Question Mark Butterfly: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

The Question Mark Butterfly, scientifically known as Polygonia interrogationis, is a medium-sized butterfly commonly found in wooded areas and suburbs. Known for its distinctive markings and unique wing shape, this butterfly is a fascinating species to observe and learn about.

With a wingspan ranging between 2¼ to 3 inches (5.7 to 7.6 cm), the Question Mark Butterfly is easily identified by its red-orange upper wings adorned with black spots and a hooked forewing. The summer and winter forms of this species also display differences in their hindwing patterns, with the summer form having a mostly black hindwing and the winter form showcasing more orange with a longer, violet-tipped tail source. Both life stages of this butterfly are intriguing, as the caterpillars exhibit a distinctly spiny appearance and exhibit irregular pale lines and speckles, while the adults can camouflage themselves as dead leaves when their wings are folded source.

Question Mark Butterfly Overview

Polygonia Interrogationis

The Question Mark Butterfly, known scientifically as Polygonia interrogationis, is a medium-sized butterfly commonly found in wooded areas and suburbs. This butterfly is known for its unique appearance with wings that resemble a dead leaf when folded, making it highly cryptic.

Key features of the Question Mark Butterfly:

  • Wingspan: 2¼ – 3 inches (5.7 – 7.6 cm)
  • Red-orange upperside with black spots
  • Hooked forewing
  • Variable hindwing markings and tail lengths between summer and winter forms

Nymphalidae Family

The Question Mark Butterfly belongs to the Nymphalidae family, which is a diverse group of butterflies with over 6,000 species worldwide. Members of this family are known for their vibrant colors, unique patterns, and distinct wing shapes.

Comparison Table:

Feature Question Mark Butterfly Other Nymphalidae Species
Wingspan 2¼ – 3 inches Varies
Upperside Color Red-orange Varies
Underside Color Light brown Varies
Wing Pattern Black spots Varies
Habitat Wooded areas, suburbs Varies
Antennae Club-shaped Commonly club-shaped

Overall, the Question Mark Butterfly is an intriguing species with camouflaging abilities, and it stands as a unique example of the diverse Nymphalidae family of butterflies.

Identification and Physical Characteristics

Adult Butterfly Appearance

The Question Mark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) has a distinctive appearance. Its wingspan measures between 2¼ – 3 inches (5.7 – 7.6 cm) and is characterized by:

  • Upperside: Red-orange with black spots
  • Forewing: Hooked shape
  • Hindwing (summer form): Mostly black with a short tail
  • Hindwing (winter form): More orange with a longer, violet-tipped tail

A unique feature of this butterfly is the silvery “question mark” found in the middle of the hind wing, which differentiates it from the closely related Eastern Comma Butterfly. The “dot” of the question mark may sometimes be reduced or absent.

Caterpillar and Chrysalis

Question Mark Butterfly caterpillars have a distinct appearance of their own, including the following characteristics:

  • Length: Grow up to 1 ½ inches long
  • Head: Reddish-brown with short spines
  • Body: Dark with irregular, pale lines and speckles
  • Projections: Spiny protuberances on every segment

These caterpillars eventually form a chrysalis and undergo metamorphosis into adult butterflies after 3 or 4 weeks.

Life Cycle and Reproduction

Eggs and Larvae

Question mark butterflies lay their eggs on host plants, usually elm or nettle leaves. Each cream-colored egg takes about four days to hatch. When larvae emerge, they have a reddish-brown head with short spines and grow to be around 1.5 inches long. The dark caterpillars exhibit pale lines and speckles, as well as spiny protuberances on each segment.

Features of the eggs and larvae stage:

  • Cream-colored eggs
  • Hatch in about four days
  • Reddish-brown head with short spines
  • Caterpillars grow to about 1.5 inches long

Pupa and Adult

After 3-4 weeks, the caterpillars transform into pupae. This stage is relatively brief, and the question mark butterfly will emerge as an adult in about 5 days.

Adult butterflies have a comprehensive lifespan of May to September, experiencing two generations per year. Incredibly, they can overwinter as adults, braving colder weather.

Characteristics of pupa and adult stage:

  • Pupa stage lasts 3-4 weeks
  • Adult butterflies emerge in 5 days
  • Two generations per year (May to September)
  • Overwinter as adults

Comparison of life stages:

Stage Durations Features
Eggs and Larvae 4 days (egg), 1.5 inches long (larvae) Cream-colored eggs, spiny caterpillars
Pupa and Adult 3-4 weeks (pupa), 5 days (adult) Two generations per year, overwintering capability

Habitat and Distribution

Range and Migration

Question mark butterflies are mainly found across the eastern U.S., extending from the southern regions of Canada to parts of northern Mexico. Here are some key features of their range:

  • Widespread in the eastern U.S.
  • Present in Canada and northern Mexico

These butterflies show some migratory behaviors, but migration patterns may vary. During the colder months, they will travel to the southern regions of their range.

