The Aweme borer is a yellowish-brown moth with a 1.5-inch wingspan. In the often-colorful world of lepidopterology — the study of moths and butterflies — it’s not particularly flashy, but it is exceedingly rare. For decades, entomologists thought the moth lived in the sand dunes and oak savannahs in southern Manitoba and the Great Lakes region. No one really knew. Until 2005, only six specimens from four widely scattered locations in North America had ever been found. Many doubted the moth still existed until one was discovered in a peatland fen in the backwoods of upper Michigan in 2009.
That was a game-changing moment for entomologist Kyle Johnson. His easy-going hunt for P. aweme switched gears into an intense one. Instead of focusing on the sand dunes of upper Michigan and Wisconsin, he and his colleagues put on rubber boots, mosquito jackets and bug hats, and began squishing through dozens of peatland fens, traveling nearly a thousand miles from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to eastern Saskatchewan. In all, Johnson and his colleagues spent 123 nights capturing moths at bait stations and netting free-flying adults. In that eight-year search for P. aweme, they added 59 new specimens of the Aweme borer to the list of discoveries. Johnson was delighted, but not surprised, given the number of rare species often harbored by peatland fens.
“Peatlands are highly underrated ecosystems,” Johnson told me when I joined him in the field looking for the same moth and other rarities in a fen in western Canada. “Like many scientists from other disciplines, entomologists didn’t think to look elsewhere because a lot of them didn’t believe that moths and butterflies, as well many birds and animals, could be peatland specialists.”
A square meter of Canadian peatland holds 5 times the carbon as a square meter of Amazon rainforest.
Peat is partially decomposed plant material that builds up over decades, centuries and millennia in oxygen-starved, waterlogged conditions. Representing just 3 percent of the world’s landscape, bogs and fens (and to a lesser extent swamps and marshes that accumulate peat) are found around the globe: in Hawaii’s Alaka‘i Swamp, which nurtures some of the rarest plants in the world; in the Rockies, where peatlands at 10,000 feet are home to Ice Age plants; in the Hudson Bay Lowlands and Siberia, the two largest carbon storehouses in the world; and in the Central Congo, where 55,000 square miles of peatland were discovered in 2017.
Small as their footprint is, however, the role they play in climate regulation, water filtration, flood and wildfire mitigation, and as refuges for many newly discovered and critically endangered species is an outsized one that raises serious questions about the ongoing degradation caused by a host of factors. These include climate change, wildfire, roads, energy projects such as the Alberta oil sands, sphagnum peat harvesting for crops and gardens, and peat-mining in countries that continue to burn it for fuel and electricity.
Studies suggest that such exploitation has drained, destroyed or degraded 193,000 square miles of the world’s peatlands, an area slightly larger than California. Still, large swaths of the world’s peatlands remain intact, and successful restoration efforts are well underway.
Humans have been draining peatlands for more than a thousand years to clear bogs for agriculture and to burn peat for fuel. The perception that these wetlands were sources of disease added impetus to the degradation, which continues today in places such as Indonesia, where agribusiness has been draining and burning vast areas of peatlands for oil palm plantations.