Michael Skvarla was on his way to do a little shopping when an interesting-looking insect perched outside the store caught his eye. As an entomologist, Skvarla did what came naturally to him: He snatched the winged creature, took it home and mounted it alongside all the other critters in his collection.
Then, he forgot about it. Eight years later, while teaching a virtual class on biodiversity and evolution at Penn State University, Skvarla made the startling realization that the insect might be something special.
He’d picked up the specimen in 2012, from outside a Walmart in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he was working on his PhD. When he grabbed it, Skvarla assumed it was an antlion, a dragonfly-like insect with mostly translucent wings that he’d been collecting, because he thought they were “neat,” as he tells Gizmodo’s Lauren Leffer.
But when he put the long-forgotten specimen under a microscope in front of students, he saw, for the first time, that maybe it wasn’t an antlion after all.
“It didn’t have clubbed antennae like it should,” Skvarla tells the New York Times’ Emily Schmall. “It didn’t have lots of cross-veins in the wing like it should.”
Indeed, he now reports in the journal Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington that the critter was a rare giant lacewing, an insect that scientists had thought was extinct in eastern North America. These nocturnal critters date back to the Jurassic Era more than 100 million years ago.
With his students, he poked around online until he found a photo of a giant lacewing with its roughly two-inch wingspan, which looked like a match for the creature. Then, Skvarla—along with his co-author J. Ray Fisher, an entomologist at the Mississippi Entomological Museum—began sifting through historical records and analyzing the specimen’s physical characteristics to verify its identity.
Although giant lacewings used to inhabit eastern North America, there had been no record of them east of the 100th meridian—which roughly splits the continent into eastern and western halves—since 1960, per Gizmodo. Skvarla’s specimen also represents the first recorded sighting in Arkansas, according to a statement from Penn State University.
The researchers aren’t exactly sure why giant lacewings seemingly vanished from half of the continent. In large part, that’s because the species doesn’t receive much attention from scientists or laypeople. It’s possible giant lacewings were always uncommon in the east, per the paper. Or, maybe, they were once abundant but began disappearing because of more recent phenomena like invasive species, urban development, wildfire suppression and light pollution.
Since no one has recorded any other recent giant lacewing sightings in the eastern U.S., scientists don’t have enough information to make more than educated guesses. Still, Skvarla’s Walmart sighting suggests they haven’t disappeared entirely and that there may be “other small populations of the insect holding on in wooded areas of the east,” says Robert Dowell, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Food and Agriculture who was not involved in the study, to New Scientist’s Corryn Wetzel.