Preferred Environment

The question mark butterfly prefers an environment with a mix of:

  • Open woods
  • Gardens
  • Parks
  • Roadsides

Their ideal habitat includes food sources for both adults and larvae. Adult butterflies enjoy sipping on nectar from blooming plants, while the larvae require foodplants like nettles, elms, and hackberries for sustenance. The caterpillars’ spiny appearance helps with camouflage, concealing them from potential predators while they develop.

Overall, the question mark butterfly is a resilient species, capable of adapting to various environments across its range.

Food Sources and Host Plants

Caterpillar Host Plants

Question mark caterpillar host plants mainly include:

  • Elm (Ulmus species)
  • Nettle (Urtica species)
  • False nettle (Boehmeria species)
  • Hackberry (Celtis species)
  • Hops (Humulus species)
  • Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata)

These plants provide nutrition, protection, and a place for caterpillars to develop.

Adult Butterfly Diet

Adult question mark butterflies consume a variety of substances for nourishment:

  • Tree sap
  • Rotting fruit
  • Dung
  • Carrion
  • Nectar

Here’s a comparison table showing common food sources:

Food Source Preference
Tree sap High
Rotting fruit High
Dung Medium
Carrion Low
Nectar Low

This diverse diet helps the adult butterfly gain energy and essential nutrients.

Behavior and Interactions

Wings and Flight

The Question Mark Butterfly exhibits unique flying behaviors. It displays two distinct wing positions:

  • Wings closed: This position helps the butterfly blend in with its environment, making it less noticeable to predators. The closed wings show a silvery “question mark” in the middle of the hind wing.
  • Wings open: When the butterfly is basking in the sun or in flight, its wings are open, revealing beautiful orange and brown hues.

Question Mark Butterflies are fast fliers that can maneuver well among trees and shrubs.

Hibernation and Migration

The adult Question Mark Butterfly undergoes two important life processes:

  1. Hibernation: During winter months, the butterfly finds a sheltered location, such as tree cavities or beneath loose bark, to hibernate. This helps the insect conserve energy and survive the cold weather.
  2. Migration: In early spring and late fall, the adult butterflies migrate to find suitable habitats. Unlike the famous Monarch butterfly, their migration patterns are less predictable and not as extensive.
Feature Question Mark Butterfly Monarch Butterfly
Hibernation Yes Yes
Migration Moderate patterns Long and predictable patterns
Wing Color (open wings) Orange and brown Orange and black

Species Relations and Varieties

Related Butterfly Species

The Question Mark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) is a member of the Polygoni tribe, which includes other closely related species, such as the Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) and the Hoary Comma (Polygonia gracilis). All of these butterflies belong to the group commonly known as “anglewings” or “commas.”

  • Eastern Comma Butterfly: Similar in appearance to Question Marks, with hooked forewing margins.
  • Hoary Comma: More grayish above, with spurious vein below.

Different Forms and Variations

The Question Mark has noticeable differences in appearance depending on the season and location where it is found. There are two primary forms: the winter form and the summer form. The wingspan ranges from 2¼ – 3 inches (5.7 – 7.6 cm).

  • Winter Form:

    • Upperside hindwing has more orange.
    • Longer, violet-tipped tail.
  • Summer Form:

    • Upperside hindwing is mostly black.
    • Shorter tail.

Comparison Table

Feature Question Mark Eastern Comma Hoary Comma
Size 2¼ – 3 inches 1.75 – 2 inches 1.5 – 2 inches
Color Red-orange Orange-brown Grayish brown
Marking Silvery “question mark” Silvery “comma” White “comma”
Wing Margin Strongly hooked Hooked Less prominent

These butterflies exhibit a unique feature called cryptic coloration, which helps them blend in with their surroundings, often mimicking the appearance of dead leaves. This adaptive camouflage protects them from predators and enables them to rest undisturbed during the day.

Conservation Status and Importance

Pollinator Role

The Question Mark Butterfly (genus Polygonia) plays a vital role as a pollinator in various ecosystems. They frequently visit gardens, meadows, and moist areas in suburbs during their active seasons. Examples of plants they help pollinate are:

  • Asters
  • Milkweed
  • Goldenrod

These butterflies contribute to plant reproduction, aiding in the maintenance and growth of local flora.

