Scientists are unravelling a mystery that may have never seen the light of day if not for a fateful encounter over 10 years ago outside a Walmart in Arkansas.
That’s when Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab, came across an astonishingly large flying insect while shopping for groceries.
“I remember it vividly, because I was walking into Walmart to get milk and I saw this huge insect on the side of the building,” said Skvarla, who was working on his PhD at the University of Arkansas at the time.
“I thought it looked interesting, so I put it in my hand and did the rest of my shopping with it between my fingers. I got home, mounted it, and promptly forgot about it for almost a decade.”
At the time, Skvarla didn’t know that the insect he so casually held in his fingers was a living artifact. What he thought was an antlion, a bug that resembles a dragonfly, was actually a giant lacewing.
Giant lacewings were abundant during the time of the dinosaurs, but they mysteriously died out in eastern North America over half a century ago. The last giant lacewing recorded in the area was found in the 1950s but this is the first of the species to be found in Arkansas.
“This discovery suggests there may be relic populations of this large, Jurassic-Era insect yet to be discovered,” reads a press release from Penn State about the discovery.
No one knows why the giant lacewing disappeared from the area, but scientists have hypothesized that light pollution, invasive species or even forest fire suppression could be to blame.
Misidentified by Skvarla, the historic rediscovery of the giant lacewing could have gone completely unnoticed.
Flashing forward to 2020, Skvarla, now a professor, was teaching a fourth-year entomology course at Penn State on Zoom after the world went into lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Since he was teaching from home, Skvarla used his own personal insect collection as samples to show students.
Skvarla showed the class the giant bug he had collected at Walmart all those years ago, presenting it as an antlion. But as Skvarla was explaining the insect’s features to his students, he noticed something was wrong. The characteristics he was describing didn’t match the label.
“We were watching what Dr. Skvarla saw under his microscope and he’s talking about the features and then just kinda stops,” said Codey Mathis, a PhD candidate in entomology at Penn State. “We all realized together that the insect was not what it was labelled and was in fact a super-rare giant lacewing.
“I still remember the feeling. It was so gratifying to know that the excitement doesn’t dim, the wonder isn’t lost. Here we were making a true discovery in the middle of an online lab course.”
Skvarla and his colleagues performed molecular DNA analyses on the giant lacewing specimen to confirm its true identity. He has since published a paper about the discovery in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.
The giant lacewing has been transferred to the Frost Entomological Museum at Penn State, where scientists and students will be able to access it for further study.
“Entomology can function as a leading indicator for ecology,” Skvarla said. “The fact that this insect was spotted in a region that it hasn’t been seen in over half a century tells us something more broadly about the environment.”
Another one of Skvarla’s students marvelled at the find.
“It was one of those experiences you don’t expect to have in a prerequisite lab course,” said Louis Nastasi. “Here we were, just looking at specimens to identify them and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this incredible new record pops up.”