Question Mark Butterfly vs. Comma: Nature’s Unique Battle of Punctuation

The question mark butterfly and the comma butterfly are two fascinating species in the world of insects. Both belonging to the family Nymphalidae and the genus Polygonia, they share some similarities, but each has unique features that make them stand out.

The most striking difference between these two species is the distinct marks on their wings. The question mark butterfly, Polygonia interrogationis, is named after its unique silver “question mark” shape on the hind wing. On the other hand, the comma butterfly, Polygonia comma, displays a silver comma-shaped mark, which gives it its name. These butteries’ colorful wings and signature marks make them easily identifiable in the wild. As a comparison, consider the following table:

Question Mark Butterfly Comma Butterfly
Silver “question mark” marking Silver comma-shaped marking
Larger size, hooked forewing margin Smaller size, less-hooked margin

By understanding the differences and similarities between the question mark and comma butterflies, we can better appreciate the rich biodiversity that these remarkable species have to offer.

Question Mark Butterfly and Comma Butterfly

The Question Mark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) and the Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) are two closely related species of butterflies belonging to the Nymphalidae family, which are also known as anglewings due to their unique wing shapes.

The most distinguishing feature between these two butterflies is their unique punctuation wing markings. The Question Mark Butterfly can be identified by the silvery question mark symbol in the middle of its hind wing, while the Eastern Comma Butterfly displays a comma-like marking on its hind wing.

Here’s a comparison table highlighting some of the differences and similarities between the two species:

Feature Question Mark Butterfly Comma Butterfly
Species Polygonia interrogationis Polygonia comma
Family Nymphalidae Nymphalidae
Size Slightly larger Slightly smaller
Wing markings Silvery question mark Comma-like mark
Chrysalis appearance Similar Similar
Food plants for caterpillars Elm, nettle, hackberry Elm, nettle, hackberry

Both the Question Mark and Comma butterflies share similar life cycles and chrysalis. Caterpillars of these species feed on plants like elm, nettle, and hackberry.

In summary, the main difference between the Question Mark Butterfly and the Comma Butterfly lies in their markings, with the former having a question mark pattern and the latter a comma pattern. Both species are classified under the Nymphalidae family and have similar life cycles, feeding on the same types of plants during their caterpillar stages.

Physical Characteristics

The Question Mark butterfly and the Eastern Comma butterfly are two visually similar species. Here, we briefly compare their physical characteristics for easy identification.

Question Mark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis):

Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma):

  • Upperside has a similar color pattern as the Question Mark but with a white mark shaped like a comma on the hindwing
  • Forewing is less hooked compared to the Question Mark
  • Smaller wingspan

Though both have orange upppersides with black spots, a key distinction is the silver or white markings on the hindwings. The Question Mark butterfly has a silver “question mark” shape, while the Eastern Comma has a white “comma” shape.

Here’s a comparison table to highlight their differences:

Feature Question Mark Eastern Comma
Wingspan 2¼ – 3 inches (5.7 – 7.6 cm) Smaller than Question Mark
Forewing Shape Hooked Less hooked
Hindwing Markings Silvery “question mark” White “comma”

Both butterflies are beautiful creatures, each with unique markings that allow for identification in the wild.

Lifecycle and Generations

The lifecycle of the Question Mark butterfly and the Eastern Comma butterfly share some similarities, yet have distinct features. Both butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of host plants, where the caterpillars will later feed and grow.

Eggs hatch in about a week, releasing tiny caterpillars ready to eat. The caterpillars of the Question Mark butterfly can be identified by their dark color, reddish-brown head, short spines, and pale lines. They grow up to 1.5 inches long1. Eastern Comma caterpillars, however, have a similar appearance but are typically smaller in size.

After 3-4 weeks, both species go through metamorphosis to become adults. Adult Question Mark butterflies can be distinguished by their silvery “question mark” in the middle of the hind wing, larger size, more strongly hooked forewing margin, and longer hind wing tail2. Eastern Comma butterflies, on the other hand, have a silvery “comma” on their hind wings1.

