Cows align themselves with magnetic north

I’m coming a bit late to this one, but apparently a new study has unveiled a curious new fact about cows: They align themselves with Earth’s magnetic field.

In a the paper “Magnetic alignment in grazing and resting cattle and deer” — published in an August issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — a team of German zoologists used Google Earth to examine images of 8,510 cattle and 2,974 deer in hundreds of locations across the Czech Republic. The result? Whether standing and grazing or resting, the cows and deer tended to align themselves with magnetic north or south. We’ve known for years than smaller mammals like birds, turtles and fish can sense the Earth’s magnetic fields, but nobody thought really big mammals could do so.

The funny part is that the scientists now wonder whether this ought to be taken into considering in the architecture of barns. As Sabine Bengall, one of the zoologists, told National Geographic News:

Begall and her co-authors also note it’s unclear why cows and deer would align themselves with Earth’s magnetism. But it could have management implications, she suggests.

“If we assume that our findings are real, we could ask what consequences does [barn] housing in east-west orientation have,” she said.

“Does it influence the animals’ physiology, as in milk production?”

Feng Shui for cows. Beyond awesome.

The other delightful part of this story is how the scientists conducted their research: Via Google Earth. They realized that it would be “difficult, or maybe impossible, to do these studies in the lab”. But Google Earth allowed them to quickly collect massive amounts of data. Indeed, that’s the remarkable thing here. Anyone — you or I — could have done this study, using data that Google has already collected.

UPDATE: Thanks to Ian York and Lisa Mandle for sending me a copy of the paper! I’d wanted to see if it included any of the Google Earth images so I could excerpt them, but sadly it didn’t. That current picture I’m running above is the cow-herd shot that accompanies the story in National Geographic.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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