Yes, There is a Rat on Mars…

By Corey S. Powell | June 5, 2013 1:13 pm

…and there is also a human figure, several faces, a bunny rabbit, a gun, a small chair, a large forest, and pretty much every other shape the human eye can piece together given a very large number of random shapes to contemplate. They are all real, in the sense that people genuinely do register them in the mind. As many writers have noted, the tendency of the eye and the brain to collaborate on creating recognizable objects is a well-known and quite powerful psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia.

The mystery rat of Mars, aka, a random rock. (Credit: NASA/MSL)

From an evolutionary point of view, pareidolia is a very useful thing. Babies are hard-wired to look for their mothers’ faces, because that is their source of food and protection (and eye contact is an important social bond). There is also a significant upside in perceiving the shapes of both predators and prey half-hidden in abstract clumps of leaves; seeing some animals that are not actually there is far less of a problem than missing some that are.

Which brings me to the new “Mars rat,” or maybe “Mars lizard” depending on your perspective. This story has been lighting up the interwebs for about a week now. There is a long, long history of seeing animal shapes on Mars–the Red Planet being an especially attractive target because it is so tightly associated with the search for life in space, and because we just have so many pictures of the surface to dig through. The most notable thing about the latest sighting is that this time the conspiracy theorists are not arguing that NASA has found Mars life and is keeping it a secret (for unimaginable reasons). No, the alleged plot is that NASA is running secret animal experiments on Mars and one of the creatures has escaped.

The “Mars bunny” seen by NASA’s Opportunity rover is probably a bit of shredded airbag. (Credit: NASA/MER)

Here’s a quick thought: If scientists want to know how animals react to thin air and cold temperatures, they could easily do that experiment in the lab and save a billion dollars. Like most conspiracy theories, the fun of it lies entirely on the idea that somebody has a secret. Logic is not required. [Addendum: I just noted a link to an insightful recent study on conspiracy theories in the Comments section below.]

I do find it interesting, though, that scientists themselves fully participate in the process of projecting animal and human figures out into space. The list of scientific nicknames for rocks on Mars is full of such imagery. Just moments ago I got a press release about a new story of the Cat’s Paw Nebula (though for the life of me I cannot see the paw in that image). I’d like to put this experiment out to DISCOVER’s readers: What are the most exotic creatures and constructions that you can find in the flood of amazing Mars imagery from the Curiosity mission?

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

  • The Sanity Inspector

    My favorites were the smiley face and the Kermit The Frog features.

  • Cs Powell

    [author] There’s a fascinating recent study on the psychology of belief in conspiracy theories. Clearly there is a different mindset among those who think the animal nicknames are fun, and those who truly believe there is a secret government program conducting animal experiments on other worlds. See:

    • Heimdall222

      Note that this website is politically-correct enough to avoid using terms like nutbag, loony, nutjob, wacko, frootloop, dingbat, lunatic, weirdo, headcase, screball, crazy-as-a-bedbug, etc.


  • Jose Grecko

    IF the rover was on Mars that might be true. The ROVER is in fact filming in Southern California, so there are no rats on Mars. Anyone who would more easily believe in Mars Rats than that scientists are lying is really gullible.

    • Flerys Merrywether

      What could scientists possibly stand to gain by lying about going to mars? Funding? Where do you think all the money for NASA goes to? The illuminati, or the reptoids? Geez. Park your conspiracy theories at the door when you comment on a science website.

      • Heimdall222

        Conspiracy theorists are a group all unto themselves. They can make a conspiracy out of anything — just try saying “good morning” to one of them, and watch what happens!

        And its not only the home-grown variety. Recall that Mahmoud Ahmanutjob denied that the Shoah ever happened.

        And on, and on, and on.

    • Buddy199

      “Mars” looks suspiciously like San Bernadino, California. I’m looking for tumbleweeds or a meth lab trailer.

    • coreyspowell

      You are joking, right? I sure hope so. The two things about conspiracy theories that always mystify me: 1) The conspiracies always seem incredibly complicated compared to the relatively small benefits allegedly gained, and 2) The conspiracies require vast numbers of people (hundreds? thousands? more?) to play along, without even a single person refusing or leaking information.

