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8 Optical Illusion Photos That Aren’t At All What They Seem

These fascinating images are more intriguing than they look at first glance. Look twice to try to guess what they really are.

Romain Jacquet-Lagreze

Is it a floating city, a maze of computer circuitry …

Or simply a bloated apartment complex at an unusual angle? Viewed straight up from a street-level courtyard by photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagreze, this old residential building on Hong Kong island becomes a canyon of glass and concrete, jagged with balconies and window-mounted AC units. Lose yourself in the details—just try not to lose your footing.

Conny Sandland/Malaysia

No, that fuzzy bump on the leaf isn’t chest hair.

It isn’t part of the leaf at all—it’s just trying to look that way. Native to India and Southeast Asia, the common baron caterpillar is one of nature’s best-camouflauged vegetarians. A central yellow stripe and branch-like spinal growths keep the baron invisible to birds and free to feed on mango leaves like this one. Look while you can: With camouflage this good, it’s only a matter of time before the caterpillar grows into a baron butterfly.

Andrei Duman/Vault Archives

If you thought a towering inferno, you’re not far off.

In the morning light, this wall of Utah’s Mule Canyon ripples and glows like flames above three squat Anasazi ruins, prompting visitors to name the site House on Fire. Estimated to be more than 800 years old, these sandstone dwellings have known a campfire or two; peek inside, and you’ll see smoke stains on the roof. Find out if you can spot the difference in these 10 pictures.

Jan Vermeer/Minden Pictures/AP Photo

Is it a golf ball, ripples in a pool, or …

A big, cold reason to turn your boat around? Like all icebergs, this dimpled slab of Antarctic ice—once a piece of a glacier—is now unmoored and drifting like a frozen battleship. With up to 90 percent of an iceberg’s mass hidden underwater, it’s best to steer clear. One of the largest ever reported was more than 12,000 square miles—a mobile island larger than Belgium.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand/AP Photo

No, that’s not lava or oil spilling into the sea …

Though diving in would still be a scorching mistake. At 370 feet wide, Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in America, piping nearly 200-degree water out of the earth at the clear blue center and cooling it to about 131°F in those reddish-brown rivulets. The cooler the water, the greater the variety of light-reflecting bacteria that live there, creating a stunning rainbow effect explorer Ferdinand Hayden called “a privilege and a blessing” to behold. See if you can spot the camouflaged snakes in these pictures.

Sam Kaplan

Nope, it’s not the roof of a temple…

In his Pits and Pyramids series, photographer Sam Kaplan turns treats into temples, as with this sugary shrine of more than 1,300 cookies glued to foam-core platforms. “I think prop stylist Michelle Longo and I bought every box of Lorna Doones in a 20-block radius,” Kaplan says.

Donald W. Raub

It’s not a Mini-Wheat under a microscope…

It’s a giant snowflake! Well, sort of. When the surface temperature of an object drops below freezing, water vapor in the surrounding air clings to it in crystals. Just as vapor bundles around frozen water droplets to form snowflakes, reader Donald W. Raub’s wire fence (seen here) became a frosty fresco on a cold Pennsylvania morning. You’ll also want to check out these 12 optical illusions that will make your brain hurt.

Cherry Li

No, that’s not a red beach, or cold fruit punch…

It’s tonight’s main course. Photographer Cherry Li snapped this close-up of an icy fish fillet for a Beijing sushi bar that prides itself on using quality ingredients—and in the sushi biz, that rarely means “catch of the day.” To kill parasites and preserve flavor, most of the uncooked fish used in sushi must be frozen at subzero temperatures for anywhere from 15 hours (the FDA’s recommended minimum) to several years. Your taste buds would never know the difference. Now see if you can identify the everyday objects in these close-up pictures.