There are many animals that sense their place in the world through tapping into the earth’s magnetic field. We think that bees use it to work out where the hive is, and it’s thought that birds and fish use it when they migrate. However, before now it’s never been thought that cows might tap into it too.
Zoologists at the University of Duisberg-Essen in Germany studied 8,510 cattle in 308 herds around the world on Google Earth. They found that when at rest, cattle tend to orient themselves approximately North-South. Apparently nearly two out of every three cattle were oriented in this way. Further to that, the scientists also revealed that field studies of deer in the Czech Republic had found similar results.
The scientists already knew that cows tend to align their bodies facing uphill, or into a strong wind so that they maximise warmth, but the scientists claim that these factors would have been minimised because the images in Google Earth are taken at different times of the day and in different seasons.
I’m doubtful of the results, though. Hunters, farmers, and herders over tens of thousands of years haven’t noticed this before, and the aforementioned environmental factors would almost certainly override any north-south bias. Any cow which sits broadside to a cold easterly wind just so it can face north would be removed from the gene pool quite quickly.
Most of all, I can’t think of a single reason why cows would have evolved this trait and kept it over thousands of generations of breeding. It makes no evolutionary sense. I would be very surprised if nearly 65% of cows in their study did face north-south, and even if they did I would have called it a fluke.
A proper test would be to apply a strong perpendicular magnetic field to a herd of cows, and see if they suddenly shift to sitting East-West. If done on a suitably large scale, that would convince me. But before that, can we have a go at curing Cancer, AIDS or solving Climate Change issues? Those seem a bit more pressing than looking at cows on Google Earth.