Polystoechotes punctata, a species of giant lacewing, was formerly widespread in North America, but was eradicated from eastern North America in the 1950s. Now a new study reports a specimen collected from Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Scientists have found a giant bug plucked from the facade of an Arkansas Walmart that has set historical records. The discovery represents a new state record and the first specimen recorded in eastern North America in more than fifty years. It also suggests that there may be remnant populations of this large Jurassic-era insect that have yet to be discovered.

The specimen was first found in 2012, but was misidentified. Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab, discovered its true identity after teaching an online course based on his insect collection in 2020.

Skvarla said, “I remember it vividly because I walked into Walmart to get milk, and I saw a huge insect on the side of the building. 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 came home, mounted it, and promptly forgot about it for nearly a decade.

Skvarla tried to show the features of a species he had previously called an “ant lion.” Still, its features didn’t match those of the dragonfly-like predatory insect. Instead, he believed it looked more like a lacewing. A giant mesh wing has a wingspan of about 50 millimeters, which is quite large for an insect, indicating that the specimen was not an ant lion.

His students got to work comparing features and a discovery was made live on Zoom.

Codey Mathis, a doctoral student in entomology at Penn State, said: “We were looking at what Dr. Skvarla saw under his microscope, and he talks about the facial features and then kind of stops. We all together realized that the insect was not what it was labeled and was in fact a super rare giant lacewing. I still remember the feeling. It was gratifying to know that the excitement does not fade and the wonder is not lost. Here we were making a true discovery during an online lab course.”

Skvarla and his collaborators examined the sample’s molecular DNA for additional confirmation. Since establishing the insect’s true identity, Skvarla has kept it safe in Penn State’s Frost Entomological Museum, where scientists and students can access it.

Louis Nastasi, a doctoral student studying entomology at Penn State, said: “It was one of those experiences that you don’t expect on a mandatory lab course. Here we were, just looking at specimens to identify them, and suddenly, out of the blue, this incredible new record pops up.

Skvarla explained, “The fact that a giant lacewing was spotted in the urban area of ​​Fayetteville, Arkansas, may reveal a bigger story about biodiversity and a changing environment. Explanations for the disappearance of the giant lacewing from North America vary, and it remains a mystery.”

“The insect’s disappearance could be due to the ever-increasing amount of artificial light and pollution from urbanization; wildfire suppression in eastern North America, when the insects rely on post-fire environments; the introduction of non-native predators such as large ground beetles; and introduction of non-native earthworms, which significantly altered the composition of forest leaf litter and soil.”

“Entomology can act as a leading indicator of ecology. The fact that this insect was spotted in a region that has not been seen in more than half a century tells us a little more about the environment.”

To determine the range of giant lacewings, the researchers examined extensive collection records, including museum holdings and community scientific submissions. Numerous ecoregions in both eastern and western North America are represented in the records, covering a vast geographic area from Alaska to Panama. The map revealed that the Arkansas specimen was spotted in eastern North America for the first time in more than 50 years.

According to Skvarla and co-author J. Ray Fisher of the Mississippi Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University, Fayetteville is in the Ozark Mountains, a suspected biodiversity hotspot.

Scientists noted, “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 segregated populations with representatives in the region. They explain that the area is underexposed compared to regions of similar biodiversity, such as the southern Appalachian Mountains.”

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

Skvarla explained, “It remains a mystery how the insect ended up on the outside of a Walmart. The fact that it was found at night on the side of a well-lit building suggests that it was probably attracted to the lights and may have flown at least a few hundred meters from where it came from.”

“It could be 100 years since he was even in this area — and it’s been years since he’s been seen anywhere near. The nearest place they were found was 2,000 kilometers away, so unlikely it would have traveled that far.

Scientists noted, “The new specimen represents a rare, surviving eastern population of giant lacewings that evaded detection and extinction.”

Nastasi said, “Discovery doesn’t always have the same hold on people as it did 100 years ago. But a finding like this highlights that even in an everyday situation, there are still a huge number of insect discoveries to be made.”

Magazine reference:

  1. Michael J. Skvarla et al, Rediscovery of Polystoechotes punctata (Fabricius, 1793) (Neuroptera: Ithonidae) in Eastern North America, Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington (2022). DOI: 10.4289/0013-8797.124.2.332