A rare species, previously common but thought to be extinct in the eastern U.S., has been rediscovered loitering at a Walmart.
When Michael Skvarla first plucked the large winged insect off of the building facade in 2012, he didn’t know it was notable. He was just doing standard bug nerd stuff. The entomologist, now a professor at Penn State, was working on his PhD at the time in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He and his wife had driven to the local Walmart just to do some shopping. But on his way into the store, an insect perched on the external wall caught his eye.
Initially, he thought the critter was an antlion — a relatively common type of flying insect with voracious, predatory larvae. “I had been collecting antlions at the time because I thought it was a neat group,” he told Gizmodo in a phone call. So, as any self-respecting insect aficionado would, Skvarla carefully picked the animal up by its clear, intricately veined wings and carried it around in one hand while he got his groceries. Once home, he killed the bug, mounted it, and put a pin in it — literally and metaphorically. With the insect in his collection, “I forgot about it for [about] 10 years,” the scientist said.
It wasn’t until Skvarla was teaching a virtual class on biodiversity in 2020 that he re-examined his 2012 Walmart find. Upon closer inspection under a microscope, he realised the specimen wasn’t an antlion but instead something much rarer: a giant lacewing (Polystoechotes punctata), a large, nocturnal insect that first appeared on the evolutionary record more than 100 million years ago during the Jurassic Era.
The epiphany happened in real time in front of his students, while he shared tips on how to identify insects. As his previous ID unravelled, Skvarla started Googling to figure out an alternate. “As soon as I looked up ‘giant lacewings, western U.S.,’ [a picture] came up and it was like, ‘there’s the thing I’m looking at under my microscope,’” he told Gizmodo.
Skvarla wasn’t an expert on giant lacewings in 2012 and still doesn’t consider himself one. That internet search was based on a vague recollection and a hunch. But it’s led to the confirmed discovery of the rare insect, historically believed to be extinct in the eastern U.S. Before Skvarla’s lucky Walmart pickup, a giant lacewing hadn’t been recorded in the eastern half of the country for more than 50 years. In Arkansas, it was the first time the species had ever been found.
“Once I figured out what it was, it was really exciting. It’s probably one of the most exciting specimens I’ve ever collected,” he added. It just goes to show that, in entomology, “as long as you’re paying attention, you don’t have to be an expert in a group to make an important discovery.”
In the paper, the entomologist confirmed his identification of the specimen based on its physical features and reviewed all of the previous giant lacewing records. He and his co-author combed through historical accounts, museum records, and citizen scientist photos posted online to construct a portrait of the species’ past and present across North America.
They found surprising descriptions of giant lacewing swarms — occasionally so locally abundant that, in at least one 1903 incident in Ontario, Canada, townspeople mistook the flying insect flurry above a building for smoke and summoned firefighters. In upstate New York, a naturalist in 1885 wrote that giant lacewings were common and that “hundreds could be seen resting on parlor walls” at any given time in the right season. But mysteriously, relatively few of the insects were actually collected. And between 1960 and 2012, not a single one was found or photographed in any U.S. state or Canadian territory east of the 100th west meridian.
Nobody knows for sure why the giant lacewings disappeared in the East, Skvarla told Gizmodo. The species isn’t of particular economic importance (i.e., it’s not a crop pest, a disease carrier, or a useful natural enemy), so it’s understudied, he added. Scientists aren’t even sure what the insects eat or what their larvae look like and where they live.
But some theories about the species’ eastern extinction include that light pollution or wildfire suppression may have played a role. Giant lacewings are drawn to light, which is probably what attracted Skvarla’s specimen to the Walmart parking lot. Some accounts have also suggested the bugs are drawn to smoke — maybe their poorly understood lifecycle is somehow linked to the post-burn environment. Invasive species introductions might also be to blame. But regardless of why, giant lacewings have been considered non-existent in their former territory east of the Rocky Mountains for decades.
Obviously, Skvarla’s discovery suggests otherwise. In his view, the Fayetteville giant lacewing almost certainly hatched locally, since the next closest known populations are about 1,207 km away. He believes that, in the poorly surveyed Ozark ecosystem, the lacewings have been persisting in small numbers undetected until now. Perhaps, too, the 2012 find could signal a resurgence — that whatever pressure drove the insects to local extinction had receded — but no other sightings have been recorded since in Arkansas or any other eastern state. “We have one specimen right now, so it’s hard to draw any ecological assessment from that,” he said.
“My guess is whatever population is there is probably fairly small, and I just happened to get lucky,” he said. Nonetheless, Skvarla is optimistic that more of the elusive nighttime flyers could still be out there in Arkansas. Though Fayetteville is a denser city than it was in 2012, the park that Skvarla theorizes his specimen came from remains undeveloped. “If this wasn’t a crazy [outlier] that blew in from out west somehow — if this was from a breeding population — then my guess is [they’re] still there,” he said. “It’s persisted this long undetected, that we haven’t seen it in another 10 years is unsurprising.”
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