Read more about the Question Mark Butterfly

Question mark butterfly, also known as Polygonia interrogationis, is present around North America and the eastern two-thirds of the US and is unique for its white comma or a question mark visible only on the underside of its wings.

Question mark butterfly species summary

Scientific NamePolygonia interrogationis
Family NameNymphalidae
HabitatOpen spaces, wooded areas, city parks, suburbs
RangeThe Rocky Mountains, Eastern Wyoming, Colorado, Southern Arizona, Mexico
Host PlantsAmerican elm, winged elm, hackberry, nettles
Butterfly DescriptionRed-orange upperside, underside resembles a dead leaf
Caterpillar DescriptionReddish-brown, and with short spines, each branching out at the tip

What color is the question mark butterfly?

Question mark butterfly
Question mark butterfly

The Question mark butterfly (scientific name Polygonia interrogationis, Fabricius) belongs to the order Lepidoptera, family Nymphalidae (brush-footed), genus Polygonia, where all the subspecies are collectively referred to as anglewings.

At first glance, this butterfly resembles a dead leaf, which is an effective camouflage technique. Its forewings are hooked, with red-orange upperside covered with black spots. The summer form of this butterfly is usually black with a short tail, while the winter form is orange and has a longer violet-tipped tail. The Question mark butterfly also has a very angular wing shape.

The hindwings are pearly white with a question mark at their centers. This differentiates this kind from the Eastern comma (Polygonia comma).

The wingspan ranges from 2 1/4 to 3 inches (5.7 to 7.6 cm). The borders of the wings are white on the upper side. When folded, they’re the color of dry leaves. Males and females are similar in size and appearance.

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Why is the butterfly called a question mark?

This butterfly’s wings have a prominent pearly-white question mark on the undersides. This is why the butterfly got its name.

Caterpillar Physical Description

Like all other butterfly larvae, the Question mark butterfly caterpillars go through several instars. At the end of each instar, the larva goes through apolysis, releasing a harder outer layer from the soft epidermis beneath.

The caterpillar of this species is around 1.4 inches (3.6 cm) in length, reddish-brown, and with short spines, each branching out at the tip. The spines range from yellow to black.

Once the larval cycle ends, the chrysalis forms; it ranges in color, going from dark brown to tan. It has whitish spots in two rows on the dorsal side of the body. As it hardens, the pupa camouflages in the surrounding. Finally, the butterfly emerges, usually in the morning or afternoon.

Where is the question mark butterfly found?

The most common areas filled with these butterflies include:

  • Open spaces
  • Wooded areas
  • City parks
  • Suburbs
  • Fencerows
  • Any area with a combination of trees and an open place

The common Question mark butterfly sightings include Southern Canada and most eastern US except some parts of Florida. It’s also located around the following:

  • The Rocky Mountains
  • Southern Arizona
  • Mexico

Usual Host Plants

Female Question mark butterflies lay eggs on these host plants:

  • American elm (Ulmus americanus)
  • Winged elm
  • Hackberry (Celtis)
  • Japanese hop (Humulus japonicus)
  • Sugarberry
  • False nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica)
  • Stinging nettles (Urtica)
  • Red elm (Ulmus rubra)

Caterpillar and adult Diet

The host plants act as the main food sources for all instars of the caterpillars. Once the adult butterfly emerges from the pupa, it will feed on the following:

  • Tree sap
  • Rotting fruit
  • Carrion
  • Dung
  • Flower nectar

If these aren’t available, the adults will visit common milkweed, aster, and sweet pepperbush.


Males perch on leaves or tree trunks to find females. Occasionally, they’ll fly around to chase off other insects, sometimes even birds. Once the mating ritual, the female will lay eggs singly or in stacks, usually under the sides on new leaves of host plants or a close non-host. This occurs in the spring and lasts until the end of May.

While in the larva stage, these butterflies aren’t gregarious and don’t make leaf nests. The caterpillar must find the host plant and will feed and live alone. The life cycle of the Question mark butterfly includes 2 yearly broods.

The summer form of this butterfly emerges and flies from May to September, laying eggs that will grow to become the winter form in late August. The winter form will spend the cold days in shelters and overwinter. Some will migrate to the south, but experts still aren’t sure how far they’ll go. Each spring, you may notice a migration back to the northern regions.

Adults feed on fermenting fruit, which can get them intoxicated. When that happens, they’re reluctant to fly, even if you touch them. They will also gather around mud puddles to refresh and absorb the necessary minerals and nutrients. On the other hand, they’ll rarely visit and feed off of flowers.

Common Predators

Besides the standard butterfly predators (birds, insects, lizards), there are 6 tachinid fly parasitoids that attack the Question mark butterfly:

  • Chetogena claripennis
  • Compsilura concinnata
  • Exorista mella
  • Hyphantrophaga blanda
  • Hyphantrophaga virilis
  • Lespesia aletiae

There are also 5 hymenopterous parasitoids that attack the Polygonia interrogationis larvae:

  • Hoplismenus morulus morulus
  • Phobocampe confusa
  • Pterocormus caliginosus
  • Pteromalus vanessae
  • Telenomus graptae

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