A 'Giant' Prehistoric Insect Was Accidentally Rediscovered at a Walmart

The giant lacewing is a relic from the Jurassic, and wasn't spotted in eastern North America for 50 years—until a researcher took a trip to Walmart.
giant lacewing arkansas
Image: Penn State
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Sometimes, you go shopping for milk and return home with a pint of ice cream. In the case of Michael Skvarla, you go shopping for milk and come home with a rare Jurassic-era bug.

Skvarla, who is the director of Penn State University’s Insect Identification Lab, accidentally discovered the giant lacewing—a species that dates back to the Jurassic and hadn’t been seen in eastern North America in over 50 years—in a Fayetteville, Arkansas, Walmart in 2012. Its identity was only discovered recently, however, as described in a new study in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.


“I thought it looked interesting, so I put it in my hand and did the rest of my shopping with it between my fingers,” he said in a Penn State press release

"When I collected the giant lacewing I thought it was actually an antlion, which is a related group that I am interested in but have little experience identifying. I just think they're cool," he told Motherboard in an email. "So I collected and curated it, put it in my collection to identify at a later date, and then didn't get to it for ten years."

Louis Nastasi, a Penn State doctoral candidate, was in an online course on insect biodiversity and evolution taught by Skvarla when he brought it out for the class to inspect.“I remember Dr. Skvarla pulling out the lacewing specimen and thinking it looked off,” Louis Nastasi said in an email to Motherboard. “Just a bit odd.”

After taking a closer look, Skvarla realized that he had falsely identified the insect and said he immediately knew he had made an important discovery. He later confirmed its identity through molecular DNA analyses.

“The course covered primarily northeastern North America, so given that the giant lacewings aren’t known from these parts meant it wasn’t really on our radar at the time,” Nastasi said.

Giant lacewings, so-called because of their size, which can reach nearly two inches, were once widespread across North America but disappeared by the 1950s—a mystery that has been met with varying explanations. Increasing artificial light pollution, suppression of forest fires and the introduction of non-native predators, are among the theories, according to a study Skvarla co-authored on the finding.


The study also suggests there may be surviving populations of the bug that are yet to be discovered.

“The Ozarks are an ideal place for a large, showy insect to hide out undetected as the entire area is under-surveyed despite the fact that it's a biodiversity hotspot,” Skvarla told Motherboard.

Skvarla points to the bug’s size and the popularity of technology like insect-identifying social network iNaturalist—where users can record and share their observations—as an indication that if the bug existed broadly across its former range, it would have likely already been discovered.

He isn’t entirely sure how the bug ended up at Walmart but thinks it might have flown from a forested area a few hundred yards away after being attracted to the store’s lights.

With only one specimen, it is difficult to come to conclusions about the insect. The giant lacewing’s ecology is entirely unknown, Skvarla said, and scientists have no idea what the larvae look like.

“I'm guessing they're associated with forests, but it could be some other weird plant association or environment nearby,” Skvarla said.

Though the once-pervasive species is thought to be mostly eradicated in eastern North America, an excerpt from Skvarla’s study reveals an incident in which the insects once swarmed in a mass so dense, it was mistaken for a cloud of smoke.

“The fire-engines were called out and there was great commotion,” reads a passage from the early 20th-century report. “From the roof of a large warehouse, near the water, volumes of seeming smoke and heated air were rising and eddying.”

Skvarla said that rediscoveries like this are fairly rare and “takes some luck,” but have been made easier with platforms like iNaturalist. For Nastasi, the most impactful aspect of the finding was seeing the discovery in progress.

“We don’t usually think of classes as a way to make new discoveries but rather as a mechanism for learning ‘stagnant’ information,” he said.

The bug now resides at the Penn State Frost Entomological Museum—a far cry from the Arkansas Walmart where it was found.