On a routine trip to an Arkansas Walmart to pick up milk, a university scientist made a historically buggy discovery.

Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State University’s Insect Identification Lab, found a mysterious large  insect outside the Fayetteville super chain’s building – an experience he remembers “vividly.”

“I saw this huge insect on the side of the building,” he said in a press release from Penn State. “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.”

Little did he know that years later, the giant flying bug was a “super-rare” Jurassic-era insect.

A zoom call lesson

The scientist originally thought the bug he plucked from the Walmart’s exterior was an antlion. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, the insects have:

  • Fragile, drab damselflies

  • Elongated bodies

  • Four intricately veined wings mottled with browns and black

  • Clubbed or curved antennae about as long as the combined head and thorax

Enter the fall of 2020: Skvarla was teaching an online course on insect biodiversity and evolution and, during a Zoom call, he realized it wasn’t what he originally thought.

The insect, he learned, was a true conversation piece.

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

“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.”

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This Polystoechotes punctata or giant lacewing was collected in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2012 by Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State's Insect Identification Lab.

This Polystoechotes punctata or giant lacewing was collected in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2012 by Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab.

Skvarla and his colleagues then performed DNA testing on the specimen to confirm its true identity.

Upon confirmation, he deposited the insect safely in the collections of the Frost Entomological Museum at Penn State, where scientists and students will have access to it for further research.

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

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Discovery or recovery?

A giant lacewing spotted in an urban area of Arkansas likely reveals a bigger story about biodiversity and a changing environment, Skvarla said. Explanations vary for the giant lacewing’s disappearance from North America, he said, and still largely remain a mystery.

Scientists, the release says, hypothesize the insect’s disappearance could be the result of the ever-increasing amount of artificial light and pollution of urbanization; suppression of forest fires in eastern North America, if the insects rely on post-fire environments; the introduction of non-native predators such as large ground beetles; and introduction of non-native earthworms, which significantly altered the composition of forest leaf litter and soil.

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Natalie Neysa Alund covers trending news for USA TODAY. Reach her at nalund@usatoday.com and follow her on Twitter @nataliealund.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Giant flying bug found at Walmart is ‘super-rare’ Jurassic-era insect

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