Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

The Badlands Guardian and Other Uncanny Products of Pareidolia

The Badlands Guardian and Other Uncanny Products of Pareidolia


Amidst the rugged terrain of the badlands of southeastern Alberta, Canada is a geologic feature that, from the air, bears a striking resemblance to an indigenous Canadian wearing a headdress. Observers have also noticed that a road leading to a natural gas well makes it appear as if the figure is wearing earphones connected to an iPod.

Although the feature looks very much like a carved head, it is in fact a natural feature created by erosion from wind and rain of the soft soil composed of sand, silt, and clay. It is an example of pareidolia, a phenomenon which causes humans to see meaningful patterns where none exist.

Creation of the Badlands Guardian

The feature was discovered by Lynn Hickox, an armchair explorer using Google Earth to search for interesting features. She was looking for directions to a paleontology museum when the feature “jumped out” at her as she puts it. She shared it with friends on the Google Earth forum. After the feature became widely known it was eventually dubbed the “Badlands Guardian.” Duane Froese, a professor of Geology at the University of Alberta, commented on the feature saying that Hickox was lucky to have found it.

The ‘Badlands Guardian’ feature.

The ‘Badlands Guardian’ feature. (Google Maps)

The Badlands Guardian feature is actually a drainage basin which was probably created during a period of rapid erosion. Southeastern Alberta is characterized by badlands terrain. Badlands terrain consists of thick layers of soft sedimentary rock and soils that have been eroded over time by wind and rain to create fantastic geologic landscapes and features.

These landscapes are formed as sediment is deposited in rivers, oceans, tropical environments, lakes, and deltas. After the climate becomes arid, periodic rains will cause flash floods and rapid erosion that carves out canyons, gullies, and drainage basins. Wind erosion also plays a role, creating structures such as hoodoos - spindly rock towers that rise over the landscape like giants.

Hoodoo near Wahweap Creek, Page, Arizona.

Hoodoo near Wahweap Creek, Page, Arizona. (Wolfgang Staudt/CC BY 2.0)

Other examples of this landscape are found in areas of the western United States in the Dakotas, Utah, and Montana, among other places. In Canada, badlands are especially common in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. These areas in the United States and Canada are famous for their fossils. Fossils tend to be best preserved in sediment-rich environments with high deposition rates, such as rivers and deltas, which form most of the rock and sediment making up badlands terrain. Numerous dinosaur fossils have been found in rocks from these regions.

Chasmosaurus belli ROM 843, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. Late Cretaceous 75-74.5 million years ago. Found at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, and prepared at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, Drumheller, Alberta.

Chasmosaurus belli ROM 843, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. Late Cretaceous 75-74.5 million years ago. Found at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, and prepared at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, Drumheller, Alberta. (CC BY SA 2.0)

The Badlands Guardian is an example of a feature that can be formed simply by wind and rain. Though it is a basin feature, it looks like a range of hills at first glance from satellite images because of the hollow face illusion. This optical illusion is similar to the phenomenon that makes craters on the Moon and similar planetary bodies sometimes look topographically inverted in images, though the effect is reversed. The craters look like hills instead of the basins that they are in reality.

A hollow face illusion shown in snow.

A hollow face illusion shown in snow. (Nevit Dilmen/CC BY SA 3.0)

The Badlands Guardian was probably formed over a couple of millennia by successive periods of rapid erosion of the rock and soil by water from brief heavy rainfall events. It is not certain if the exact age can be determined.

Questioning Pareidolia

Although there are already suggestions that it is an artificial feature, one source even claims that it was built by extraterrestrials, there is currently no reason to believe that the Badlands Guardian was artificially constructed. The head is only apparent from certain images, and if observed in a different lighting or from a different vantage point, it just looks like an ordinary drainage basin.

Furthermore, if it were really a megalithic structure of some sort, there would likely be others found in the area as well - it would follow indigenous traditions related to the construction of such features. There would also be archaeological evidence of large nearby settlements, since large structures such as a giant hollow face usually require many people living in complex societies to make them. Currently there is no archaeological or ethnographic evidence that any indigenous culture in the area ever built such structures or that an advanced ancient civilization with the technology necessary for building this type of feature existed in that region. Based on these facts, it is more likely that it is just an unusual drainage basin that resembles a human head and shoulders because of pareidolia.

Pareidolia is a common phenomenon which is a byproduct of the human ability to discern patterns in nature. It probably evolved as a survival technique. Someone who was able to discern a tiger in a field of grass despite its stripes, would be more likely to detect the tiger and get away in time than a person who did not, for example. The reason that Pareidolia can cause us to see patterns that aren’t there is because evolutionarily speaking, there is no selective pressure against false positives. If an early human failed to detect a tiger stalking him in tall grass, he would get eaten, where if he just thought he saw a tiger and ran, there would be no harm done - he would still survive even though there was no actual threat.

Pareidolia of an Apache head in rocks.

Pareidolia of an Apache head in rocks. (Public Domain)

This is a likely reason why humans see so many patterns that aren’t really there, such as the Badlands Guardian. A similar example is the famous face on Mars, which has been touted by many fringe thinkers, such as Richard C. Hoagland, as being evidence of an ancient Martian civilization. There are also claims of pyramids being discovered on Mars. Both these pyramids and the face have been revealed by more detailed images from orbiters to simply be eroded buttes and mesas which have the appearance of pyramids or a face when light hits them at a certain angle.

This ‘Face on Mars’ is probably just another example of pareidolia.

This ‘Face on Mars’ is probably just another example of pareidolia. (Public Domain)

Another example is the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire which resembled the face of a wrinkled old man until erosion caused it to crumble. Other famous examples of pareidolia include people who have claimed to have seen religious figures such as Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or Mother Theresa in pastries. Suffice to say, pareidolia is not a rare phenomenon.

Old Man of the Mountain, New Hampshire.

Old Man of the Mountain, New Hampshire. (Public Domain) This natural feature had the illusionary image of a wrinkled old man.

In conclusion, the Badlands Guardian is really a result of pareidolia. What lessons can we take away from this? One would be that just because something appears to be extraordinary, such as a stone face on Mars, or a Native American warrior’s head in a drainage basin, doesn’t mean that it is extraordinary. We need to use critical thinking. Is there any reason to think that it is anything more than just a coincidence based on available evidence and logic? If not, we should be careful before coming to that conclusion because we could easily be seeing something that isn’t there at all, especially if we really want it to be there.

Top Image: The Badlands Guardian and an indigenous person. It is generally believed that the natural feature’s similarity to an indigenous person with a headdress is an example of pareidolia. Source: Thoughts of a Taoist Babe

By Caleb Strom


“Geologic Formations.” National Park Service. Available at:

“Gran’s Canyon is a net sensation” by Stephen Hutcheon (2006). The Sydney Morning Herald. Available at:

Howard, Alan D. "Badlands."  Geomorphology of desert environments. Springer Netherlands, 1994. 213-242.

“Aliens Face hidden to look like mountains in Canada, Google Earth discovery, UFO sighting news. Badlands Guardian” by Scott Waring (2011). UFO Sightings Daily. Available at:

Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

Next article