Animal Magnetism: the Weird Science of Why Cows Point North

Wednesday August 16, 2017 Written by Chris


Forget navigating by the stars. Next time you find yourself lost in the bush without a compass, grab yourself a cow. That’s the advice from zoologists at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, who think they have discovered that the animals tend to face in a north-south direction while eating and sleeping.

The observation had eluded ground-level herders for millennia, and was only realised when a researcher named Hynek Burda started pouring over satellite photos of farmlands on Google Earth. Burda had been looking for overhead images of campsites to see whether people had a habit of orientating their tents in a particular direction, a sign that the human race might have an internal compass that is able to detect the Earth’s magnetic fields.

Tents proved too difficult to make out, but Burda did notice that herds of cows across the globe seemed to rest and graze facing in one of two directions (he wasn’t sure whether it was north or south: Google Earth’s resolution wasn’t high enough to distinguish a cow’s head from its rear).

As yet no one has been able to prove exactly what the finding means. One theory is that the cow’s ability to detect magnetic fields might be an evolutionary carry-over. Cows and whales share a common ancestor: an amphibious mammal known as the pakicetus. If whales inherited their ability to read the magnetic fields from the pakicetus, there’s a chance the cows may have too.

If it is true, it wouldn’t be the first time that bovines have been attributed with extraordinary powers. There are plenty of dairy farmers around the globe who swear that their herds are vital when it comes to predicting the weather. Apparently, if they are lying down, it’s best to get out a raincoat. Throw in the whole milk thing and it makes you wonder: how can one farm animal have so many handy features.