A giant insect plucked from the façade of an Arkansas Walmart has set historic records. The Polystoechotes punctata or giant lacewing is the first of its kind recorded in eastern North America in over 50 years — and the first record of the species ever in the state.
The giant lacewing was formerly widespread across North America, but was mysteriously extirpated from eastern North America by the 1950s. This discovery suggests there may be relic populations of this large, Jurassic-Era insect yet to be discovered, explained Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab.
Skvarla found the specimen in 2012, but misidentified it and only discovered its true identity after teaching an online course based on his personal insect collection in 2020.
“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 a doctoral student 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.”
It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that the giant lacewing would find its time to shine. In the fall of 2020, with the world in lockdown, Skvarla was teaching Entomology 432: Insect Biodiversity and Evolution at Penn State. He taught the lab course via Zoom, with students following along remotely on loaner microscopes, and used his own personal insect collection as specimen samples.
As he went to demonstrate the features of a specimen he had previously labeled an “antlion,” Skvarla noticed that the characteristics didn’t quite match those of the dragonfly-like predatory insect. Instead, he thought it looked more like a lacewing. A giant lacewing has a wingspan of roughly 50 millimeters, which is quite large for an insect, a clear indicator that the specimen was not an antlion, as Skvarla had mistakenly labeled it. The students got to work comparing features — and a discovery was made, live on Zoom.
“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 doctoral candidate in entomology at Penn State. “We all realized together 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 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.”
For additional confirmation, Skvarla and his colleagues performed molecular DNA analyses on the specimen. Since confirming its true identity, Skvarla has deposited the insect safely in the collections of the Frost Entomological Museum at Penn State, where scientists and students will have access to it for further research. You can read more about the discovery here.