Threats

Some threats to the Question Mark Butterfly population include:

  • Habitat loss
  • Pesticide exposure
  • Climate change

As human development expands, natural habitats for these butterflies may dwindle, impacting their numbers and ability to find suitable host plants.

Conservation Efforts

Active conservation efforts are crucial for maintaining healthy populations of Question Mark butterflies. Some examples of conservation actions include:

  • Planting native flowers in gardens
  • Reducing pesticide use
  • Supporting habitat restoration projects

By making these small changes, individuals can contribute to the well-being of these important pollinators and help preserve the delicate balance within their respective ecosystems.

Classification and Scientific Information

Taxonomy

The Question Mark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) is an insect that belongs to the following taxonomic classes:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Family: Nymphalidae
  • Genus: Polygonia
  • Species: Interrogationis

This butterfly species is a part of the Lepidoptera order, which includes both butterflies and moths. It is a remarkable species known for its unique wing shape and appearance.

Scientific Naming

The scientific name of the Question Mark Butterfly is Polygonia interrogationis. This name comes from two parts: the genus name “Polygonia”, which refers to its angular wing shapes, and the species name “interrogationis”, which indicates the presence of a distinct “question mark” marking on its wings.

History and Distribution

The distribution of the Polygonia interrogationis primarily covers eastern North America1. Known for its resemblance to a dead leaf when at rest, this butterfly species has adapted to a wide range of environments. Here are some of its unique features:

  • Red-orange upperside wings with black spots
  • Hooked forewing, contributing to its dead-leaf appearance
  • The hind wing of the summer form showcases black shades with a short tail, while the winter form has more orange and a longer, violet-tipped tail2

In conclusion, the Question Mark Butterfly is an impressive species with a fascinating taxonomy, distinct scientific naming, and a rich history that spans across eastern North America.

Fun Facts and Miscellaneous

Camouflage and Mimicry

Question Mark butterflies are masters of camouflage. Their outer wing surfaces resemble dead leaves, providing excellent disguise when they roost on trees. The inner wings show beautiful orange and black patterns when flying1. They also exhibit mimicry in their silver marking on the hindwings which looks like a question mark2.

Interesting Observations

The caterpillars of the Question Mark Butterfly have a reddish-brown head and are covered with short spines1. They grow about 1 1/2 inches long and typically feed on plants like:

  • Elms
  • Hackberries
  • Nettles

Adult Question Mark butterflies are found across many states and enjoy visiting parks during warm months like August2. They mainly feed on flower nectar, and sometimes on ripe fruits.

Their classification in the animal kingdom:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Family: Nymphalidae
  • Genus: Polygonia
  • Species: Polygonia interrogationis

The following table compares the Question Mark Butterfly with a related species, the Eastern Comma Butterfly:

Feature Question Mark Butterfly Eastern Comma Butterfly
Size Larger Smaller
Marking Silvery question mark Silvery C-shaped comma
Tails Shorter tails Longer tails
Wings More strongly hooked Less hooked

Overall, the Question Mark Butterfly is an intriguing species with amazing survival techniques, beautiful appearance, and interesting behaviors.

Footnotes

  1. https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/question-mark-butterfly 2 3

  2. https://alabama.butterflyatlas.usf.edu/species/details/126/question-mark 2 3

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Possibly Questionmark Caterpillar

 

Black and Orange Catapillar
Location: Houston, Texas
March 21, 2011 9:46 pm
I found this caterpillar in the front yard on a ham and eggs(flower) plant on November 29 2010. It’s very spiky looking so I didn’t touch it. I wondered what kind of catapillar it is and what it turns into.
Signature: Thanks, Kelly Bufkin

Questionmark Caterpillar???

Hi again Kelly,
This is one of the Brush-Footed Butterfly Caterpillars.  We looked up ham and eggs and found out it is lantana.  Knowing the host plant might make identification easier, but we have not had any luck in our quick search.  We suspect your caterpillar is in the subfamily Nymphalinae, and you might try finding a match on BugGuide, since time will not allow us to do further research at the moment.  Just prior to posting, we did a final search and we believe this is a Questionmark Caterpillar,
Polygonia interrogationis based on this photo on BugGuide, though BugGuide does not list lantana as a host.

