Giant flying insect found at Arkansas Walmart turns out to be ‘super-rare’ Jurassic-era bug
A man discovered a giant flying insect at a Walmart in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Little did he know that the strange bug was actually a Jurassic-era insect that hadn’t been seen in more than 50 years.
Michael Skvarla – who was a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas at the time – went to get milk at Walmart in 2012. He noticed a large insect on the Walmart building.
“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. “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.”
Flash forward to the fall of 2020, Skvarla – now the director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab – reexamined the giant flying insect that he found at Walmart eight years earlier.
Skvarla was teaching the “Entomology 432: Insect Biodiversity and Evolution” course at Penn State. The pandemic forced the class to be taught remotely and the students joined the class via Zoom. Skvarla used his own personal insect collection as specimen samples for the course.
Skvarla showed the class the specimen that he found at the Arkansas Walmart in the Ozark Mountains. He originally classified the insect as an “antlion” – a dragonfly-like predatory insect. However, Skvarla noticed that some characteristics didn’t match up with those of an antlion.
The first attribute he noticed to be different was that the insect was much larger than typical antlions. The insect had a massive wingspan of nearly 2 inches.
Skvarla’s students attempted to determine what species the weird insect was.
“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,” Mathis added. “Here we were making a true discovery in the middle of an online lab course.”
Skvarla and his colleagues performed molecular DNA analyses on the insect to confirm that it was a giant lacewing.
“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,” Skvarla explained. “The next closest place that they’ve been found was 1,200 miles away, so very unlikely it would have traveled that far.”
Skvarla donated the bug safely to the Frost Entomological Museum at Penn State – where scientists and students will research the rare insect further.
The giant lacewing, or Polystoechotes punctata, is an insect from the Jurassic era. The giant lacewing was thought to be extinct since the insect mysteriously disappeared from eastern North America in the 1950s.
Scientists hypothesize the giant lacewing may have disappeared because of artificial light, pollution, the lack of forest fires, or the introduction of non-native predators such as ground beetles.
You can watch a video interview with Michael Skvarla below.