A typical milk run to Walmart turned into a significant moment for Michael Skvarla, who spotted a giant Jurassic-era insect clinging to the side of the building.
The insect happened to be one that hadn’t been seen in eastern North America for at least half a century.
Luckily, Skvarla studies insects so he decided to take home the bug, which had a wingspan of nearly two inches across.
The creature which has now been identified as a giant lacewing – Polystoechotes punctata – was abundant in the age of the dinosaurs but had lately disappeared from large swaths of North America.
While Skvarla found the insect in 2012, it was only eight years later that he showed it to his students in an online class. That’s when they realised that the bug was a rare giant lacewing.
Skvarla, who is now director of Penn State University’s Insect Identification Lab, recently co-authored a paper about the discovery.
‘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 in a report on his university’s website.
‘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,’
Skvarla, who made the discovery when he was a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas, said that he had incorrectly labelled the specimen in his personal collection as an ‘antlion’, an insect with similar features.
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.
‘We all realized together that the insect was not what it was labeled and was in fact a super-rare giant lacewing,’ said Codey Mathis, a doctoral candidate in entomology at Penn State.
‘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, the insect has been safely placed in the collections of the Frost Entomological Museum at Penn State, where scientists and students will have access to it for further research.
The mystery remains as to how the insect arrived on the exterior of a 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, Skvarla explained.
‘It could have been 100 years since it was even in this area — and it’s been years since it’s been spotted anywhere near it. The next closest place that they’ve been found was 1,200 miles away, so very unlikely it would have traveled that far,’ said Skvarla.
The giant lacewing was once abundant across North America but was assumed to have been obliterated from eastern regions by the 1950s. It has been portrayed as resembling a cross between a fly and a moth, with mottled wings which it holds tent-like over its body.
The rediscovery of the rare species in an urban area of Fayetteville, Arkansas, has scientists hoping for entire populations tucked away in the Ozark mountains.
Source: Read Full Article