May 27, 2024

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How I rediscovered a Jurassic bug at Walmart

How I rediscovered a Jurassic bug at Walmart

It took the Covid-19 pandemic and a semester on Zoom for entomologists to give a long-forgotten insect specimen another look.

With the world on lockdown in the fall of 2020, Michael Skvarla, an assistant research professor at Penn State University, turned to his private collection, the two bug-filled cabinets he kept at home, to show students how to compare the characteristics of insects.

Unearthing for a camera-mounted microscope a specimen he found in 2012 clinging to the exterior wall of a Walmart in Fayetteville, Ark., he asked students to examine the characteristics of an anthill, a dragonfly-like predator.

Except that this insect, with a wingspan of nearly two inches, was too large to be an ant.

“It didn’t have the antennae as compressed as it should be. It didn’t have as many cross-veins in the wing as it should,” Dr. Skvarla recalled in an interview.

So the immediate question was: What is this thing?

Dr. Skvarla and his students compared the features, and quickly concluded, live on Zoom, that it was another species that was thought to be extinct in eastern North America.

The giant lacquer, or Polystoechotes punctata, is a large insect from the Jurassic period. It was once widespread, but mysteriously disappeared from eastern North America sometime in the 1950s.

The specimen found at Walmart represents the first ever recorded in eastern North America in over half a century, and the first ever in Arkansas.

in A peer-reviewed study Published late last year by the Entomological Society of Washington and only recently published, Dr. Skvarla and co-author, J. smoke (which historical records indicate they love) and the introduction of non-native predators to the area.

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Northwest Arkansas, where Wal-Mart is located, Dr. Skvarla said, is within the Ozark Mountains, an unstudied biodiversity hotspot. While it’s possible that the insect he found might have hitched a ride on a long-distance truck or hid in rail freight with goods destined for the local Walmart, his favorite hypothesis is that the insect belonged to a group of remnants that persisted quietly, evading detection over the years. The past half century, just waiting to be found.

However, repeated expeditions to Fayetteville, Walmart and the surrounding woods by Dr. Fisher and some of his colleagues have not yet yielded any giant lace finds.

However, for Robert Doyle, fellow emeritus of the California Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit museum in San Francisco, the discovery “indicates that other small populations of the insect may also be present in wooded areas to the east.”

Spotting the insect raises more questions than it answers.

The possibility that a giant lacewing might have existed in eastern North America in the age of the Internet without anyone realizing is pretty remarkable given the eager citizen biologists who use apps like iNaturalist to share photos and compare notes about plants and animals, providing a “soon” picture in time. actual distribution of a wide variety of animals and plants,” said Dr. Doyle.

But there is precedent for the rediscovery of giant tapes.

In 1924, a specimen was found in Chile, 65 years after the only other known example of this type was collected. And a new species of Adamsiana, a related genus, was spotted in Guatemala in 2020.

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Even in parts of the world where there is still a population, such as the western United States, it is possible to go years or even decades without seeing, Dr. Skvarla said.

“It’s not unprecedented, but within the narrative of their exodus from the East, it’s a marvel of discovery,” said Dr. Skvarla.