The Latest on the Great Magnetic Cow Smackdown

By Veronique Greenwood | November 14, 2011 1:09 pm


Magnetic Cows Are Visible From Space” is a memorable headline, and writers had occasion to use it several years ago, when, after poring over satellite pictures from Google Earth, a German research team reported that cows in the images reliably lined up along the magnetic field lines that run across the Earth. The magnetic field may be invisible to us without a compass (although we have sensors in our eyes that are theoretically capable of detecting it), but various animals, including sharks and turtles, are able to sense it, and one explanation for how birds manage to navigate on cross-continent migrations is that they are steering by the magnetic field. Are cows, too, endowed with magnetic field-sensing equipment?

That first paper, in 2008, and a follow-up in 2009, which showed that cows didn’t line up when they were near high-voltage powerlines (known to distort magnetic fields), seemed to indicate that they are. But an analysis of Google Earth images by another team finds no such lining up. In a back-and-forth over the last year in scientific journals, the first team reanalyzed the second’s data and said that half of the images were useless, since they were near high-voltage power lines or contained hay bales or sheep instead of cows. Plus, the first team points out that the second team looked at single cows within herds instead of herds as a whole, and it’s pretty clear at this point that animals in herds and flocks aren’t operating as independent entities. The second team retorts that their images were too okay to use, and the first team may have been looking at the wrong pictures.

So can cows sense magnetic fields? An outside researcher interviewed by Nature News says that in his opinion, taking into account the second group’s findings, the original results, “while mysterious, still stand.” And there are certainly other factors known to contribute to how cows line up, including the wind and the sun (they’ll turn into the wind and against the sun, to minimize the heat lost to wind and maximize the amount of warmth they get), although the first study did attempt to address this by using images that were from a variety of places and days.

Me, I’m holding out for the discovery of magnetism-sensing organs in cows. Ever since I read about the tiny tubes of electromagneto-sensing jelly sharks have running through their heads, I’ve wanted them for myself.

[via Nature News]

Image courtesy of aWorldTourer / flickr

  • Kevin Sweeney

    Perhaps cows just like to have maximum coverage in the warming sun

  • Fred Ludd

    ” Ever since I read about the tiny tubes of electromagneto-sensing jelly sharks have running through their heads, I’ve wanted them for myself.”

    Body mod magnets, for people who need more out of life:

  • Teto Heffington

    What difference would it make in my life if I were able to line up  electromagnetically?  Give me a reason and I’ll try real hard to do it and let you know my results.  Wanna do it too?

  • eWord

    I’ve ridden my bike thousands of miles around the local country side over the years and have observed that even in a single pasture they don’t line up the same way. And on different days they are in different patterns. It’s an udderly ridiculous idea.

    • Silverhair

      True…but how long are we going to milk this thing?

  • BarkingCoyote

    That’s really disappointing news.  I s’pose next they’re going to tell us that they don’t actually predict rain, either.  (Sitting down means it’s going to rain).  My wife couldn’t stand it.  For all 50 years of marriage, every damn time we drive pass a bunch of reclining cows my wife just HAS to say, “Oh, see there? It’s going to rain!”

  • Joan

    Why not just ask someone like me who has spent much of her life in Wisconsin’s dairyland? Cows do not line up according to anything magnetic although while grazing a herd members do tend to head in the same direction. That direction is influenced by wind, precipitation and sun or total randomness..


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


Quirky, funny, and surprising science news from the edge of the known universe.

See More

Collapse bottom bar