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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. An insect found on the side of a supermarket in Fayetteville has been identified as Polystoechotes punctata, which belongs to a family of insects that predates the dinosaurs.
Michael Skvarla, director of the Insect Identification Laboratory at Penn State University, spotted the Jurassic creature, also known as the giant lacewing, on a shopping trip in 2012, when he was a doctoral student in entomology at the University of Arkansas.
“I remember it vividly, because I was walking into Walmart to get milk and I saw this huge bug on the side of the building,” Skvarla said. he said in a statement. “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, installed it, and promptly forgot about it for nearly a decade.”
Skvarla initially misidentified Lace as an ant, a dragonfly-like insect that shared certain features, including long transparent wings, with Lace. But after submitting the insect to an online entomology course in the fall of 2020, he realized that what he had all those years ago was something rarer and more impressive.
He ran further DNA analyzes to confirm the insect’s identity, and the giant lace is now part of his Frost Insect Museums collection in pennsylvania.
The disappearance of the giant lace
Giant lace disappeared in the 1950s from eastern North America, where it was once common, according to Skvarla’s co-authored paper published in Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. Scientists believe that this species has been completely exterminated in the area. The recent discovery of a lacewing in Arkansas is the first record of the species in the state.
“Entomology can act as a leading indicator of ecology,” Skvarla said in the statement. “The fact that this insect has been spotted in an area that hasn’t been seen in over half a century tells us something broader about the environment.”
While it is suspected that the insect’s mysterious disappearance was due to efforts to extinguish natural wildfires in eastern North America, according to the paper, the bigger mystery is how the insect ended up in a supermarket in an urban Arkansas area.
“It would have been 100 years since (the species) were in this area — and it’s been years since they’ve been spotted anywhere near it. The closest they were found was 1,200 miles away, so it’s unlikely that be so traveled,” Skvarla said. He pointed out that the lace was attracted to the lights and flew at least hundreds of meters away from the place where he lived.
Skvarla’s discovery opened the door to future lace discoveries, as insect enthusiasts began checking their own collections and searching for species found in the wild in places they had never thought to look before, said Dr. Floyd Shockley, collections director in the Department of Entomology at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
“Any time you find an insect species that’s not where you’re used to, that has a lot of implications for our understanding of those species — what kind of distribution they have, what kind of ecosystem they might complete their life cycle,” Shockley said. I mean, something that we thought was gold, at least from the eastern United States, might still be out there, hiding in little pockets.”
Shockley also noted the importance of museum collections, such as those at the Smithsonian Institution or at Penn State, where lace is located, because “they help take different snapshots of biodiversity through time and allow us to see what is happening and why it is happening.”
“Everybody’s always kind of focused on the big things — the big birds, the mammals, things like that. But this is an insect world…we just live on 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 own backyard.”
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