Get to know the eastern comma butterfly and similar species

The Eastern comma butterfly is an orange butterfly with black markings, distinguished by a small, curved silver mark on its hindwing that resembles a comma. This butterfly lives in the eastern part of the US.

Eastern comma butterfly species summary

Scientific NamePolygonia comma
Family NameNymphalidae
Kingdom Animalia
Genus Polygonia
HabitatOpen woodlands and wood edges
RangeEastern US
Host PlantsNettle family
Butterfly DescriptionOrange, brownish, and black butterfly with a noticeable comma-shaped white spot
Caterpillar DescriptionWhite to greenish-brown to black

What color is the eastern comma?

The Eastern comma is orange, brownish, and black. Its markings range from light to dark brown. The light form of the wings on the Eastern comma are bright orange with many black markings. The dark form of the wings on the Eastern comma are mostly black with some orange near the base.

It has a line of three rounds spots on each fore wing. The hindwing has a short, curved line, creating a shape resembling a comma. There is a distinct dark spot in the middle of the hindwing.

The edges of the Eastern comma’s wings are irregular. The forewing is hooked at the tip, while the hindwing is tailed. The wingspan ranges from 1.8 to 2.5 inches (4.6 to 6.4 cm).

When its wings are closed, it resembles a dead leaf. The Eastern comma butterfly is known as the Hop merchant and the Comma anglewing.

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Eastern comma vs. question mark

Eastern comma above Question mark
Eastern comma above Question mark

The Eastern comma butterfly can be differentiated from the similar Question mark butterfly by the silver comma-shaped mark in the middle of its hindwing. The Question mark butterfly has a spot near the comma that creates a Question mark shape. The Eastern comma is smaller and has a shorter hindwing tail.

The wings of the Question mark vary depending on the season. In the winter form, the upper side of the hindwing is predominately orange, while in its summer form, it is predominately black. The Eastern comma has 3 black spots in a row, while the Question mark has the same 3 black spots with an elongated dash in the row of spots.

The Question mark uses hackberry plants for its host plant leaves and isn’t found on wood-nettle plants like Eastern commas are. Question marks and Eastern commas use false nettles as host plants to feed their caterpillars. The Question mark ranges across 2 thirds of the eastern US. It ranges from North Dakota to Texas and east to the Atlantic coast. It is also found in southern Canada.

Eastern Comma vs. Gray Comma

Eastern comma above Gray comma
Eastern comma above Gray comma

The Eastern comma has a dark spot in the middle of its hindwing that the Gray comma does not. The faint marking near the edge of the upper wing on the Eastern comma is also usually nonexistent on the Gray comma.

The Gray and Eastern comma thrive in and around wooded habitats. The Gray comma is more likely to be found in yards than the Eastern comma. The Gray comma lives in North America, and its range includes northwest territories of the US and eastern British Columbia, as well as:

  • The Pacific Coast
  • Central California
  • Southern Canada
  • Northern US
  • Montana
  • The Dakotas
  • Nebraska
  • Central Kansas

The host plants of Gray commas include gooseberries and azaleas. You’ll find Eastern commas on gooseberries, but not commonly.

Eastern comma caterpillar description

The Eastern comma caterpillar’s appearance differs depending on its instar. It ranges from white to greenish-brown to black. The caterpillar has pale, branching spines all over its body. Its head has one pair of spines.

How long do comma butterflies live?

Comma butterflies will spend 4 to 14 days in an egg. The larva stage lasts 3 to 4 weeks and forms a chrysalis that will stay around for about 7 to 18 days. Adult butterflies live 6 to 20 days; some types of comma butterflies only survive a few months, while other types can live up to 8 months. The second brood (winter form of adults) overwinters.

Usual host plants for eastern comma butterflies

Eastern comma adult butterflies lay eggs on stinging nettles, elms, hops, and thistles. The Eastern comma’s most frequently used host plant is the stinging nettle. It also uses hops, wood nettle, and American elm plants.

What do eastern comma butterflies eat?

Adult Eastern comma butterflies eat fermenting fruit and tree sap. They rarely eat flower nectar, but when they do, they feed on wildflowers such as thistle and knapweed. Eastern comma butterflies also suck on animal dung, muddy puddles, and animal carrion.

The preferred food plant for Eastern comma caterpillars is the stinging nettle. Adults will also lay eggs on species of elm and hops plants, and these plants will become food sources for the caterpillars when they hatch.

Do eastern comma butterflies have a favorite flower?

The Eastern comma butterfly’s favorite flower is the butterfly bush. Butterfly bushes are fragrant and nectar-rich bushes that attract many types of butterflies. These woody shrubs are often called summer lilacs. They have arching stems and long flower panicles. The bright colors of the flowers are attractive to hungry butterflies.

What is a comma butterfly’s habitat?

Open woodlands and wood edges are the most common habitats for Comma butterflies. Sometimes they stray into populated areas such as parks and gardens. The habitat of the Eastern comma is in and near moist woodlands. It is usually found on the bare ground.

Eastern Comma Butterfly range

The population of the Eastern comma ranges in the eastern half of the US. Specifically, its range starts from the east side of the Rocky Mountains to southern Canada. It also visits the central part of Texas and the Gulf Coast.

Why is the comma butterfly called that?

The Comma butterfly gets its name from the comma-shaped white spot on the underneath of its wing. It remains on the wing throughout the year. This “comma mark” is significant because it distinguishes this butterfly from similar types.

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