NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has captured an elephant on Mars — well, actually, it’s an elephant-shaped lava flow in Elysium Planitia on Mars.

The picture provides one more Martian example of the phenomenon known as “pareidolia,” in which our eyes and brain can be coaxed to see familiar patterns in unfamiliar settings. Pareidolia is the best explanation for the Face on Mars, the Mermaid on Mars ... and even the Happy Face on Mars. The Elephant Face on Mars also provides a glimpse of the geological changes that shaped the Red Planet over the course of billions of years.

“Flood lavas cover extensive areas, and were once thought to be emplaced extremely rapidly, like a flood of water,” University of Arizona planetary geologist Alfred McEwen, the principal investigator for the orbiter’s HiRISE camera, wrote in an image advisory issued on Wednesday. “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,” McEwen said. “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.”                                                    –DM