They both overwinter as adults, hiding in dead leaves or other warm crevices. Adult lifespan varies depending on environmental factors and predators3.

Throughout the year, multiple generations of both butterfly species emerge, with the number of generations depending on the climate and region4. For example, southern populations may experience more generations than their northern counterparts.

Here’s a quick comparison table of the main differences and similarities:

Feature Question Mark Butterfly Eastern Comma Butterfly
Egg laying On host plant leaves On host plant leaves
Caterpillar characteristics Dark, spiny, up to 1.5″ Dark, spiny, smaller
Hind wing markings Silvery “question mark” Silvery “comma”
Overwintering stage Adult Adult
Lifespan of adults Varies Varies
Number of generations per year Climate/region-dependent Climate/region-dependent

In conclusion, while the Question Mark and Eastern Comma butterflies share some aspects of their lifecycle and generations, they can be distinguished by differences in appearance and size throughout their various life stages.

Habitat and Distribution

The Question Mark butterfly and the Eastern Comma butterfly share some similarities and differences in their habitats and distribution.

  • Range: Both species are found in the Eastern U.S. and Southern Canada12.
  • Habitat: They thrive in wooded areas, woodlands, and similar environments12.

Question Mark butterflies primarily feed on tree sap, rotten fruit, and flower nectar3. Eastern Comma butterflies have a similar diet, but with a preference for tree sap4.

Feature Question Mark Eastern Comma
Host Plants Mostly nettles in the genus Urtica3 Hop vines and nettles5

Both species overwinter as adults and can be found hibernating in leaf litter or hidden in wooded areas14.

To summarize:

  • They have a shared range in Eastern U.S. and Southern Canada.
  • Wooded areas and woodlands are their common habitats.
  • They both feed on tree sap, with slight variations in diet.
  • Host plants differ between the two species.
  • Both butterflies overwinter as adults.

Diet and Predators

Question Mark Butterfly:

Question Mark Butterfly adults feed on nectar as well as some more unusual substances. For example, they consume:

Caterpillars of this species mainly eat leaves from a variety of trees and plants. Some common sources include:

  • Elm
  • Hackberry
  • Nettle

Eastern Comma Butterfly:

Eastern Comma Butterfly adults also feed on nectar, although their diet may consist of:

  • Decaying fruit
  • Tree sap
  • Bird droppings

Their caterpillars primarily feed on the leaves of plants belonging to the elm and nettle families.

Comparison Table

Question Mark Butterfly Eastern Comma Butterfly
Adult Diet Nectar, tree sap, bird droppings, animal scat Nectar, tree sap, bird droppings, decaying fruit
Caterpillar Diet Elm, hackberry, nettle leaves Elm, nettle leaves

Regarding predators, both species must lower their guard as adults against hungry birds, spiders, and praying mantises. The caterpillars may also end on the dinner plate of insects like lacewings that enjoy feasting on small caterpillars or beetle larvae.

When comparing the diet and predators of these two fascinating butterfly species, it is evident that they share many similarities, such as their preference for plant-based diet and vulnerability towards specific predators. However, distinctions like the Question Mark’s penchant for animal scat and the Eastern Comma’s inclusion of decaying fruit in their diet highlight their unique adaptations.

Species Range and Adaptations

The Question Mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) and the Eastern Comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) are closely related species that can be found in various habitats across North America.

Question Mark butterfly:

Eastern Comma butterfly:

  • Range includes eastern U.S., southern Canada, and parts of Mexico
  • Prefers wooded areas, woodlands, and trees
  • Orange to yellow coloration with light markings on hind wings

Adult butterflies of both species are known to lay eggs on host plants, typically trees or shrubs. Some common host plants include elm, hackberry, and nettle.

A brief comparison table of their features:

Question Mark Eastern Comma
Range Eastern U.S., southern Canada, Mexico Eastern U.S., southern Canada
Habitat Wooded areas, woodlands, trees Wooded areas, woodlands, trees
Wing markings Silver “question mark” Light markings on hind wings

Both butterflies have evolved to adapt well to their respective habitats, taking advantage of the available host plants for their caterpillars to grow and thrive.

