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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – An insect found on the side of a Fayetteville Big Box store has been identified as Polystochotes punctata, a family of insects that predates the dinosaurs.
Michael Skvarla, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Insect Identification Laboratory, was a doctoral student in entomology at the University of Arkansas when, on a shopping trip in 2012, he came across a Jurassic-era creature called the giant lacewing.
“I remember it vividly because I was walking into Walmart to pick up milk and I saw this big bug on the side of the building,” Skwarla said. said in a statement. “I thought it was interesting, so I put it in my hand and did my shopping between my fingers. I came home, turned it on, and promptly forgot about it for almost a decade.”
Squirla initially mistook the lacewing for an antlion, a dragonfly-like insect that shares some features with the lacewing, including long conspicuous wings. But after submitting the insect to his online entomology course in the fall of 2020, he realized that what he had in those years was something rarer and more impressive.
He did further DNA analysis to confirm the insect’s identity, and the giant lacewing is now part of it. Frost Museum of Entomologys collection at Penn State.
The disappearance of the giant lacewing
The giant lacewing disappeared from eastern North America in the 1950s, where it had previously been widespread, Schwarla published as a co-author. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. Scientists thought that the species was completely extinct in the region. A lacewing recently discovered in Arkansas is the state’s first record of the species.
“Entomology can serve as a leading indicator of ecology,” Skvarla said in the report. “The fact that this insect was found in an area where it hadn’t been seen for more than half a century tells us a lot more about the environment.”
The insect’s mysterious disappearance is suspected to be due to natural forest fire suppression efforts in eastern North America, according to the paper, and how the insect ended up in a supermarket in urban Arkansas is a big mystery.
“It’s probably been 100 years since (the species) was even in this area — it’s been years since they’ve been found anywhere near it. The next closest place they’ve been found is 1,200 miles away, so it’s not possible. I’ve traveled that far,” Skvarla said. He suggested that the lacewing should be attracted by the lights and fly at least a few hundred meters away from where it lived.
Schwarla’s discovery has opened the door to future lacewing discoveries, as insect enthusiasts begin to check their own collections and look for creatures in the wild in places they might not have thought to look before, said collections manager Dr. Floyd Shockley. Department of Entomology Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
“Anytime you find an insect species that’s not where you’re used to it, that has a lot of implications for our understanding of that species — what kind of distribution it has, the ecosystem it needs to complete its life cycle,” Shockley said. “This means that at least something that we thought was gone from the eastern United States, may still be there, just hiding in little pockets.”
Shockley also noted the importance of museum collections like those at the Smithsonian or Penn State because they help “capture different snapshots of biodiversity throughout time, and see what’s happening and why. It’s happening.”
“Everybody always focuses on the big things — the big birds and mammals and things like that. But it’s an insect world. … We live in it,” Shockley said. “It’s really important to have that kind of appreciation. And one of the nice things about insects is that there’s so much diversity that you can appreciate just in your backyard.”