All About Comma and Question Mark Butterflies

Study up on your punctuation and learn about the comma butterfly and question mark butterfly. Look at their wings closely to see how they got their names!

question mark butterflyCourtesy Connie Etter
This question mark butterfly has a unique punctuation mark on its underwings.

One of my favorite groups of butterflies are known as the “anglewings” due to their interesting wing shapes. These fliers are in the Polygonia genus—nine of which are found in North America. Polygonia is Greek for many angles. This genus is also known collectively as the commas because of the white marking on their underwings. Let’s learn some fascinating facts about the comma butterfly and question mark butterfly.

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Unique Punctuation Wing Markings

With their wings closed, these butterflies look a little drab but you can see the markings that give them their name. With their wings open they show gorgeous orange coloration. Look closely at their hindwings to find the punctuation marks they’re named for. A comma butterfly has a white or silver mark similar to a comma, while a question mark butterfly has an extra dot underneath.

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A question mark butterfly’s wings may reach up to 3 inches wide, while an eastern comma’s wingspan can be as small as 1 3/4 inches.

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Year-Round Visitors

question mark butterflyPhoto by Becky Gish
As snow melts, question mark butterflies emerge from winter hibernation.

You might spot both question mark and comma butterflies during any of the 12 months of the year. They overwinter as adults, tucked into safe spaces, but may come out on unseasonably warm days.

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Host Plants

Most caterpillars go through five stages, known as instars. Question mark and comma caterpillars rely on elms, nettles and hops for host plants.

Multiple Generations

These butterflies typically reproduce twice a year. The generation seen in summer has darker wings, and those appearing in fall and winter are lighter in color.

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How to Attract a Comma and Question Mark Butterfly

Eastern Comma Brush-Footed ButterflyJennifer Seeman/Getty Images
Close-up of an eastern comma butterfly resting on a tree leaf.

Adult punctuation butterflies typically prefer three types of food sources: tree sap, decaying fruit and carrion. As for luring these butterflies to your own garden, the most important thing to know is that this genus of butterflies is rarely found collecting nectar from flowers. You’ll see these butterflies more frequently in wooded areas, as their caterpillars host almost exclusively on trees. To draw them to your yard, try leaving out very ripe or even rotting fruit like bananas or oranges. Place the fruit in a shallow dish of water to keep ants off.

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Range and Species

Question marks are found mainly in the eastern half of the country. Look for comma species from coast to coast. You may see eastern commas (Polygonia comma) and gray commas (Polygonia progne) in the eastern part of the country. In the west, you’ll see hoary commas (Polygonia gracilis) and satyr commas (Polygonia satyrus). They all look very similar and are instantly recognizable with their sharp wing angles, bright orange coloration on top, and drab underwings with comma markings.

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Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find he reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.