Cows Nearly Always Face North Or South

“The friendly cow all red and white, / I love with all my heart: / She gives me cream with all her might / To eat with apple-tart.” —Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Cow”

In A Nutshell

Since humans first began farming cattle thousands of years ago, we’ve always assumed that our bovine friends graze in a random way. But in 2008, German scientists took to Google Earth to study cattle herds and uncovered some surprising results: Cows nearly always line up with the magnetic north or south poles while grazing.

The Whole Bushel

We’ve known for a long time that certain birds and fish use the Earth’s magnetic field as a sort of guide. But can large mammals do the same? Well, if you believe the scientists at the University of Duisburg-Essen, then the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Way back in 2008, Dr. Sabine Begall and her colleagues were investigating how rodents responded to magnetic fields. Perhaps bored with shoving lumps of metal into rats’ faces all day long, they decided to broaden their research to include larger mammals. Taking to Google Earth, the team analyzed satellite images of hundreds of cattle herds taken across the globe. The results were suitably strange: They found that grazing cows nearly always face magnetic north or magnetic south.

This was unexpected to say the least. Unlike birds or salmon, cows rarely migrate long distances or do much of anything, except maybe chew some cud. So why evolution might endow them with the ability to line up along magnetic lines was a total mystery. Yet the team’s work showed that they did it. Of all the cows analyzed, most faced no more than five degrees off north or south. Nor were they the only ones: Subsequent analysis of tracks made in snow showed that deer herds seem to do the same thing.

After some careful thinking, the scientists came up with a workable theory. Many, many years ago, cows and deer would have originally lived in dense forests, on wide open plains and other places without landmarks. In a world with no discernible way of telling one direction from another, an ability to sense magnetic lines could well give an evolutionary advantage. So that’s that sorted. As for how cows might perceive these magnetic fields, it was summed it up best when one of them simply stated, “I have no real idea.”

Show Me The Proof

NewScientist: And on that farm the cows face north—says Google
BBC News: Cattle shown to align north-south

  • Andy West

    Cows nearly always face milking or slaughter.

    • uıqoɹ

      Cows nearly always face becoming delicious.

    • Check

      They have absolutely no idea what’s at steak here.

      • lbatfish

        Lucky thing for you that the Disqus disabled the “downvote” counter! 😉

        • PorkchopSammiches

          You got some kind of beef with Check.

        • Check

          I know this song by heart, but that’s the first time I saw this video. Thanks for the vid! 🙂

          Sorry for my ‘bad cow pun’, but I couldn’t steer myself from doing it.

          • PorkchopSammiches

            I herd that… and found it udderly mooving.

          • lbatfish

            Oh, bullocks!

  • lbatfish

    I’d read about this phenomenon before, but never before with even a theory about why it might have come to exist.

    I also loved the reply of the scientist who was asked HOW such an ability would work — in science, when you can’t explain something yet, the correct answer IS: “I have no real idea.”

    • Lisa 39

      How come that’s ok and acceptable for science people as an answer but not religious people? I call bs again 🙂

      • lbatfish

        Scientists don’t have a book that contains all of the answers.

        • Lisa 39

          Dang it, foiled again 🙂

  • surya

    One thing is sure. Cows don’t face extinction.

  • PorkchopSammiches

    Pretty sure that “Sabine” is a female name.

    • lbatfish

      Also a cow name, I hope — “Sabine Bovine” just has such a nice ring to it.

      • Andy West

        Makes me feel Nauseas!!

  • Phil

    So we could control the direction of all the cows in the world with a giant magnet and then make them all sit down with a bit of fake rain.

    • Andy West

      Yeah, but for gods sake don’t go showing them any Farside cartoons, they may get ideas above their station!

  • SAdude

    I still say this theory is the biggest load of sh**. Growing up in farmlands I have always seen cows facing at random directions while grazing. People need to find better and more productive things to do research on instead of this crap

    • PorkchopSammiches

      Turns out the farm was located over vast lodestone deposits…

      • TheMadHatter

        Plz STAHP I has to up vote you I have no choice…

    • Lisa 39

      I think someone needs a mama hug!

      • Andy West

        Next time he’ll succeed at getting his paws all the way around the neck, we’ll make a bear yet of him!

  • SiLenTPiece

    I immediately thought it had something to do with not facing the sun, or at least something to do with the sun being east or west.

    • rincewind

      Yes. I thought of that as well. I’m sure the cows know what they are doing, perhaps more so than these scientists who are studying them.

      • Lisa 39

        Hey rincewind, i love your pic, who is it?

        • rincewind

          It’s an image of rincewind taken from the Terry Pratchett books. 🙂

          • Lisa 39

            I had a feeling that you were going to say that! That’s awesome rincewind 🙂

  • EarleenLucious

    I think that Cows always face milking and funny .
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  • Jason West

    All facing only north or south would make it difficult for a predator coming from the side to differentiate and pick out a single cow. They would see a formidable cluster and perhaps think twice. Coming north to south, they’d hit half the cattle head on and a head on hit from a one ton animal could be fatal. Ranchers are hospitalized and even killed by cattle occasionally. I know someone who was. Their must be an evolutionary reason for this behavior. It’s not a random thing. Nature doesn’t ingrain arbitrary and pointless behaviors.

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