Cornelius' Corner:

"Taking a Pause with Commas"

Cornelius’ Corner: “Taking a Pause with Commas”

A mottled orange and brown butterfly perched on a green leaf.

Adult Eastern Comma butterfly (Photo by Tom Murray)

Hi, everybody!

I finally got a chance to get out and stretch my scales the other afternoon when it was bright and sunny, and it felt so good to be out! I decided to slither down to the new wetland by the Frog Pond to check out progress on the new spillway, and along the way I spotted spot a bright orange patch on the bark of a spruce tree. Upon closer inspection, the orange patch turned out to be an Eastern Comma butterfly!

This species is pretty amazing. Unlike many moths and butterflies that overwinter as eggs, larvae, or pupae, the Eastern Comma overwinters as an adult! This allows them to come out on warm sunny days in late winter, when they can be spotted basking in sunny patches on trees. They have glycerol in their bodies, which is an antifreeze chemical that helps to keep their cells from freezing during very low temperatures. This means that they are ready for action much sooner in the year than other butterflies!

An orange moth with brown spotted wings resting on the bark of a tree.

Winter generation of the Eastern Comma butterfly (iNaturalist photo by ken272)

They are easily identified by a few different field marks. First, they have large angular notches in their forewings, which makes sense since they are part of the “anglewing” butterfly family. This shape helps them camouflage with dead leaves to hide from predators. Secondly, they have a distinctive silver comma shape in the middle of their hindwings. This comma distinguishes them from another similar species – the Question Mark. Instead of just a comma, Question Mark butterflies also have a little silver spot just like the punctuation mark!

Interestingly, Eastern Comma butterflies have two generations that look slightly different from one another. The winter generation starts as eggs laid in the summer and fall. They go through metamorphosis and emerge as adult butterflies, who then spend the winter sheltered in protected areas like leaf clusters, rock piles, and bark crevices. Once it warms up, they can be seen flying and laying eggs from late March through the end of April.

A butterfly perches an a tree with its head facing down and to the viewer's right. It has wings that are orange with brown spots towards the head and mostly dark brown towards the tail.

Summer generation Eastern Comma butterfly (iNaturalist photo by chia)

The winter butterflies have more orange on the upper side of their hindwings compared to the summer butterflies, who have mostly black hindwings. The summer butterflies emerge from the eggs laid by the winter butterflies and can be found flying from May through September. Their eggs in turn are those which will go on to be the next year’s winter generation!

Besides being cold-tolerant, the adult butterflies have another interesting behavior – instead of feeding on nectar from flowers, they prefer rotting fruit and tree sap. The males are fiercely territorial and will guard their territories and preferred food sources from other males. They have even been known to chase away birds much bigger than they are!

A spiky black and white caterpillar on a green leaf.

Eastern Comma caterpillar (Photo by M.J. Raupp)

Here in the park, the adults are best found by on chilly days by looking for rough-barked trees sitting in sunny patches. In warmer weather, look for them feeding on sap from recently cut or broken stumps and branches. Their spiky black and white caterpillars prefer to feed on plants in the nettle family (especially false nettle and Canadian wood nettle) or on American Elm trees like the one by the back parking lot!

I hope you are able to visit the park soon to look for these beautiful and fascinating butterflies – and if you do, be sure to stop by the Visitor Center to say hi to me!

Your friendly neighborhood corn snake,

– Cornelius

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