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A quick trip to Walmart for milk ended with a man unknowingly making a scientific discovery.

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Michael Skvarla, the director of Penn State University’s Insect Identification Lab, said he found a mysterious bug when he went to a Fayetteville, Arkansas, Walmart in 2012.

“I was walking into Walmart to get milk and I saw this huge insect on the side of the building,” Skvarla said in a press release from the university. “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.”

Skvarla said he thought it was only an antlion. But he was wrong, by hundreds of millions of years, he just didn’t realize it at the time.

Fast forward to the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Skvarla was teaching an entomology class on insect biodiversity and evolution on Zoom. He used his own collection as specimen samples, specifically, the one labeled an antlion.

But something didn’t match his bug’s structure to the normal characteristics of the antlion. He then thought it was a lacewing, because of the size.

A giant lacewing has about a 50-millimeter wingspan.

In the middle of class, live on Zoom, Skvarla and his students realized they had something special.

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

Skvarla and fellow scientists did molecular DNA tests on the insect to prove the theory.

They then looked at where the rare bug has been found and when they were last seen. The lacewings lived from Alaska to Panama in various ecoregions, but the Arkansas one that was found by Skvarla was the first found in eastern North America in more than 50 years. The region, in the Ozark Mountains, is potentially a biodiversity hotspot, according to J. Ray Fisher from the Mississippi Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University.

There are about 68 insect species and 58 plants and animals that are part of the Ozarks, which Fisher said is an area that isn’t studied as much as other regions.

Skvarla said the insect probably hadn’t been seen in Fayetteville for a century. The closest it’s been documented was 1,200 miles away. But he said the bug probably didn’t fly that far and that it came from a few hundred meters away, attracted by Walmart’s lights.

“Discovery doesn’t always hold that same kind of grasp on people that maybe it did 100 years ago,” Louis Nastasi, a Penn State doctoral candidate said. “But a finding like this really highlights that even in a run-of-the-mill situation, there are still a tremendous number of discoveries to make about insects.”

The giant lacewing is now part of the collections at Penn State’s Frost Entomological Museum.