Environment Planet Earth 13 'Faces' of Pareidolia From Nature By Russell McLendon Russell McLendon Writer University of Georgia Russell McLendon is a science writer with expertise in the natural environment, humans, and wildlife. He holds degrees in journalism and environmental anthropology. Learn about our editorial process Updated August 15, 2021 Share Twitter Pinterest Email Due to continued erosion of the Queen’s Head rock formation, a replica of the hoodoo was built in Yehliu Geopark. Jui-Chi Chan / Getty Images Environment Weather Outdoors Conservation Most of us know there aren't faces on Mars, but we can't help but see them. The human brain is programmed to recognize other human faces—so much so that we even see them where they aren't. A random arrangement of rocks can easily become a mouth, nose, and eyes in our mind, as can almost anything from an electrical outlet to a locomotive. This is due to the psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia. What Is Pareidolia? Pareidolia is the human tendency to perceive something familiar in an inanimate object. While pareidolia can make us imagine almost any familiar object in unrelated stimuli—like clouds that resemble rabbits or a hand in a supernova—it most often reveals a face. Pareidolia can be especially eerie in nature. While a person might have wanted car headlights to look like a smiling face, what about the visages staring at us from eroded rocks and spider backs? Here are 13 uncanny examples of pareidolia from the natural world. 1 of 13 Witch Head Nebula rwittich / Getty Images Located near the blue star Rigel in the constellation Orion, Witch Head Nebula is named for its eerie resemblance to a "fairytale crone," as NASA describes. Witch Head Nebula's blue color comes not just from Rigel, but also from the fact its dust grains reflect blue light more efficiently than red. 2 of 13 Badlands Guardian Imagery ©2021 CNES / Airbus, Maxar Technologies, S. Alberta MD's and Counties, Map Data ©2021 Google Located in Medicine Hat near southeast Alberta, Canada, Badlands Guardian is a 700 by 800 foot topographic feature. Discovered by an individual scrolling Google Earth in 2006, it was created by erosion and weathering of the area's soft, clay-rich soil. When seen from above (or via Google Earth), the formation looks like a human head wearing a traditional First Nations headdress. 3 of 13 Dracula Orchid Kilitz Photography / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0 The genus Dracula includes more than 100 species of orchids, all native to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. The genus name literally means little dragon, although the flowers are noted for their resemblance to monkey faces. While the flowers of all members of the species may not all resemble faces, many appear to have eyes, lips, and other humanoid facial features. 4 of 13 Overseer of Ebihens Erwan Mirabeau / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain This craggy countenance—complete with the unmistakable profile of eyes, nose, lips, chin, and even green hair—stares pensively from a hillside in the Ebihens archipelago of northwestern France. Of course, the appearance of a “face” only occurs if viewed from a certain angle. Otherwise, the protrusions look just like what they are—rocks. 5 of 13 Face on Mars NASA Viking I / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain First photographed by NASA's Viking 1 probe in 1976, this rock on Mars became a sensation among people who saw it as a carving—and thus evidence of intelligent life on another planet. Located in a Martian region known as Cydonia, it fueled conspiracy theories and haunted tabloid covers until higher-quality images in 1998 and 2001 proved it was merely a mesa that doesn't look much like a face. 6 of 13 Queen's Head GoranQ / Getty Images Yeliu, a mile-long cape in Taiwan, is known for its hoodoos. Located within the Yehliu Geopark in New Taipei, the most famous hoodoo is Queen's Head. Formed by 4,000 years of differential erosion, the rock formation is said to resemble Queen Elizabeth I. The natural attraction is visited by millions of tourists each year. Authorities are worried that additional erosion may eventually cause Queen’s Head to collapse. 7 of 13 Happy-Face Spider Nate Yuen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 The Hawaiian happy-face spider exists only on four islands in Hawaii, lurking under leaves in high-altitude forests. Different populations have an array of patterns and color morphs, many of which appear to have smiling cartoon faces. It is believed that the markings may help protect the spiders from birds. It doesn't necessarily save them from people, though, since Cornell University warns ongoing deforestation "will absolutely result in the extinction of this species." 8 of 13 Pedra da Gavea Ze Martinusso / Getty Images One side of this 2,700-foot mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's Tijuca Forest looks like a human face, while odd markings on the opposite side resemble inscriptions. However, all of these appearances on the tall granite landform that towers above the South Atlantic Ocean are the result of erosion. 9 of 13 Spiny Orb-Weaver Spider Daniela Duncan / Getty Images The spiny orb-weaver spider (Gasteracantha cancriformis) is common across the southern U.S. from California to Florida, as well as parts of Central America and the Caribbean. Not only does its abdomen sometimes resemble a human skull, but its habit of weaving webs in low-hanging branches often brings the tiny spider unwanted contact with actual human heads. This may be scary, but its bite is generally harmless to humans. 10 of 13 Hoburgsgubben Jürgen Howaldt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 de Similar to hoodoos like the Queen's Head, sea stacks develop as ocean waves erode coastal cliffs unevenly, leaving isolated columns of rock. The Swedish island of Gotland is famous for its sea stacks, especially a limestone formation on the Hoburgen peninsula named Hoburgsgubben, or "Old Man of Hoburgen." The top of the rock has what appears to be the profile of a face with a pronounced nose. 11 of 13 Horsehead Nebula Manfred_Konrad / Getty Images It may not be a human face, but given our species' historical reliance on horses, it's little surprise how readily we see that animal's likeness in the Horsehead Nebula. While the Witch Head Nebula is located near Rigel, one of Orion's feet, this celestial steed can be spotted near the star Alnitak in Orion's Belt. 12 of 13 Ortley Lava Pillars Gary Gilardi / Shutterstock What appears to be two Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters in conversation is actually a pair of lava columns in Devil's Hole, Washington. These chatty basalt pillars date back to lava flows more than 15 million years ago. The pinnacles were once horizontal lava flows that were tilted over time by geological forces. 13 of 13 The Sun NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Public Domain While the man in the moon owes his familiar face to ancient lunar maria, this solar smile is a more ephemeral phenomenon. Captured by Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, active portions of the sun's surface look brighter when they are emitting more light and energy. Using composite images not visible to the human eye, NASA blended two sets of extreme ultraviolet wavelengths to create the jack-o'-lantern likeness. The glowing face represents complex and powerful magnetic fields in the sun's atmosphere, or corona.