A Question Mark with Four Wings

A butterfly

Life is full of uncertainty. At the same time, being grateful for spring and the return of many plants and animals can bring joy even while some things remain unknown.

One species that embodies both uncertainty and the joy of nature is the Question Mark butterfly. There are so many interesting things about this butterfly– including how it got its curious name.

The Question Mark is named after the silvery punctuation mark on the underside of its hind wings shaped like – you guessed it – a question mark! Except for these silvery marks, the undersides of its wings look a lot like dead leaves – a perfect disguise for a butterfly that spends time in forested areas. The upper sides of the wings look much different. They are orange with dark violet, brown and black markings.

The lower side of a Question Mark butterfly’s wings, showing the characteristic silver question mark. 

Most Question Marks in Ontario are migratory. They fly south to the United States in the fall where they spend the winter. These butterflies hide their delicate wings and bodies under loose bark, in rock crevices, hollow trees, or anywhere else they can squeeze into. Like other overwintering butterflies, they stop their bodies from freezing by producing an antifreeze-like chemicals and reducing the water content in their tissues.

As the days warm in spring, they emerge from their winter hiding spots and search for food. A new generation of adults will then arrive back in Ontario around late April or early May.

Question Marks are often thought of as woodland butterflies. Their caterpillars feed on the leaves of trees such as elms and hackberry. They also feed on nettles and can often be found in open areas and city gardens – especially those near woodlands. If you’re a fan of locally made beer, you might consider the Question Mark a pest, since its caterpillars also feed on hop plants – a key ingredient in beer.

Adult Question Mark butterflies rarely feed on flowers. They prefer fermenting fruit, tree sap, mud, dung, and carrion. If you’re hoping to attract a Question Mark to your yard, you might want to put out a plate of fermenting fruit.

When searching for a mate, male Question Mark butterflies will perch in the sun on tree trunks or leaves. These males can be very territorial and are known to fly out to chase other insects and even birds at times!

Do you have any questions about Question Marks? Does learning about nature also brings you joy? If you’ve answered yes, join CVC’s second annual Butterfly Blitz.

This summer-long citizen science program is creating a watershed-wide inventory of butterflies in the Credit River Watershed. Participating in the program is a great way to connect with nature.  Learn how to identify butterfly species in your backyard and neighbourhood. Join one of our upcoming training webinars to get started. Learn more at cvc.ca/butterflyblitz.

By CVC’s Laura Timms, Natural Heritage Management Ecologist

Photos by Peggy Muddles

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