March 7, 2023

The afterthought in today’s NY Times feed mentioned an insect found on the side of a Fayetteville, Arkansas, big-box store in 2012 has recently been identified as the species Polystoechotes punctata.  Michael Skvarla, now director of Pennsylvania State University’s Insect Identification Lab, spotted the Jurassic-era creature known as a giant lacewing when he was a doctoral student of entomology at the University of Arkansas.  Skvarla initially misidentified the lacewing as an antlion, which is a dragonfly-like insect that shares certain features like long transparent wings with the lacewing.  After presenting the insect to his online entomology course in the fall of 2020, he realized what he had was much rarer and more impressive.  DNA analyses confirmed the identity of the insect, and the giant lacewing has now become part of the Frost Entomological Museum’s collection at Penn State.

When I looked online, I found the giant lacewing (Ithonidae) is a small family of winged insects of the insect order Neuroptera.  The family contains ten living genera, and over a dozen extinct genera described from fossils.  Modern Ithonids have a notably separated distribution, while the extinct genera had a more global range.  The family is one of the most primitive living neuropteran families.   Neuropterans are soft-bodied insects with few specialized features and large lateral compound eyes.  Ithonid specimens have been described from fossils dating between the Early Jurassic and the late Eocene and indicate a wider geographic range than seen in modern groups. 

The giant lacewing vanished from eastern North America in the 1950’s where it had previously been widespread, and scientists thought the species had been completely wiped out in the region.  This recent identification of the lacewing in Arkansas is the first record of the species in the state.  The next closest place the lacewing is found is 1,200 miles (1,930 km) away, making it unlikely the specimen could have traveled that far.  The disappearance of the insect is suspected to have been the result of efforts to suppress natural forest fires in eastern North America.  The bigger mystery is how the insect ended up at a superstore in an urban area of Arkansas.  Skvarla said, “Entomology can function as a leading indicator for ecology.  The fact that this insect was spotted in a region that it hasn’t been seen in over half a century tells us something more broadly about the environment.”  The finding opens the door for future lacewing discoveries as insect enthusiasts check their own collections and search for the species in places they previously had not looked.  Dr. Floyd Shockley, collections manager for the department of entomology at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, said “Anytime that you find an insect species not in a place that you’re used to it being, that has a lot of implications for our understanding of that species . . . something that we thought was gone, at least from the Eastern US, may still be there, and it’s just hiding in small pockets.”

THOUGHTS:  Shockley noted how we tend to focus on big birds and mammals when we think about extinction or distribution, but insects can tell us a lot about biodiversity, and an appreciation of that diversity can be as close as your backyard.  I got a renewed appreciation for this diversity while smaller lacewing insects skittered across the grass and along the fence as I mowed my front yard yesterday.  We never seem to eradicate insects, even as we are good about causing the extinction of larger species.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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