Penn State Scientist Stumbles Upon Jurassic-Era Bug At Walmart

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A giant lacewing bug picked up by a Penn State scientist in 2012 has turned out to be a historic find after further inspection revealed the insect to be a Jurassic-era bug not seen in the region for 50 years.

Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State University’s Insect Identification Lab, first plucked the bug off the side of a Walmart building while studying for his doctoral degree at the University of Arkansas, according to a Feb. 27 press release from the university.

“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. 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,” he said in the press release.

Skvarla later pulled out his own personal collection to show students while teaching online classes during COVID-19 lockdowns, but realized mid-session that he had misidentified the specimen, according to the statement.

“We were watching what Dr. Skvarla saw under his microscope and he’s talking about the features and then just kinda stops,” Penn State entomology doctoral candidate Codey Mathis said in the press release.

“We all realized together that the insect was not what it was labeled and was in fact a super-rare giant lacewing. I still remember the feeling. It was so gratifying to know that the excitement doesn’t dim, the wonder isn’t lost. Here we were making a true discovery in the middle of an online lab course,” Mathis continued.

“It was one of those experiences you don’t expect to have in a prerequisite lab course,” doctoral candidate Louis Nastasi added. “Here we were, just looking at specimens to identify them and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this incredible new record pops up.”

The Polystoechotes punctata, or giant lacewing, not only hails from the Jurassic era: It is also the first specimen recorded in the eastern part of North America in over 50 years and the first ever recorded in Arkansas, according to the press release. (RELATED: Bird Assumed To Be Extinct Reappears After 140 Years)

Researchers believe the insect all but disappeared from the region due to urbanization and non-native predators such as large ground beetles, but concede the bug could have escaped their notice in the largely understudied region of the Ozarks, the statement continued.

“Discovery doesn’t always hold that same kind of grasp on people that maybe it did 100 years ago. But a finding like this really highlights that even in a run-of-the-mill situation, there are still a tremendous number of discoveries to make about insects,” Nastasi said.

Skvarla and his colleagues performed molecular DNA analyses on the specimen to confirm its true identity. The insect now resides in the collections of the Frost Entomological Museum at Penn State so scientists and students can study it for future research, the press release noted.