August 25, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Use Your Cow Compass

Cattle and deer seem to align themselves to magnetic north.  German and Czech scientists, reporting in PNAS,1 used aerial observations to detect the tendency of grazing herds to line up in north-south directions.  The alignment was to magnetic north, not true north—indicating a sensitivity to earth’s magnetic field, as known to exist in migrating birds, lobsters and sea turtles (03/23/2004).
    They did not have an explanation for this apparent sixth sense in mammals, but remarked that “It is amazing that this ubiquitous conspicuous phenomenon apparently has remained unnoticed by herdsmen and hunters for thousands of years.”  They speculated that it might be involved in predator avoidance or some physiological function such as temperature regulation.
    The correlation may just be a statistical fluke.  About two-thirds of the herd members appeared to line up on a magnetic north-south orientation.  If established, “Our findings open horizons for the study of magnetoreception in general and are of potential significance for applied ethology (husbandry, animal welfare),” the authors said.  “They challenge neuroscientists and biophysics to explain the proximate mechanisms.”
    The BBC News also reported the story.  PhysOrg asked whether this “surprising discovery” of a magnetic sense might also be detected in humans – at least those who follow the herd.


1.  Begall et al, “Magnetic alignment in grazing and resting cattle and deer,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, published online 08/25/2008, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0803650105.

What this means is that you will have a statistically better chance of getting your buck trophy if you look east or west.  And cowboys will never look the same with large electromagnets on the backs of their saddles.

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Categories: Amazing Facts, Mammals

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