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Michael Banks: January 2011 Archives

Heading north

By Michael Banks

Do cows align their bodies along the Earth’s magnetic field lines when grazing? What at first seems like a simple enough question is in fact becoming a hotly contested area of research.

In 2008 the answer was “yes” as zoologist Sabine Begall from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany and colleagues used images from Google Earth to study the patterns of 8500 cattle from 208 pastures around the world.

They found that regardless of where the cows came from, they aligned their bodies along the North–South of the Earth’s magnetic field. The effect was most obvious at high latitudes, they concluded, where the difference between magnetic North and geographical North are greatest (PNAS 105 13451).

There was a small snag, however, as the resolution of the images meant it was not clear whether it was the heads or tails of the animals that were pointing north – no doubt giving Begall and colleagues a case for further studies.

However, magnetoreception in cows has now been disputed by Jiri Hert from Charles University in the Czech Republic and colleagues who say there is no evidence for such alignment in their Europe-wide study of some 3412 individual cows in 322 herds (arXiv:1101.5263).

They claim that Begall and colleagues selected the herds and individual animals in an “inadequate way” and that “possible subconscious bias” could lead to the discrepancy between the studies as well as the use of poor-quality Google satellite images.

However, zoologist Hynek Burda from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany who was involved in the Begall study says it would be “useful” to see the images that Hert and colleagues have evaluated. “The images we have assessed were not of poor quality and there was no problem in determining the body axis [of the cows],” says Burda, who adds that their analysis has been supported at a forum held at the Royal Institute of Navigation.

“The case cannot be closed if only two studies come to different results,” Hert told “We hope that our study will provoke other scientists to repeat the analysis of the magnetic behaviour of cows and other mammals.”

Hert adds that he will not be studying the topic any further, however, but that his work will be “oriented in other directions” from now on.