It’s not every day that you discover a missing species when you go to the supermarket to get some milk.
But that’s exactly what happened to Professor Michael Skvarla, a zoologist at the Insect Identification Lab at Penn State University.
Professor Skvarla found the “big, charismatic” giant lacewing, Polystoechotes punctata, outside a Walmart in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
P. punctata isn’t a new species — it was first identified by Danish zoologist Johan Fabricius in 1793 — but it hadn’t been seen in eastern North America for more than 50 years.
Professor Skvarla originally misidentified it as an ant lion, a type of insect predator known to lure prey into deadly traps.
The specimen is the first of its kind recorded in eastern North America in more than fifty years — and the first record of the species ever in the state
This Polystoechotes punctata or giant lacewing was collected in 2012 in Fayetteville, Arkansas by Michael Skvarla who was a local student at the time
The expert made the discovery in 2012 outside of Walmart, but did not discover the true identity until 2020.
Now he’s co-authored a new paper about the discovery, published in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.
P. punctata: A ‘large, charismatic insect’
Kind name: Polystoechotes punctata
Family: Ithonidae (giant lacewings)
Reach: Central America and North America
discovers: Fabricius, 1793
“I remember it vividly because I walked into Walmart to get some milk and I saw a huge bug on the side of the building,” said Skvarla, who was a doctoral student at the time at the University of Arkansas.
“I thought it looked interesting, so I put it in my hand and did the rest of my shopping with it between my fingers.”
Professor Skvarla said he killed the specimen when he got home, climbed on it and promptly forgot about it for nearly a decade.
“When I got home I killed the specimen using a kill pot, standard equipment in entomology for dispatching insects,” he told MailOnline.
‘Actually a jar with some plaster on the bottom that has been impregnated with acetone, ethanol or another agent that quickly kills insects.
“Then I pinned it and kept it in my collection.”
The mystery remains how the bug ended up on the outside of a Walmart, though the fact that it was found on the side of a well-lit building at night suggests it was attracted to the lights and may have flown from hundreds of feet away. .
Professor Michael Skvarla, director of the Insect Identification Lab in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, holds a stick insect
Pictured is the Walmart at the intersection of 265 and Mission Blvd where Professor Skvarla found the bug in 2012
The mystery remains how Polystoechotes punctata ended up on the outside of a Walmart. Pictured, file photo of the insect from the ‘Jurassic era’
At the time, Professor Skvarla misidentified it as an ‘ant lion’ – the name of a completely different family of insects.
Antlions get their name because they are known for the predatory habits of their larvae, which usually dig pits to catch passing ants or other prey.
The appearance of ant lions can vary greatly depending on the species, but what brings them together is their tendency to create these ‘death traps’.
“I wasn’t sure what kind of ant lion it could be,” he told MailOnline.
“There are a number of them that exist in Arkansas and it’s not a group I know of.”
It would not be until eight years later, until the Covid pandemic, that the insect would be correctly identified.
In the fall of 2020, Professor Skvarla used his own personal insect collection as sample samples to teach a class via Zoom.
He noted that his specimen’s features didn’t quite match those of the dragonfly-like predatory insect, but more closely resembled a lacewing.
A giant mesh wing has a wingspan of about 2 inches (5 cm), which is quite large for an insect, a clear indication that the specimen was not an antlion, as Skvarla had mistakenly labeled it.
“We looked at what Dr. Skvarla saw under his microscope and he talks about the facial features and then kind of stops,” says Codey Mathis, one of his students.
“We all realized together that the insect was not what it was labeled and was in fact a super rare giant lacewing.”
For additional confirmation, Skvarla and colleagues performed molecular DNA analyzes on the sample.
Researchers also analyzed extensive collections of insects from the giant lacewing family — called Ithonidae — including museum holdings and community science entries, and plotted them on a single map to determine their distribution.
The records span a huge geographic range, from Alaska to Panama, and include multiple ecoregions in both eastern and western North America.
Records of P. punctata in North America, 1860–2020. It is the first of its kind to be recorded in eastern North America in more than 50 years
The map revealed that the Arkansas specimen was spotted in eastern North America for the first time in more than 50 years — since 1951 — as well as the first record of the species ever in the state.
But since the turn of the century, there have been several sightings by the public in the western United States.
“Giant lacewings are still found in the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast,” Professor Skvarla told MailOnline.
“Whatever got them wiped out of eastern North America didn’t affect them there. That’s part of the mystery of what happened.”
Penn State University has described Polystoechotes punctata as “Jurassic Age” because the family Ithonidae has a Jurassic origin.
But members of the family have evolved, of course, since the Jurassic period, which stretched from 201 million to 145 million years ago.
There are several theories as to why sightings of the insect are so rare.
It is possible that they have largely disappeared due to light pollution, new predators or even the introduction of non-native earthworms that have changed the composition of forest leaf litter and soil.
Since the turn of the century, there have been “community sightings” (by the public and amateur scientists) in the western United States
The zoologist thinks there are “maybe” more of the species in Fayetteville today.
Fayetteville is close to the Ozark Mountains – an “underexplored biodiversity hotspot” and a good place for a large insect to go unnoticed.
“With just a single specimen, it’s impossible to know where it came from,” he told MailOnline.
“I suspect there is a local population that has managed to avoid being wiped out.
“There’s a chance it came from existing populations out west and was blown in in a storm or hitchhiked on a truck.”
“Until more specimens are found, there’s no way of knowing.”
Since confirming his true identity, he has safely deposited the specimen in the collections of the Frost Entomological Museum at Penn State, where scientists and students will have access to it for further study.
Meet the insect with leaf-shaped sex organs: New locust species discovered in Uganda — and so rare its close relatives were last seen in 1969
An insect with ‘leaf-shaped genitals’ has been discovered in Uganda, a British scientist announced in 2022.
The species of leafhopper, called Phlogis kibalensis, was found in the rainforest of Kibale National Park in western Uganda.
It is very small – the male of the newly discovered species P. kibalensis is only 6.5 mm long.
As is common to most locusts, the species also has uniquely shaped male reproductive organs – in this case ‘part leaf shaped’.
Common to most locusts, the species has uniquely shaped male reproductive organs – in this case partially leaf-shaped
P. kibalensis belongs to a genus of insects called Phlogis. This genus is so rare that its closest relative was last seen in 1969, in the Central African Republic.