Comma, Question Mark?

2013 January 30

No, the title isn’t just me listing punctuation marks for no reason. Those are the two possible common names I’m trying to decide between for this butterfly:

Sam netted it from our lilac bush on May 20, 2012. It’s in pretty rough shape, because this is one of the species that overwinters as an adult, and it has been an adult for 6-8 months (which is positively ancient for a butterfly). It’s definitely one of the anglewings in the genus Polygonia. Even though a lot of the wing edges have been broken off, and the colors are kind of faded, the pattern and wing shape is very distinctive.

Getting it down to species, though, is harder. There is supposedly a distinguishing mark on the underside of the wings.

See that white mark on the wings? If it looks like a comma, then the butterfly is a Comma, but if it looks like a question mark, then it is a Question Mark. Problem is, I don’t think this looks like either a comma or a question mark. If I rotate it so that it actually looks like a puctuation mark, I think it looks most like a semicolon, if anything.

The Question Mark, Polygonia interrogationis, has the two white marks, but the smaller mark is more aligned with the middle of the larger mark than in this specimen. The rest of the Polygonia genus (the Commas) all have a single white mark, but the one that looks the most like this specimen (the Eastern Comma, Polygonia comma) would have the right shape of the white mark if the neck was a bit narrower to make it two marks instead of just one.

You know what? I’m just going to call this one the Northern Semicolon and be done with it.

Anyway, here’s a picture of its head:

In either case, the larvae eat nettles, and hops, and elm, and have two generations. The summer generation has lighter-colored hindwings, and the generation that emerges as adults in the fall has dark hindwings (probably to help them more readily blend in with dead leaves and lichen while they hibernate over the winter). The adults only rarely come to flowers (although this one was caught on lilac blossoms). They mostly prefer juices from rotting fruit, sap, and fluids from damp soil (which may contain some salts that they like)

5 Responses
  1. Patrick permalink
    January 30, 2013

    It’s a Question Mark. Note the line of four spots below the larger dark spot on the upper forewing. Place your mouse over the third photo on this page:

  2. January 30, 2013

    May I just say that the overlap between grammar/punctuation and wildlife identification makes me SO HAPPY (conservation biologist and editor). And the delightful comment from Patrick that states that your animals is (in so many words) “Definitely a question mark” makes me laugh. Wheeee! =) THANKS!

  3. Carole permalink
    January 30, 2013

    After studying photos in Butterflies through Binoculars, I’d also go with the Question Mark ID. I’ve had them enjoying nectar on my mahonia and native plum.

  4. January 31, 2013

    Thanks, Patrick and Carole. It looks like the Question Mark also tends to have a silvery wing margin, which this one doesn’t have anymore because it lost the edges of its wings.

    Biobabbler: I can see where the “punctuation mark” butterflies lend themselves to jokes. I considered just titling this post “, or?”, but thought that might be too obscure.

  5. January 31, 2013

    If it’s a semicolon, then it’s the rarest of all the punctuation butterflies! Almost no one knows how to properly use a semicolon arthropod.

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