“Extinct” Species Found Alive, Hanging Out at a Walmart

The formerly extinct giant lacewing species apparently thrives on smoke from fires. So reducing air pollution in the form of smoke from fires might endanger this species. How is a conscientious environmentalist supposed to handle that?

(p. A1) With the world in lockdown in the fall of 2020, Michael Skvarla, an assistant research professor at Penn State University, turned to his private collection, the two cabinets full of insects he kept at home, to show students how to compare insect characteristics.

He unearthed for the camera-connected microscope a specimen he had found back in 2012 clinging to the outside wall of a Walmart in Fayetteville, Ark., and asked students to examine the characteristics of the antlion, a dragonfly-like predator.

Except that this bug, with its nearly two-inch wingspan, was way too big to be an antlion.

“It didn’t have clubbed antennae like it should. It didn’t have lots of cross-veins in the wing like it should,” Dr. Skvarla recalled in an interview.

“So the immediate question was: What is this thing?”

Dr. Skvarla and his students compared features, quickly concluding, live on Zoom, that it was another species that was thought extinct in eastern North America.

The giant lacewing, or Polystoechotes punctata, is a large insect from the Jurassic Era. It was once widespread, but mysteriously disappeared from eastern North America sometime in the 1950s.

The specimen found at the Walmart represents the first recorded in eastern North America in more than half a century, and the first ever recorded in Arkansas.

In a peer-reviewed study published late last year by the Entomological Society of Washington that has only recently been publicized, Dr. Skvarla and a co-author, J. Ray Fisher of Mississippi State University, speculated that the insect could have disappeared with growing light pollution, too little fire smoke (which historical records suggest they like) and the introduction of non-native predators to the region.

For the full story, see:

Emily Schmall. “Lost Relic Reappears At Walmart.” The New York Times (Saturday, March 4, 2023): A12.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 2, 2023, and has the title “‘What Is This Thing?’: How a Jurassic-Era Insect Was Rediscovered in a Walmart.”)

The peer-reviewed study mentioned above is:

Skvarla, Michael J., and J. Ray Fisher. “Rediscovery of Polystoechotes Punctata (Fabricius, 1793) (Neuroptera: Ithonidae) in Eastern North America.” Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 124, no. 2 (April 2022): 332-45.

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