Michael Skvarla made a ground-breaking discovery during a milk run at a big-box store in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
But he didn’t realize the importance of his find — a giant lacewing long thought to have disappeared from the eastern U.S. — until an unpredictable series of events took place eight years later.
Skvarla, now a professor and director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab, was a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas when he stopped at Walmart one night in 2012, according to an article on the institution’s website.
“I was walking into Walmart to get milk and I saw this huge insect on the side of the building,” Skvarla said.
“I thought it looked interesting, so I put it in my hand and did the rest of my shopping with it between my fingers.”
There’s no word as to whether it was the weirdest thing ever carried through the cashier’s checkout line.
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.https://t.co/Btip5kO0Eq
— Lauren Fichten (@laurennfich) March 2, 2023
“I got home, mounted it, and promptly forgot about it for almost a decade,” Skvarla recalled.
The professor originally labeled the 2-inch bug as an antlion, a dragonfly-like predator, named for its habit of digging pits during its larval phase to trap ants or other tiny prey.
It wasn’t until the COVID lockdowns of 2020 that he had occasion to reconsider that classification.
Like many educators, Skvarla had to get creative when distance learning became a necessity that year. As his students followed along online via Zoom, he pulled out his personal insect collection for the class to practice identifying specimens.
When he came across the one he’d caught at Walmart, things suddenly got quiet. Skvarla and his students quickly realized the bug was not an antlion.
Codey Mathis, a doctoral candidate in entomology, described the moment. “We were watching what Dr. Skvarla saw under his microscope and he’s talking about the features and then just kinda stops,” he said.
“We all realized together that the insect was not what it was labeled and was in fact a super-rare giant lacewing.”
The giant lacewing, or polystoechotes punctata, which dates to the Jurassic Era, had not been seen in eastern North America in more than 50 years and had never been found in Arkansas.
To those who view bugs as something to smack with a fly swatter or stomp with a shoe, it may be hard to understand the excitement that ensued.
To these entomology devotees, it was a momentous occasion, akin to unearthing King Tut’s tomb or discovering the Dead Sea scrolls.
“I still remember the feeling,” Mathis said. “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.”
Louis Nastasi, another Penn State doctoral candidate, agreed. “It was one of those experiences you don’t expect to have in a prerequisite lab course,” he said. “Here we were, just looking at specimens to identify them and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this incredible new record pops up.”
Other researchers have had the occasion to participate in similar discoveries recently. A team at Houston’s Rice University discovered Neuroterus valhalla — a tiny stingless wasp they named after a campus pub — in 2018.
Zhao Li, director of the Insect Museum of West China, in 2014 discovered the giant Chinese stick insect, which at 62.4 centimeters (24.5 inches) was later labeled the longest insect species ever discovered.