Letter 2 – Anglewing and Red Admiral

 

what’s this butterfly called
Location: South western ontario near michigan border
September 11, 2011 7:07 am
Hello,
I stumbled upon your site just yesterday and spent at least an hour and half browsing the archives. I really should have been cleaning but this was waaaaaaaaaaaay more interesting. Loved the site so now I am writing to learn about three of the specimens that I saw in my yard.
I had rescued two butterfly bushes from the bargain bin last fall at our local nursery. They were a mere five dollars each. This season they grew fabulously. Full and covered with dozens of blooms all summer. Due to these two bushes I have found a new hobby. Trying to capture (on camera) and identify the dozens of butterflies that have been gracing my yard with their presnece. The other day I took this picture on my i phone(not a great shot but will ahve to do). My co-worker informed me it was a fritillary. I looked it up on line and I think it is more likely a question mark butterfly. I did not photograph the underside of the wing but from the top, it looks very much like one and nothing like a fritillary. Perhaps you can clear this up.
Not sure if image two is a painted lady? Image three I think is a species of hummingbird moth.
Thanks
Signature: Shelley

Questionmark or other Anglewing

Hi Shelley,
The butterfly in question is not a Fritillary.  Your belief that it is a Questionmark is a strong possibility, though we would not rule out that it might be another one of the Anglewings, including the Comma.  The butterfly you believe is a Painted Lady is the closely related Red Admiral.

Red Admiral

 

Letter 3 – Anglewing Butterfly

 

Insect that looks like a dead leaf
Location: Alabama
November 18, 2010 4:33 pm
Can you tell me what this bug is? I live in Birmingham Alabama. I took the picture a few days ago on November 12th. The bug looks exactly like a dead leaf. He is dark brown in color and has the shape of the blackjack leaves in our yard. He is even cut and jagged like a leaf. When his wings are opened he is the exact shape and size of a full leaf (size of an adult palm). I about swept him off the porch but noticed he had legs. His wings even looked delicate, almost like they would crumble like a dead leaf, if touched. Attached are the pictures I took. All I had was my camera on my phone and it was early morning around 6:00 am.
Signature: Mrs. Stock

Anglewing Butterfly: Comma perhaps

Dear Mrs. Stock,
This is one of the Anglewing Butterflies in the genus Polygonia.  There are several species that are named after punctuation marks because of the silvery markings on the undersides of the lower pair of wings.  Your specimen may be a Questionmark,
Polygonia interrogationis, and you may find other images in our archives as well as searching BugGuide for its comprehensive database.  Anglewings are relatively long lived butterflies, and adults frequently hibernate over the winter even in climates with snow and freezing temperatures by seeking shelter in places like hollow trees.  The more brightly colored dorsal surface of the wings causes the Anglewing butterfly to be visible while it is in flight, but when in alights among the leaves on the forest floor it appears to disappear, thwarting any potential predators with its resemblance to a fallen leaf.

Letter 4 – Anglewing Butterfly, probably Eastern Comma

 

A couple of pleasant surprises…
Hi Bugman,
The Great Smoky Mountains are beginning to awaken once again. This morning I was privileged to enjoy a short but wonderful hike in the National Park and, much to my surprise, I found more than daffodils showing signs of Spring. My first Butterfly of the new year appears to be a Question Mark but, please, correct me if I’m wrong. The new excavation site, however… ??? Many thanx,
R.G. Marion

Hi again R.G. Marion,
Nice to hear from you after so long. The butterfly is definitely an Anglewing in the genus Polygonia, but we believe it to be the other punctuation mark. It looks more like an Eastern Comma than a Questionmark. These butterflies, like Mourning Cloaks, hibernate over the winter and are generally the first butterflies spotted in the spring. We are not sure about the excavation photo.

Letter 5 – Eastern Comma actually a Questionmark

 

Eastern Comma?
Hi Bugpersons:
Hope you had a nice vacation. We missed you. Here are some photos of what I think is an Eastern Comma. I had to (horrors!) search beyond your website to locate a possible "match". Thankfully, that doesn’t happen often.
Jill – suburbs of Chicago

Hi Jill,
We had a wonderful, though very short, holiday. We got to see an Eastern Comma visit mom’s garden on most sunny days. It would fly erratically and then land on a flat sunny rock. Your photo is indeed an Eastern Comma. We can’t imagine that searching other websites is as horrific as you claim. Thankfully, in the future, people will be able to identify this Anglewing Butterfly thanks to your image on our site.

