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Scientist claims to spot insects on Mars, but I think they're just rocks

An entomologist believes he found evidence of alien life on the Red Planet. I'm not buying it.

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Entomologist William Romoser annotated this NASA Mars rover image to suggest it shows an insect-like form.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Annotations by William Romoser

There are no robot legs on Mars. Or thigh bones. Or reptiles running around eating Martian insects. Sure, there's something weird going on with the methane -- and potentially even the oxygen -- but I'm confident saying there's not a lot happening for life on Mars. Of course, not everyone agrees.

Entomologist William Romoser, an Ohio University emeritus professor, presented a research poster claiming to find evidence of life on Mars at an Entomological Society of America conference in St. Louis this week.

Entomologist William Romoser suggests this NASA rover image of Mars shows a "snake-like predator" with "insect-like prey" in the center. 

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ohio University issued a press release on Romoser's research on Tuesday titled Ohio entomologist: Photos show evidence of life on Mars.

Poster presentations tend to be less formal than peer-reviewed papers published in science journals. Romoser's poster makes some bold claims -- the heart of which is that there is current life on Mars. The entomologist describes "insect-like" and "reptile-like" forms and says it appears Mars "enjoys a surprising abundance of higher life forms."

As evidence, Romoser presents a series of annotated images captured by NASA's Mars rovers. Romoser suggests these show fossilized and extant forms of life, including a reptilian creature preying on an insect-like creature. The images are blurry but seem to show some of the many rocks that litter the Martian landscape.

"We have no scientific data that would support this claim," said NASA in a statement to CNET. "There is insufficient oxygen to sustain the metabolism of metazoans on Mars. On Earth, animals, especially as complex as these, need lots of oxygen. There are only traces in Mars' atmosphere."

Pareidolia, the human tendency to "see" recognizable shapes in random patterns, may be the mostly likely explanation for what Romoser thinks he is seeing. It's a common phenomenon for some alien enthusiasts who enjoy looking through NASA Mars images for familiar-seeming objects. I've done it myself and found all sorts of "alien faces" in rock formations.

Mars pareidolia can be a fun pastime, but the Ohio University press release lends a sense of legitimacy to Romoser's claims. This isn't Romoser's first foray into fringe concepts related to Mars. He also issued two reports claiming to find evidence of "unidentified aerial phenomena on Mars." He suggested this may mean the presence of intelligent life forms on the barren planet.

"Although we have yet to find signs of extraterrestrial life, NASA is exploring the solar system and beyond to help us answer fundamental questions, including whether we are alone in the universe," a NASA spokesperson told CNET.

NASA said the large majority of the scientific community agrees that current conditions on Mars are not suitable for liquid water or complex life. The jury is still out on the possibility of past microbial life on the Red Planet. The Mars 2020 rover, set to launch next year, will continue to look into this lingering question.

One thing we know for sure is that NASA hasn't spotted any insects or reptiles on Mars. I have reached out to Ohio University and outside entomologists for comment.

Originally published Nov. 19.
Update, Nov. 20:
Adds NASA comment.