Additional Facts and Information

The Question Mark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) and the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) are two distinct yet related butterfly species. Here are some key differences and similarities:

Differences

  • The Question Mark Butterfly has a silvery “question mark” in the middle of its hind wing, while the Eastern Comma has an orange “comma.”
  • Question Marks are larger, with longer hind wing tails and more strongly hooked forewing margins.
  • Eastern Commas have black spots on their hind wings.

Similarities

  • Both species are sexually dimorphic, with males and females having slightly different appearances.
  • They both feed on the sap of American Elms, hackberry trees, and other tree species as well as flower nectar, animal scat, and bird droppings.
  • Their caterpillars feed mainly on American Elm and hackberry tree leaves.
  • Both species have patterns that blend well with tree bark.
  • They are typically seen around streams and wooded areas.

The life cycle and seasonal forms of these butterflies are also fascinating:

  • They have two seasonal forms: a spring form and a summer form.
  • Spring forms have darker and more elongated markings.
  • Life cycle consists of egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult butterfly stages.

These butterflies can be seen in North America year-round, making them popular subjects for butterfly pictures and observations. However, it’s essential to avoid using false or exaggerated claims about their behavior or distribution.

In summary, while the Question Mark Butterfly and Eastern Comma may seem superficially similar, they have distinct differences upon closer inspection. Both species play essential roles in their ecosystems, contributing to the biodiversity and beauty of the natural world.

Footnotes

  1. Question Mark Butterfly | NC State Extension Publications 2 3 4 5

  2. question mark – Polygonia interrogationis (Fabricius) 2 3

  3. Generations and Generational Differences: Debunking Myths 2 3

  4. The Changing Generational Values – Johns Hopkins University 2 3

  5. Eastern Comma Butterfly – Polygonia comma (Harris)

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 – Questionmark

 

Subject: Spotted Orange moth
Location: Chicago, IL USA
August 16, 2015 5:17 am
Hello –
I found this beautiful moth in Chicago last night, and can’t seem to find anything that looks similar. It was sitting in the sun for a while and seem to like getting it’s picture take. Could you help?
Signature: Robert

Questionmark
Questionmark

Dear Robert,
This is not a moth.  It is a butterfly, and if you look closely at your image with the closed wings, you will see a silver mark in the center of the hind wing that looks like a “?” and that marking gives this butterfly its common name Questionmark.

Questionmark
Questionmark

Letter 2 – Questionmark

 

Subject:  Is it a leaf or a rectangle with legs?
Geographic location of the bug:  Northwestern PA
Date: 08/08/2018
Time: 11:47 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  I spotted this on one of our Oak trees a couple of years ago and was never able to identify it.  Having come across your site, I hope you can achieve  what I haven’t.
How you want your letter signed:  Valerie

Questionmark

Hi Valerie,
Alas, your sharpest image is cropped so tightly that it has cut off the “stem” of the leaf which adds to the camouflage effect of this Questionmark butterfly, so we have also posted a blurrier image that includes the “stem.”  The Questionmark gets its name because of the silvery marking on the hind wings that resembles a grammatical interrogation symbol.  We suspect your individual is a male, because according to Butterflies and Moths of North America:  “Males find females by perching on leaves or tree trunks in the afternoon, flying to chase other insects and even birds.”

Questionmark

Letter 3 – Questionmark

 

Subject:  Moth? in Michigam
Geographic location of the bug:  Ypsilanti, MI 48198
Date: 08/19/2019
Time: 05:04 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Hello, looking for help with identification.
How you want your letter signed:  Thank You!!! JO

Questionmark

Dear JO,
This is not a Moth.  It is a newly eclosed butterfly, and that is its chrysalis in the background.  The common name for this butterfly is the Questionmark, a name that refers to the silver ?-shaped mark on the lower wings.

