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A Comprehensive Guide to the Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma)

Introduction to the Eastern Comma Butterfly

The Eastern Comma butterfly is located throughout eastern North America from North Dakota south to northeast Colorado and east, except for peninsular Florida. Host plants include members of the Urticaceae (Nettle Family), and Ulmaceae (Elm Family) and the Hemps (Cannabaceae). The name comes from a comma-like shape on the wings.

Taxonomy and Naming of the Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma)

Eastern comma butterfly on a flower.
Eastern Comma Butterfly — Barnes Dr Thomas G, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Taxonomy

The Eastern Comma butterfly was named and described by Thaddeus William Harris in 1842. This butterfly is a member of the Brush Foots (Lycaenidae) and is in the subfamily Nymphalinae.

Meaning of the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Polygonia, is a combination of two Latin words, Poly and gonia, meaning many + angles, respectively. The species name, comma, refers to the comma shaped mark on the wing.

Common Name

The common name is in reference to the comma shaped mark on wing of the butterfly.

Physical Description of the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)

Eastern comma butterfly on a rock.
Rock with Eastern Comma Butterfly — Kaldari, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Description

  • Color: Light Orange with dark spots and a lighter brown bottom area. When the wings are folded, it, like the Question Mark Butterfly, looks like a dead leaf giving it camouflage on the forest floor. Unlike the Question Mark, the Eastern Comma has a comma shaped mark under the wing. The wings themselves have markings that look like “bird droppings.”
  • Wingspan: 1.75 to 2.5 inches. Smaller than the similar Question Mark butterfly.
  • Active Flying Time: The overwintering population often comes out when the days warm around April. The first generation of the year can be found from late June to July with the second generation flying from August to October. In southern areas there may be a second generation (Pyle 1981).
  • Alternate Names: Hop Merchant

Lifecycle of this Butterfly

Eastern comma butterfly on grass.
Eastern Comma Caterpillar — sherseydc, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Brown chrysalis of the eastern comma butterfly.
Chrysalis of Eastern Comma Butterfly — gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Life Stages

  • Eggs: The eggs of the eastern comma are green in color and are laid under leaves stacked on one another or as a single egg.
  • Larvae (caterpillar): The caterpillars are a little more than 1 inch in length and have pairs of branching spines. The color is variable ranging from white to green to brown or black. The color of the spines can also be variable ranging from black to white with black tips.
  • Chrysalis: The chrysalis is brown in color.
  • Adult: The adults of the second generation may overwinter in loose bark and tree hollows (University of Florida-Featured Creatures (Eastern Comma)). Some members of the species may migrate south (University of Kentucky). Very few individuals of this butterfly migrate, though.

Habitat

Open riverine floodplain.
Opening in Woods — Leonhard Lenz, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Comma butterfly is found generally found in woodlands, open areas in the woods, and in gardens.

Range of the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) in the United States and Canada

Range map of the eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) in the United States and Canada.

The Eastern Comma butterfly is native to the United States and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains.

Host Plants

Plant of false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) in the woods.
Plant of False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) — ncwetlands.org, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The larvae of this butterfly feed on members of the Nettle Family (Urticaceae (Ulmus spp. and Boehmeria spp.)) and Hops (Humulus spp.).

Nectar Plants

Plant of marsh blue violet (Viola cucullata) in a garden.
Plant of Marsh Blue Violet — Robert Coxe, Image

The adults of this butterfly often feed on rotting fruit, tree sap, and dung. They rarely visit flowers such as violets (Viola spp.), clovers (Trifolium spp.), dandelion (Taraxacum spp.), and thistles (Cirsium spp.).

Interesting Facts about this Butterfly?

The Eastern Comma butterfly can exhibit two forms depending on the season. In the summer form, the undersides of the hindwings are mostly black. In the winter form, the hindwings are orange and the upper borders of the wing may be violet colored (Pyle 1981).

What other butterflies are similar to this one?

The eastern comma can sometimes be confused with the Question Mark butterfly if the question mark is missing the period (NABA – New Jersey Butterflies). However, the eastern comma has three dark marks at the top of the wing that form a row, whereas the question mark does not have a row of “dots.”

The pale form of this butterfly can look similar to the Satyr Comma (Polygonia satyrus). A description of how to tell them apart can be found on (Wikipedia – Eastern Comma).

Similar in name, there is another butterfly called the comma on the continent of Europe called the comma that like this butterfly has a comma mark on it. This butterfly is (Polygonia c-album).

Where can I get more information on this butterfly?

References

  • Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies. New York: Chanticleer Press. 924 pp.
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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.

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