Prospectors used to say, gold is where you find it. Now this:
A giant insect plucked from the façade of an Arkansas Walmart has set historic records. The Polystoechotes punctata (giant lacewing) is the first of its kind recorded in eastern North America in over 50 years—and the first record of the species ever in the state.
The giant lacewing was formerly widespread across North America, but was mysteriously extirpated from eastern North America by the 1950s. This discovery suggests there may be relic populations of this large, Jurassic-Era insect yet to be discovered, explained Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab.
Skvarla found the specimen in 2012, but misidentified it and only discovered its true identity after teaching an online course based on his personal insect collection in 2020. He recently co-authored a paper about the discovery in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.
“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, who was a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas at the time. “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.”
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.
As he went to demonstrate the features of a specimen he had previously labeled an “antlion,” Skvarla noticed that the characteristics didn’t quite match those of the dragonfly-like predatory insect. Instead, he thought it looked more like a lacewing. A giant lacewing has a wingspan of roughly 50 millimeters, which is quite large for an insect, a clear indicator that the specimen was not an antlion, as Skvarla had mistakenly labeled it. The students got to work comparing features—and a discovery was made, live on Zoom. – Adrienne Berard, Pennsylvania State University (February 27, 2023)
Well now, that was one COVID zoom course that turned out NOT to be a complete waste of time… !
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