Michael Skvarla, the director of Penn State's Insect Identification Lab, collected this Polystoechotes punctata or huge lacewing in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2012, and it is the first of its kind to be recorded in eastern North America in over fifty years. The specimen is the first specimen of the species to exist in the state.
The Polystoechotes punctata, a massive lacewing, was snatched from the facade of an Arkansas Walmart, and it is the first of its kind to be recorded in eastern North America in over 50 years, and the first record of the species in the state.
The giant lacewing was once widespread throughout North America, but was mysteriously exorcised from eastern North America in the 1950s, according to Michael Skvarla, the director of Penn State's Insect Identification Lab.
Skvarla discovered the insect specimen in 2012, but misidentified it and discovered it only after teaching an online course based on his personal collection in 2020. He recently co-authored a paper on the discovery in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.
"I remember it vividly," Skvarla said of her research at the University of Arkansas at the time. "I noticed this huge insect on the side of the building, and I placed it in my hand and did the rest of my shopping with it between my fingers."
The giant lacewing would not be recognized until the COVID-19 epidemic. Skvarla taught Entomology 432: Insect Biodiversity and Evolution at Penn State in the fall of 2020. Students followed along remotely on loaner microscopes, and used his own personal insect collection as specimen samples.
Skvarla noticed that it did not appear to be a dragonfly-like predatory insect like Skvarla had previously labeled it. This was a clear indicator that the specimen was not an antlion, as Skvarla had mistakenly labeled it.
Codey Mathis, a PhD candidate in entomology at Penn State, describes the discovery as “seen under his microscope and he’s talking about the features and then kind of stops.”
Skvarla and his colleagues conducted molecular DNA testing on the specimen for further verification. The insect has been safely placed in the collections of the Penn State Frost Entomological Museum, where scientists and students may return for further study.
“It was one of those experiences you wouldn't expect to have in a prerequisite lab course,” says Louis Nastasi, a doctoral candidate studying entomology at Penn State. “This incredible new record comes up suddenly.”
The discovery of a giant lacewing in Fayetteville, Arkansas, may reveal a deeper story about biodiversity and a changing environment, according to Skvarla. The reason for the giant lacewing's disappearance from North America is unclear, although it may still be present.
Scientists speculate that the disappearance of the insect could be due to an increase in artificial light and pollution in urbanization, as well as the suppression of forest fires in eastern North America, if the insects rely on post-fire environments, and the introduction of non-native predators, such as large ground beetles, as well as the introduction of non-native earthworms, which significantly altered the composition of forest leaf litter and soil.
"Entomology can serve as a leading indicator for ecology," Skvarla said. "The fact that this insect was discovered in a region that it hadn't been seen in over half a century tells us something more broadly about the environment."
The researchers combined extensive collection records of giant lacewings, including museum holdings, and community science submissions, into a single map, revealing their distribution across eastern and western North America. The Arkansas specimen was the first discovered in eastern North America in over 50 years.
According to Skvarla and his co-author J. Ray Fisher of the Mississippi Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University, Fayetteville is located in the Ozark Mountains.
According to the authors, dozens of endemic animals, including 68 insects, are known from the Ozarks, and at least 58 plants and animals have highly interconnected populations with representatives in the region. Moreover, the area is understudied in comparison to areas with similar biodiversity, such as the Southern Appalachians.
"This makes the area a great location for a big, showy insect to hide undetected," said the authors.
The origins of the insect might have been attracted to the lights and possibly flown somewhere within a few hundred meters of where it landed, according to Skvarla. "It could have been 100 years since it was even there — and it has been years since it's been discovered anywhere near it."
The researchers suspect the new specimen is a rare, surviving eastern population of giant lacewings that eluded detection and extinction.
'Discovery doesn't always have the same grasp on people as maybe it did 100 years ago,' said Nastasi. "But a finding like this underscores that even in a typical scenario, there are still unanswered questions about insects.'
Michael J. Skvarla and J. Ray Fisher's reference: "Rediscovery of Polystoechotes punctata (Fabricius, 1793) (Neuroptera: Ithonidae) in Eastern North America," 30 November 2022, in the Entomological Society of Washington. DOI: 10.4289/0013-87188.8.131.522