the building’s facade in 2012, he didn’t know it was remarkable. He was just doing normal bug nerd stuff. The entomologist, now a professor at Penn State, was working on his Ph.D at that time in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He and his wife had driven to local Walmart only to shop a little. But on the way into the store, an insect sitting on the outer wall caught his eye.

At first he thought the animal was an antlion – a relatively common type of flying insect with voracious, predatory larvae. “I had been collecting ants at the time because I thought it was a pretty group,” he told Gizmodo in a phone call. Then, like any self-respecting insect lover, Skvarla carefully picked the animal up by its clear, intricately veined wings and carried it around in one hand as he collected his groceries. Once home, he killed the bug, mounted it, and stuck a stick in it—literally and metaphorically. With the insect in his collection, “I forgot about it for (about) 10 years,” the scientist said.

It wasn’t until Skvarla was teaching a virtual class on biodiversity in 2020 that he re-examined the 2012 Walmart discovery. Upon closer inspection under a microscope, he realized that the specimen was not an antlion but instead something much rarer: a giant lacewing (Polystochotes punctata), a large, nocturnal insect that first appeared on the evolutionary record more than 100 million years ago during the Jurassic period.

The epiphany happened in real time in front of his students as he shared tips on how to identify insects. When his previous ID was resolved, Skvarla started Googling to find an alternative. “As soon as I looked up ‘giant lacewings, western United States,’ (an image) came up and it was like, ‘that’s the thing I’m looking at under my microscope,'” he told Gizmodo.

Skvarla was no expert on giant lacewings in 2012 and still don’t consider themselves one. That Internet searches were based on a vague recollection and a hunch. But it has led to the confirmed discovery of the rare insect, historically thought to be extinct in the eastern United States Before Skvarla’s lucky Walmart pickup, a giant lacewing hadn’t been recorded in the eastern half of the country in more than 50 years. In Arkansas, it was the first time the species had had it been found.

“When I found out what it was, it was very exciting. It is probably one of the most exciting specimens I have ever collected, he added. It just goes to show that in entomology, “as long as you’re paying attention, you don’t need to be an expert in a group to make an important discovery.”

Skvarla officially documented the find in a study published November 2022 and published in a Penn State press release this week.

In the paper, the entomologist confirmed his identification of the specimen based on its physical properties and reviewed all the previous giant lacing records. He and his co-author combed through historical accounts, museum records and photos from citizen scientists posted online to construct a portrait of the species’ past and present across North America.

They found surprising descriptions of giant lacewing swarms – sometimes so locally abundant that, in at least one incident from 1903 in Ontario, Canada, Townspeople mistook the swarm of flying insects over a building for smoke and called firefighters. In New York state, a naturalist wrote in 1885 that giant lacewings were common and that “hundreds could be seen resting on the living room walls” at any time in the right season. But mysteriously, relatively few of the insects were actually collected. And between 1960 and 2012, not a single one was found or photographed in any US state or Canadian territory east of the 100th west meridian.

No one knows for sure why the giant lacewings disappeared inside the east, Skvarla told Gizmodo. The species is not of particular economic importance (i.e. it’s not a plant pest, a disease carrier or a useful natural enemy), so it’s understudied, he added. Scientists aren’t even sure what the insects eat or what what their larvae look like and where they live.

But some theories about the species’ eastern extinction include that light pollution or forest fire suppression may have played a role. Giant lacewings are drawn to the light, which is likely what attracted Skvarla’s specimen to the Walmart parking lot. Some accounts have also suggested that the insects are drawn to smoke—perhaps their poorly understood life cycle is somehow linked to the post-burn environment. Invasive species may also be to blame. But for whatever reason, giant snow foxes have been considered non-existent in their former territory east of the Rocky Mountains for decades.

Obviously, Skvarla’s findings suggest otherwise. In his view, the Fayetteville giant lacewing hatched almost entirely locally, psince the next closest known populations are about 750 miles away. He believes the snowwings in the poorly researched Ozark ecosystem have persisted in small numbers undetected until now. Maybe, also found from 2012 could signal a resurgence—that whatever pressures drove the insects to local extinction had abated—but no other sightings have been recorded since in Arkansas or any other eastern state. “We have one specimen right now, so it’s hard to draw any ecological judgment from it,” he said.

“My guess is that whatever population there is is probably pretty small, and I just happened to be lucky,” he said. Nevertheless, Skvarla is optimistic that several of the elusive night planes may still be out there in Arkansas. Although Fayetteville is a denser city than it was in 2012, the park that Skvarla theorizes his specimen came from remains undeveloped. “If this wasn’t some crazy (outlier) that blew in from the west somehow — if this was from a breeding population — then my guess is (they’re) still there,” he said. “It has persisted so long undetected, that we haven’t seen it for another 10 years is not surprising.”


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