Correction: (07/09/2007) ancient correction…
Hi again Daniel and Lisa,
When you get some slack time, please look back to a post from 6/12/06, in Caterpillars 2 on your site. It’s an anglewing ID’ed as an Eastern Comma. I believe it’s a Question Mark, based on the bar or “eyebrow” over the outermost of the three dots on the forewing. There are some good photos on this site: http://www.wisconsinbutterflies.org/butterflies/species/177 Thanks again for What’s That Bug site… regards,
Dave Fallow
Madison, WI

Thanks Dave,
Though you directed us to Caterpillars 2, we quickly determined you must have meant Butterflies 2.

Letter 6 – Not Comma but a Questionmark

 

what’s this moth?
I have never seen this moth / butterfly before and I am having trouble identifying it. I live in north central WV and saw it in September. Thanks!

This is one of the Anglewing Butterflies in the genus Polygonia. We believe it is the Eastern Comma, Polygonia comma. BugGuide has some good information.

Questionmark
(10/10/2006) gentle correction
Lisa Anne and Daniel:
Every time you update your photos, I learn several new insects/critters. Thanks for doing the site. It is rare that I can spot an error, so I must thank you for including one today. The butterfly is not an Eastern Comma, but a Question Mark. On the upper surface of the forewing, there are three dots on both these species. On the Q.M., there is an “eyebrow” over the outermost dot…as can be seen in the photo. The most abundant butterflies here in southern Wisconsin (as of a couple days ago, anyway) are Clouded Sulphurs. Alas, a hard frost is headed our way in the next 48 hours or so. Maybe your photo submissions will drop precipitously along with the temps, and you can get some more sleep! Regards,
Dave Fallow
Madison, WI

Letter 7 – Question Mark

 

Found in Arkansas!
Found this in Arkansas in the woods….. Is it a moth, or a butterfly?? He seems to LOVE to hang out with Yellow Jackets and Green Flies at the bottom of this pine tree. Probably eating sap. THanks!
Linda


Hi Linda,
This is an Anglewing Butterfly known as the Question Mark. It was named for a silver mark on the underside of the hind wing that resembles the punctuation mark for interrogation. It can be distinguised from the other punctuation mark butterflies by the row of four dark spots on the upper wing. According to Jeffrey Glassberg in his book Butterflies Through Binoculars The West, “Unlike most of our butterflies, adult anglewings and tortoiseshells rarely nectar at flowers. Instead, they often can be seen taking sap from trees, congretating on rotten fruit, or even deriving sustenance from animal scat or carrion. … Also unlike an other western butterflies, species in these groups overwinter in cold areas as adults. The adult butterlies crawl into narrow cavities in trees, or into cracks in human dwellings. In warm days in the dead of winter, they can sometimes be found flying in the sunshine! The overwintering adults usually mate in the early springtime.”

Letter 8 – Question Mark

 

Angle Wing????
I can’t find a photo of this butterfly online anywhere. The closest I’ve seen to it is an Anglewing on your site. I shot him along Pinto Creek near Brackettville, TX during the 2007 Monarch Migration. Thank you!
Genie

Hi Genie,
The numerous interogation marks in your subject line has led us to believe that your are somewhat certain that this is a Question Mark Butterfly, Polygonia interrogationis, and we agree. Jeffrey Glassberg’s Butterflies Through Binoculars books (both West and East) are must haves for all butterfly observers. He writes: “Very rarely a Question Mark will have the dot of its ‘question mark’ missing, leaving you to question the correct punctuation of the species.” Your specimen has a defined dot.

Letter 9 – Question Mark

 

Question Mark Butterfly?
Sun, Oct 19, 2008 at 11:09 AM
We found a cacoon stuck to my daughter’s sand pail handle so I brought it in so we could see what came out of it. This is what came out. SO PRETTY. We had to catch it so we could let it go outside. Not sure what kind it is? I’m thinking question mark, we have a book but it looks purple in the book. Is this still the same?
Aubrey
North Texas

Question Mark
Question Mark

Hi Aubrey,
Your identification of this Question Mark is absolutely correct.  Differentiating the various species of “punctuation mark” butterflies can be quite difficult.  We are still having major problems with our Time Warner internet connection, and our signal is very very very slow.  Consequently, we can only post a few letters.

Letter 10 – Question Mark

 

Fritillaries?
June 23, 2010
Hi Daniel, I don’t know the species of these but maybe something you were looking for. They are some that looked sort of like “Fritillaries” to me. I have more but the site only allows three images. If you would like more let me know and I will send them thru outlook express. Thank You and have a great day
Richard
North Middle Tennessee

Question Mark

Hi Again Richard,
This butterfly is actually the other butterfly we requested images of, the Question Mark, so named because of the silver marks that look like an interrogation punctuation sign on the under side of the hind wings.  We have already posted your other photos of Fritillaries.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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