13 'Faces' of Pareidolia From Nature

Queen's Head at Yehliu Geopark with a bright blue sky behind the carving and a wooden boardwalk below
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

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.

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Witch Head Nebula

night sky showing Witch Head Nebula, Orion amid a dark sky filled with stars

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.

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Badlands Guardian

Google Earth view of Badlands Guardian, a natural formation caused by erosion that looks like a human head wearing a traditional First Nations headdress

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.

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Dracula Orchid

close up of orchid Dracula chestertonii, which looks like it has two black eyes and a wide white tongue lined with red veins, the petals yellow with brown spots

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.

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Overseer of Ebihens

side profile of statue of head carved into the mountains with the top of head covered in green plants under a gray sky

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.

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Face on Mars

Gray images of face on Mars photographed by Viking 1 from space

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.

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Queen's Head

Queen's head Stone on Yehliu Geopark, New Taipei, Taiwan with a bright blue sky with a few clouds above on a sunny day

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.

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Happy-Face Spider

Close up of a green leaf with a light green happy face spider with long legs and what appear to be eyebrows, eyes, and smile

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."

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Pedra da Gavea

Pedra da Gávea, a stone mountain with what appears to be a human face at the top surrounded by tall green trees in the foreground and a blue sky in the background

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.

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Spiny Orb-Weaver Spider

Close up of a spiny-orb spider in a web with four red points sticking up from its abdomen, markings on its abdomen that resemble a face, and black legs in front of a bright blue sky

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.

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The 'Old Man of Hoburgen,' a famous Swedish seastack that resembles an old man's face, under a blue sky with white clouds

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.

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Horsehead Nebula

swirling cloud of dark dust and gases shaped like a horse's head with red sky in the background surrounded by bright white lights of young stars around

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.

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Ortley Lava Pillars

Ortley Pinnacles in Devil's Hole Washington look like two people standing face to face talking above a waterway under a bright blue sky

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. 

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The Sun

Close up photo of the sun from space with flames around the sides and center forming what resembles a smiling face

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.