Lights and shadows: Why do we see elephants on Mars?

Those claiming that shapes found on Mars are ‘artificial’ are merely suffering from pareidolia.

parrot on Mars
Is that a parrot? Or just a hill? [NASA]

Los Angeles, CA – On April 4, a curious photograph was published on the University of Arizona’s High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) website. The HiRISE camera, attached to the NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) that is currently in orbit around the Red Planet, regularly beams back incredibly detailed snapshots of the Martian plains, mountains and valleys. Often, though, the HiRISE survey will turn up a real Martian oddity that kick-starts the imagination and drives speculation (plus inevitable conspiracy theories) across the internet.

This time, HiRISE spotted an elephant on Mars’ surface.

Yes, an elephant.

Of course we’re not talking about a real elephant; HiRISE scientists had simply spotted a shape on a Martian plain resembling the head, trunk and mouth – plus a strategically placed “eye”. Seeing a clever opportunity to teach some Mars geology, HiRISE planetary scientist Alfred McEwen described what had caused the shape of a large (terrestrial) mammal to be etched into the surface of our neighbouring planet.

As it turned out, the shape had appeared in an ancient lava flow in Elysium Planitia, the youngest flood-lava province on Mars. This plain is of extreme importance to planetary scientists as it holds evidence for volcanic activity within the last 100 million years – perhaps even as recent as 10 million years ago. Considering Mars is largely geologically inactive, this relatively young lava flow could provide key information as to when the Martian interior cooled and “died”, and why it doesn’t have tectonic activity like Earth.

The HiRISE image of the “Mars elephant” in Elysium Planitia [NASA/JPL/University of Arizona]

In a moment of science communication at its finest, McEwen continued, using an elephant analogy to illustrate how quickly the lava flow created the plain:

“Most lava floods on Earth are emplaced over years to decades, and this is probably true for much of the lava on Mars as well. An elephant can walk away from the slowly advancing flow front. However, there is also evidence for much more rapidly flowing lava on Mars, a true flood of lava. In this instance, maybe this elephant couldn’t run away fast enough.”

So, what started the whole “Mars elephant” thing anyway? It was an otherwise unremarkable photo (to a casual observer) of an ancient lava flow, that a photo analyst (obviously with a vivid imagination) grabbed, rotated and said it looked like an elephant. And I have to agree, once you see it, you can’t unsee it! As fun and educational as the “Mars elephant” had became, there is also some pretty fascinating science behind how and why the human brain sees familiar objects in apparently random shapes.

It’s a (pareidolia) trap!

Have you ever watched a cloud churn and thought it resembled a rabbit? You may have even looked at a slice of toast and thought you could see Jesus burnt into it. Have you stared at the Moon and thought you could see a face staring right back at you? These are all well-known examples of a psychological phenomenon known as “pareidolia”.

Faces don’t just appear in toast or tea leaves through some divine event; it’s our unconscious brain cleverly assembling random shapes and tricking us into seeing something recognisable. Once a shape is recognised, our conscious brain fills in the blanks – often attaching some spiritual or ghostly meaning to how the shape got there. This phenomenon isn’t restricted to visual stimuli – audial stimuli can have a similar effect of tricking the brain into thinking it can hear voices in random (or static) noise. It is hypothesised that the phenomenon actually gave our early ancestors an evolutionary advantage. Facial recognition, for example, helps us recognise friend from foe, even in poor visibility – and may have helped prehistoric humans evolve.

Even in our technologically advanced 21st century we still fall into the pareidolia trap, and the tabloid press often follows suit. After all, nothing sells papers faster than a story about Uncle Henry who makes a habit of burning bread so he can see which religious effigy appears next!

But religious shapes and funky clouds to one side, photographs of celestial objects are a hothouse of pareidolia examples. And Mars has had its fair share of misconceptions surrounding random shapes that a few conspiracy theorists and “alien hunters” have recognised as some alien or godly “sign”.

The ‘Face on Mars’. Again. And again.

In 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter took some of the most detailed photographs of the surface of Mars available at the time. In one scene transmitted back to Earth, a one-mile-wide humanoid head appeared (with an uncanny resemblance to Han Solo’s face when he was frozen in Carbonite at the end of the film Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back). This region of Mars is known as Cydonia and it has attracted a huge amount of attention over the years. Is the “face” a monument left behind by an ancient civilisation? Is it a “sign” that humans originated on Mars? Or is it just an optical illusion?

The 1976 Viking 1 orbiter view of the ‘Face on Mars’ [NASA/JPL/University of Arizona]

After the Viking missions, an armada of spacecraft have visited and orbited the Red Planet and the “Face on Mars” has been photographed to higher and higher resolutions. Through the blurry Viking view, yes, it really does look like a human face – the shadows clearly show a head, mouth and eye sockets. But after more advanced cameras captured the same view, it became clear that the “Face on Mars” was actually a hill and the facial features were just shadows. But that doesn’t dilute the fascination scientists have with Cydonia, the mesas jutting out of the plains would be an incredible place to see and study.