Letter 4 – Questionmark and Crescent

 

Subject: Butterfly
Location: Wilson Co Tennessee
September 24, 2012 7:04 am
I was visiting a friend & so happen to have my camera with me & got a shot of this beauty resting on an old log building. plus I took a photo of a smaller butterfly that I have never seen before. Just curious as to what they are. Thanks in advance Bugman.
Ms Nichols
Signature: Ms Nichols

Questionmark

Dear Ms Nichols,
This lovely butterfly is one of the members in the genus
Polygonia that are named after punctuation marks because of silver markings on the ventral surface of the underwings.  Your individual is a Comma, and you may read more about it on Bugguide.  The species page for the Eastern Comma on BugGuide states this distinguishing feature:  “On upper forewing of Question Mark, there is a row of four dark ‘postmedian’ spots, but only three in the Comma and other Polygonia species.”  Your other butterfly is a Crescent in the genus Phyciodes, and according to BugGuide, there are 18 similar looking species in North America.

Crescent

Letter 5 – Questionmark Butterfly

 

Question Mark Butterfly
July 30, 2009
Dear Bugman: Due in part to our unusually cool and damp summer, we have not seen very many butterflies in our gardens this year. Today, this very welcome & docile Question Mark Butterfly was feasting on our Black Knight buddleia. It was very cooperative, as I took over 20 photos. It then flew over to our blue spruce and rested there for some time. This is the first Question Mark we have seen in our gardens, and judging from the tears and scratches on it’s wings, this butterfly has had a rough go of it. One photo shows the underside of it’s wings, where you can clearly see the small white question mark, for which it is named. The other photo shows how fuzzy and very dark this one’s hind wings are. Another picture on your site shows a Question Mark that loo ks much lighter and more patterned on it’s hind wings. Is there a difference between the colors of the males and females, or is it just due to regional population differences?
P.S.: Kudos to you and your wonderful WTB? site. My family and I use it and browse through it almost every day. WTB? is the first resource we turn to when trying to identify bugs, and we have it bookmarked as a “Favorite” site.
An Avid Butterfly Friendly Gardener
Allen Park, MI

Question Mark
Question Mark

Dear Avid Butterfly Friendly Gardener,
Thanks for sending us your wonderful photographs of a Question Mark, Polygonia interrogationis
.  The closed wing view beautifully illustrates the silvery punctuation mark that gives this species both its common and scientific names.  The dark coloration signifies that this is a summer Question Mark.  According to the Butterflies and Moths of North America website:  “Life history: Males find females by perching on leaves or tree trunks in the afternoon, flying to chase other insects and even birds. Females lay eggs singly or stacked under leaves of plants that are usually not the hosts. Caterpillars must find a host plant; they then eat leaves and live alone. Adults of the winter form hibernate; some staying in the north, many migrating to the south.
Flight: Overwintered adults fly and lay eggs in the spring until the end of May. The summer form emerges and flies from May-September, laying eggs that develop into the winter form; these adults appear in late August and spend the winter in various shelters.
The site also indicates that adults feed onRotting fruit, tree sap, dung, carrion. Only when these are unavailable do Question Marks visit flowers such as common milkweed, aster, and sweet pepperbush.

Question Mark
Question Mark

Letter 6 – Questionmark Butterfly

 

Question Mark Butterfly
Location:  Cumberland Plateau, rural southeast Tennessee
July 31, 2010 11:26 am
Hello Bugman,
I saw this butterfly on one of our porch chairs and didn’t think I had seen the wing shape before. After I took its picture and checked with those on your site, I think it is definitely a Question Mark Butterfly. I had taken a photo with its wings folded showing what I thought was an unremarkable underside, but after seeing the description, found that indeed the ? shape is definitely there!
Thanks for your great site.
Bob Kieffer

Questionmark

Hi Bob,
You have provided our readership with excellent images of the open and closed wing views of a flawless Questionmark butterfly.  The closed wing view also shows the silvery interrogation sign on the lower wings.  When the wings are closed, the butterfly is easily camouflaged against dried leaves, making it difficult for a predator that is trying to find the resting place of the flashy winged butterfly it is pursuing.

Questionmark

Authors

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  • 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.

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  • 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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