In December, I featured a butterfly, the goatweed leafwing, and mentioned that it is somewhat similar in size and appearance to this week’s featured creature, the question mark.
I had planned to feature this butterfly last week along with the flowering purple horsemint, but I wrote so much for that column, I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough room for the question mark. Many people wouldn’t believe there is so much to know about a single plant species, but there is. I even leave out a few minor things so columns won’t get too boring for some readers.
The question mark shares its name as a for of punctuation with another butterfly, the eastern comma.
I will most likely feature the comma in a future column.
When I was a kid, I assumed question mark butterflies got their name due to the shape of the wings when closed. However, they received this name because they have a silvery marking on each hindwing that resembles a very small question mark.
The question mark has two flight times. The summer form flies from May to September, while the winter form flies from late August to May. The winter form will find shelter during cold periods and emerge on warm days to feed. Butterflies in colder climates may migrate south to warmer areas.
The question mark is medium-sized for a butterfly, with a wingspan of about 2 1/4 to 2 3/4 inches. They have hooked forewings and small tails on the hind wings.
Questions marks are orange overall on the upper side of the wings with numerous brownish areas and black spots, along with pale lilac edges around the margins. However, the summer form has mostly black hind wings, while the winter generation’s hind wings are mostly orange. The butterfly in my photos is summer form.
With wings folded, question marks resemble dead leaves, probably a form of camouflage.
Both the question mark and the comma look very similar to each other. However, while the comma has three dark spots in a straight row on the top of each forewing, the question mark has four spots in a row with the one spot being out of line, making each row angled. You’ll see this in my photos.
Also, as I mentioned previously, the question mark has a very small silvery question mark — sometimes a semicolon — under each hindwing, whereas the comma has, well, a comma! But, sometimes the dots of the punctuation marking on the wings of question marks are missing. So, it is best to identify these very similar butterflies by the three versus four spots thing, in my opinion. Did you get all that?
The question mark can be found over nearly all of Oklahoma. Its range covers the Plains States and all states eastward.
Question marks inhabit wooded and semi-wooded areas. Also parks and overgrown fields. In fact, I took the photos of the butterfly featured in this column many years ago in an overgrown field just west of Walmart, which is now developed.
Adults eat fermenting (rotting) fruit, tree sap, dung and even carrion. When this food is unavailable, they will visit flowers.
According to the University of Florida, when engorged on fermenting fruit, adults can appear to be intoxicated and are reluctant to fly even when touched.
According to entomologists, males cling to tree trunks or perch on foliage and wait to meet females. Once mating has taken place, eggs are laid on undersides of the new leaves of plants and trees. Caterpillars live solitary lives and feed on leaves of trees, such as elm and hackberry.
The question mark, along with the eastern comma and the goatweed leafwing, are members of the family Nymphalidae. There are thousands of butterflies across the world which belong to this family.
However, the question mark — and the comma — are members of the anglewing butterfly genus, Polygonia. According to entomologists at the University of Florida, the genus name, Polygonia, is derived from the Greek word for “many angles.” It refers to the outlines of the wings of these butterflies.
The question mark’s Latin name is Polygonia interrogationis.
One last thing
Next week, I will probably feature a harmless little spider. I was told there was a complaint about my column on the black rat snake a couple of weeks ago. A reader didn’t like seeing a snake in the Lifestyle section. So, I will try to warn you ahead of time. Remember! Next week, a harmless little spider. Probably.
Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDITOR’S NOTE: There was indeed a complaint about the presence of one of those slithering beasts on the Lifestyle pages of this newspaper. This editor may even have voiced an opinion or two of his own. How do you feel about snakes and spiders as featured creatures in Randy’s Natural World? Use Randy’s email above or let me know at email@example.com.