Discovering a Rare Giant Lacewing at Walmart: A Reminder of Insect Wonders
It was a fateful day for Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State University's Insect Identification Lab, when he walked into a Walmart in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2012 to get milk. As he was entering the building, he noticed a giant insect on the side of the wall. Skvarla, who was working on his PhD at the University of Arkansas at the time, was intrigued by the insect and decided to take it home with him.
It wasn't until 2020, when Skvarla was teaching an online course based on his personal insect collection, that he and his students realized the specimen was not an antlion as Skvarla had previously labeled it, but a super-rare giant lacewing. The giant lacewing was formerly widespread across North America, but had mysteriously disappeared from eastern North America by the 1950s.
The discovery suggests there may be relic populations of the large, Jurassic-era insect yet to be discovered. Skvarla and his colleagues performed a DNA analysis of the specimen to confirm its identity as a giant lacewing. The insect is now in the Frost Entomological Museum at Penn State for research purposes.
Experts are still unsure why the insect disappeared, but have hypothesized that urbanization and habitat changes may have played a role. Skvarla stated that entomology can act as a precursor to ecology. This sighting of an insect in an area it has not been seen in for over fifty years gives us insight into the wider environmental conditions.
It is still a mystery as to how the bug got to the outside of Walmart. The fact that it was found on the side of a well-lit building at night suggests that it was likely attracted to the lights and may have flown at least a few hundred meters from where it originated.
“I still remember the feeling,” said one of Skvarla's students, Codey Mathis. “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.”
This rare find is a reminder that even in a run-of-the-mill situation, there are still a tremendous number of discoveries to be made about insects.
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