• The insect was misidentified for years after being spotted at a Walmart
  • It was rediscovered during an online Zoom course amid the pandemic
  • There may be a surviving population of the species

The giant lacewing hasn't been seen in eastern North America for more than half a century. It was finally rediscovered, where else but on the side of a Walmart building.

It was in 2012 when the specimen was spotted by Michael Skvarla, now the director of the Pennsylvania State University's (Penn State) Insect Identification Lab, the university noted in a news release. At the time, Skvarla was still a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas and simply happened to chance upon the creature at a Fayetteville, Arkansas Walmart.

"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," Skvarla said in the PSU release. "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."

The specimen was initially misidentified as another insect, the antlion. That was, until years later when Skvarla was teaching an online Zoom course in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and used his personal collection of insects. It was then that he noticed that the specimen may not have been an antlion after all.

Upon analyzing the specimen's features together via Zoom, Skvarla and the students discovered that it was indeed the long-lost giant lacewing.

Further analysis confirmed its identity as a giant lacewing (Polystoechotes punctata), and the rediscovery was published in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.

Indeed, species rediscoveries are always quite remarkable, and this one was no different. The giant lacewing, once widespread across North America, hasn't been seen in eastern North America since the 1950s. Furthermore, the find being made in Arkansas is even more special as it was the very first time that the species was recorded in the state.

Even today, there are still questions as to why the insect disappeared from the region in the first place, with hypotheses ranging from artificial light, pollution and urbanization to the presence of non-native predators, noted Penn State.

Moreover, with Fayetteville being in an area that is suspected to be a rather understudied biodiversity hotspot, it would have been an excellent place for the large insect to have hidden "undetected," the researchers noted.

"We propose that P. punctata may have always been uncommon in eastern North America, or at least when insect collecting began in earnest in the late 1800s, and support our case by examining collection effort in other insects," the study authors wrote. "This discovery suggests there may be relictual populations of this large, charismatic insect yet to be discovered."

Illustration shows Walmart logo