This rare bug ended up outside an Arkansas Walmart

Picture this—you walk into a typical Walmart in Arkansas at a grocery store, but instead of being greeted by a traditional Walmart greeter, you find an insect whose origins date back to the Jurassic period. This science fiction story happened in 2012 and luckily the person who spotted the insect is a bug expert.

This Polystoechotes punctata, or giant lacewing, was collected in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2012 by Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab. The specimen is the first of its kind recorded in eastern North America in more than fifty years—and the first record of the species ever made in the state. CREDIT: Michael Skvarla / Penn State.

“I remember it vividly, because I was going to Walmart to get milk and I saw this huge insect on the side of the building,” said Michael Skvarla, who was then a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas and now Penn’s director. The State University’s Insect Identification Laboratory 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 came home, put it on and promptly forgot about it for almost a decade.”

(Related: Watch these tiny bugs swallow urine with their rears.)

The insect was a giant cord (Polystoechotes punctata), the first of its kind recorded in eastern North America in more than 50 years, and the first ever recorded in Arkansas. The relative moth with a one-inch wingspan was widespread across the continent, but disappeared from eastern North America by the 1950s. With this finding, scientists believe there may be remnant populations of this insect with roots back to the Jurassic (about 201.3 million to 145 million years ago) that have yet to be discovered.

The creature is described in a study published late last year in the journal Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. Skvarla is a co-author on the paper.

In the study, the team describes how the insect was initially misidentified and how students in one of Skvarla’s online courses helped re-identify the specimen.

“We were watching what Dr. Skvarla in his microscope and he talks about the features and then kind of stops,” Codey Mathis, a doctoral candidate in entomology at Penn State, said in a statement. “We all realized together that the insect was not what it was called and was in fact an extremely rare giant lacewing. I still remember the feeling. It was so gratifying to know that the excitement doesn’t fade, the wonder doesn’t fade. Here we made a real breakthrough in the middle of an online workshop course.”

To confirm, Skvarla and his colleagues performed molecular DNA analyzes on the sample and revealed that it was in fact a giant tether.

The discovery could reveal a larger story about biodiversity in North America and the changing environment since the giant cord was spotted in the urban area of ​​Fayetteville, Arkansas. Skvarla says the explanations for the disappearance of the giant lacewing from North America are varied and mostly a mystery. Scientists hypothesize that it may have become extinct due to increasing artificial light, pollution and urbanization, forest fire suppression in eastern North America, as they rely on post-fire environments to survive. Even the introduction of non-native predators such as ground beetles may have had an effect.

(Related: Eyeless army ants crossed Europe millions of years ago.)

“Entomology can act as a leading indicator for ecology,” Skvarla said. “The fact that this insect was found in an area that hasn’t been seen for half a century tells us something more broadly about the environment.”

The city of Fayetteville is located in the Ozark Mountains, which the group says is a suspected biodiversity hotspot. According to Skvarla, dozens of endemic species, including 68 species of insects, are known to live in these mountains, and at least 58 species of plants and animals have populations largely unrelated to representatives in the region.

However, the mystery of how the elusive bug arrived on the exterior facade of a Walmart remains. They believe that because it was found on the side of a well-lit building, it was probably attracted to the lights

“It could have been 100 years since it was still in this area – and it’s been years since it’s been spotted anywhere near it. The next closest they were found was 1,200 miles away, so it’s highly unlikely that it would have traveled that far,” Skvarla said.

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