Since the “Face on Mars” became an “Interesting Hill on Mars” there are countless other shapes photographed by robotic orbiters, landers and rovers that have been misinterpreted as aliens, alien messages and even top secret human Mars bases!

For example, in 2008 NASA’s Mars Rover Spirit sent back a photograph from the Martian surface of some rocks. One of these rocks looked like a humanoid figure. Was it a Martian wondering across the regolith? From that day on, it became known as the “Mars Yeti” – yet another fine piece of Mars pareidolia. Of course, the Yeti claim was bandied around by the tabloid press as if NASA had finally discovered Martians, only instilling the myth in the mainstream psyche, despite the fact it was just a rock.

Another photograph from the Red Planet’s surface in 2009 – this time snapped by Spirit’s twin rover Opportunity (that is still roving on Mars after over 8 years of service) – appeared to show a statue carved into the side of a crater outcrop, plus some kind of alien technology on the ground. To the conspiracy theorists who made the “discovery”, this was irrefutable “proof” of some kind of intelligence chiseling shapes in rocks on Mars. But the fact is that they were just random shapes in rocks that resembled something familiar. In other words: pareidolia.

In 2000, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) satellite was zooming over the Aram Chaos region and beamed back photos of a landscape filled with interesting mesas, valleys and other features of scientific interest. But to a group of “remote viewers” – people who claim to have the psychic ability to “see” far-off lands without having to leave the comfort of their home – Aram Chaos is the place where a top secret “black ops” military base is located. Using the MGS images, they were able to justify their outlandish claims. They “identified” two domes as being factory complexes and a “jet of liquid” that appeared to be some kind of waste product from the factory. Unsurprisingly, the “factories” are (like the “Face on Mars”) just hills and the spray looks like light material exposed after a Martian landslide. Once again, random shapes on Mars have the habit of igniting the imagination.

Although most of these examples of “Martian pareidolia” are benign, it seems a shame that groups of enthusiasts are expending so much energy on finding peculiar shapes on Mars – while forgetting all logic – when science has so many real unanswered questions about this alien world. Alas, when scientists step in and highlight the logical flaws in their arguments, this becomes proof of some kind of “cover-up” or government conspiracy.

The case of the ‘Dead Mars Parrot’

 NASA to launch new Mars rover

Most recently, I was sent a very detailed press release and paper describing the apparent discovery of a parrot on the Martian surface. But no, this isn’t a random shape or some trick of the light, according to the Society for Planetary SETI Research (SPSR), this shape is artificial; evidently created by some alien civilisation that once thrived on Mars. “The paper identifies a parrot-shaped geoglyph discovered on the surface of Mars with highly detailed features that go far beyond chance,” says the press release. “Two geologists examine the geology of the area and conclude that aesthetic manipulation of the area would be needed to achieve the parrot image.”

Drawing parallels with the animal-shaped geoglyphs on Earth created by ancient cultures in the Americas, the SPSR researchers indicate that the “Mars Parrot” they’ve spotted in MGS photographs of the Argyre Basin region of Mars is an artificial construct. To further justify their “discovery”, they asked for the help of experts to confirm that the parrot has all the attributes of a parrot. And looking at the imagery it does indeed look like a parrot – albeit a dead one.

This is an example of a non-mainstream branch of “alien hunting” known as xenoarchaeology – the study of weird shapes on other planets that may be artifacts left behind by aliens. There has been increased interest in the search for aliens, and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Artifacts (SETA) has been pegged as a possible means of identifying the presence of advanced alien civilisations. Unfortunately, for this kind of extraterrestrial hunt to gain mainstream attention, it needs to apply science, scepticism and a heavy dose of logic before leaping to the conclusion that a parrot shape on Mars is indeed artificial. There at least needs to be some corroborating evidence that supports such an extraordinary claim, rather than just leaning on one argument. Sadly, it would seem that the researchers simply scanned some orbital Mars imagery, spotted a randomly-shaped hill and thought it looked like a parrot. Then they applied some science to justify their belief that as it looks like a parrot, it must be a parrot, and it therefore must have been artificially created.

This kind of flawed logic isn’t uncommon – pareidolia is, after all, a part of human nature – but this particular example isn’t science, it’s a glorified “seeing rabbits in clouds” exercise. I’m certain that of the countless chaotic patterns in clouds, that I would eventually see an anatomically-correct bunny. And I am certain that by searching through the gigabytes of data being streamed back from Mars that, assuming I had enough time, I would also be able to spot a hill shaped like an anatomically-correct parrot.

So, to quote Monty Python: “… that’s what I call a dead parrot.”

Ian O’Neill is Space Science Producer for Discovery News. He is also the founder and editor of space blog Astroengine.

Follow him on Twitter: @astroengine