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A professor found a bug in Walmart. Years later, he realized it was a rare species

(SOUNDBITE OF DELVON LAMARR ORGAN TRIO'S "JIMMY'S GROOVE")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It all began with a trip to Walmart in Arkansas and led to a discovery not seen in half a century.

MICHAEL SKVARLA: I found this weird bug in this weird place, and everybody should know about it.

SIMON: Michael Skvarla was going to pick up a couple of items when he spotted a bug on a wall outside the store. It was big. It looked uncommon. So Michael did what any self-respecting entomologist, a scientist who studies insects, might do. He picked up the bug for his private collection, thought nothing of it for years. But during the pandemic lockdown, Michael, by now an assistant research professor at Penn State University, was teaching a class and took the insect from his cabin. Now, he was sure it was an antlion, a dragonflylike predator.

SKVARLA: I had just taught the students, like, these are the characters you use to identify antlions. They have clubbed antennae. They have lots of crossveins in the wings. And I pulled this specimen out, and I show it to them. It was immediately apparent to me and everybody watching that, oh, shoot, this is different and weird in a good way - and this kind of dawning realization like, oh, this is important.

SIMON: Turned out that the large insect was, in fact, a giant lacewing dating back to the Jurassic era. The bug had once been common in the East Coast of America, but it disappeared by the 1950s. The specimen found by Michael was the first recorded on the East Coast in more than half a century, the first ever in Arkansas. Michael believes the Ozark Mountains are key to his discovery.

SKVARLA: The Ozarks, in general, are very biodiverse, but they're undersurveyed compared to other diverse areas like the Southern Appalachians. So if you were to pick areas in the country where these things could go undetected for 50 years, the Ozarks would be high on your list.

SIMON: Michael says he's still picking up unusual insects wherever he spots them. And it's not just outside a Walmart. He jokes that he'd love to find a new mite species in the bushes outside a major brewery. What do you call it? Bud?

(SOUNDBITE OF DELVON LAMARR ORGAN TRIO'S "JIMMY'S GROOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 4, 2023 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous summary of this story incorrectly stated that Michael Skvarla is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a professor at Pennsylvania State University.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.