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Pretty Punctuation: The Question Mark and Eastern Comma Butterflies

There are many beautiful butterfly species, and trying to learn them by name can be difficult, especially when they are similar in size, shape and color. But two butterflies — the eastern comma butterfly and question mark butterfly — stand out because their tiny little markings resemble punctuation.

A question mark butterfly. Photo by Suzy Lyttle

Both species overwinter as adults, so they are one of the first butterflies you can see in the spring. They are common in our area and are mostly found at the edges of woodlands or along streams.

These butterflies both have two broods, or family groups, a year. Soon these adult females that just woke up will lay eggs. The eggs will hatch as caterpillars in four to 14 days. The caterpillars will munch and grow for three to four weeks. They will then be in chrysalis form for one to three weeks, and we will see the new adults flying around in June and July.

Once the adults emerge, the cycle begins again. The second batch of adults will emerge in September or October before they hunker down in leaf litter during the cold winter.

These butterflies are seasonally dimorphic, which means the adults in the summer look different than the adults in fall. The fall butterflies are the ones that will hibernate and wake up again in the spring.

Both the eastern comma and the question mark are medium- sized butterflies. The eastern comma is about 2 inches, while the question mark is slightly larger than 2 inches. The colorful parts of their wings are orange with black spots. The hind wings of the question mark usually lack this coloring. Both species have very distinct wing edges. They are more ragged or scalloped then most.

If you look closely at the underside of their wings, you can see the tiny silver markings that give the eastern comma and question mark butterflies their names. Photo by Suzy Lyttle

The undersides of their wings are mostly the color of dead, dried up leaves or tree bark. This allows them to stay hidden from predators. The exception is the tiny silver marking on each that is its namesake. On the eastern comma it is a tiny silver arc. On the question mark, there is a tiny silver arc followed by a dot.

The caterpillars of both these species are spiky. The question mark caterpillar is rusty orange and black with a little white. The comma caterpillar is light to whitish-green or yellow with a little black, perhaps camouflaging itself as bird droppings.

Both species of caterpillar emerge from eggs that were laid on the underside of the leaves of their favorite food. This includes trees like the American elm and hackberry and plants like nettles. Adult butterflies will drink from overripe fruit, tree sap, dead animals or animal droppings.

As you are walking along in the forest or in your neighborhood, keep an eye out for these two little creatures flitting about with punctuation marks on their wings.


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