      Anyone who has ever tried to keep a secret, or tried to get a large group of people to agree on a controversial decision, knows that hiding a conspiracy goes directly against human nature.

      • scarborrough

        Do you have any sources for this whatever it is or is it just off the top of your head?

        • coreyspowell

          Yes, I would love the address of the film studio producing the Mars images. That would make quite an expose. Which is exactly the point–everyone in the entire media world would kill for that story. The fact that nobody can get it tells you something. Keeping huge, public secrets is an incredibly hard thing to do.

    • Ronald Turchin

      And the world is flat too!

      • Heimdall222

        Plus, it was created something like 6000 years ago (or 4500, depending on your religion of choice), evolution is not fact, and there’s no such thing as global warming.

        The Apocalypse is coming, the Apocalypse is coming, flee, flee…!

        • nik

          Global warming is a fact.
          It is the reason given that is in question.
          Is it the fact that the earth has been warming for the last tens of thousands of years, on a cycle associated with the earth’s orbit, or is it due to the short term activities of humans, or is it just a myth perpetrated by those wishing to collect carbon tax?

          • coreyspowell

            No, there’s very little question about the reason. The current rate of climate change has no historical precedent. The change in CO2 levels has no historical precedent. Climate models track the changes accuracy when you put in all the factors (including human impacts) and do not if you ignore the human element. 98% of all climate research supports a human role.

            The idea that thousands of researchers around the world, working at low wages for decades, have been conspiring because of some sinister desire to put a tax on your carbon emissions is…well, a lot more bizarre than believing in a rat on Mars.

          • nik

            There is ample evidence for periodical climate change, and plenty of historical precedent.
            The earth experiences a 100,000 year cycle of climate cycle, caused by the periodical changing orbit of the earth, from nearly circular to elliptical, combined with the precession of the earth’s axial tilt,
            The earth has had significantly hotter periods in the past, than it is experiencing now.
            The carbon dioxide emissions by humans amounts to about 0.06% of all CO2 emissions worldwide, which is totally insignificant.
            The ‘evidence’ produced by various government departments to validate their claims, has been shown to be invalid, and flawed, and in some cases, deliberately falsified.
            It matters not how many researchers have been working, what matters is who is funding that research, and for what purpose.
            The earth is currently on the upward incline of the 100,000 year global climate cycle, and there is nothing the earth can do to stop that temperature increase, short of providing earth with a sunshade.
            [ My delay in responding was caused by having two computers in succession fail, one from a near lightening strike, and another complete ‘crash,’ from unknown causes, and losing all my saved sites.]

    • Heimdall222

      Hopefully, Jose Grecko posted this while wearing an aluminum-foil hat.

      Otherwise, the Gubmint would surely be able to read his / her / its (these days, you never know) thoughts and then proceed to the anal probing!

    • John Conarpe

      What? Delusional are we Jose? What is perceived as a rat or a rabbit is a trick our minds play, like seeing faces in random patterns!

  • Secret Island

    Corey Powell, my oh my, there is a rat in the sky. You waste so much time creating a science story to discredit the fact that ‘building 7’ fell down via implosion. Me thinks their is a rat in your eye.

  • scarborrough

    Whether this is a rat or a rock must remain in the eye of the beholder for now because there is no way NASA is going to backtrack for another picture. However, there is another recent case that is far more likely to be indicative of life on Mars and all it would take to narrow down the uncertainty is for NASA to release information that it already has. That case concerns the dense accumulation of tiny spherical objects found last year on a rock outcropping by the Opportunity rover. The sphere mass bears many similarities to vegetation found here such as an outer shell like layer and softer inside that appears to be fibrous in nature, and smaller spheres that appear to be issuing from the larger spheres as if they were once new growth. NASA used an on board Alpha particle spectrometer to study the chemical composition of the spheres and on the basis of that analysis determined that they did not have the same chemical make-up as the “blueberries” observed elsewhere. So, if they were able to determine what chemicals are not present in these structures what is keeping them from telling us what chemicals ARE present. If, for example, they contain carbon, as I suspect from the fibrous nature of the contents, that would be an extremely exciting find because it would strongly suggest that the objects were indeed some form of vegetation. All NASA will say, though, is that they are looking for a geological explanation.

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Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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