Home > Biology > How Udderly Odd – Cows with Built-in Magnets Confirmed?

How Udderly Odd – Cows with Built-in Magnets Confirmed?

March 17th, 2009. By Dave Oei. 13,406 views.
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Cows on Microsoft Live

How Udderly Odd - Cows with Built-in Magnets Confirmed?

Last year, after looking at over 8000 images of domestic cattle on Google Earth, a group of scientists led by Hynek Burda and Sabine Begall found that something interesting: Cows tended to align their bodies north-south.

While the reason for why cows did this was elusive, the methodology they used was such that anybody with a computer and internet access could have reached the same results.

Google Earth, a monster of a program, is a free one by Google that provides detailed satellite images, topographic maps, etc… of our planet.  These researchers simply looked at a lot of cows spread across Earth and made this simple discovery.  But was this cause of this mystery-behavior the work of magnetism or the sun?  The researchers suggested it was magnetism because cows were seen pointing north-south even in cloudy conditions.

But there was one way to find out definitively.

Enter Google Earth again.  Except this time, they focused on cows…under high-powered electrical lines.

Contrary to popular belief, the Earth’s magnetic field is very weak, measuring in at no more than 60 microteslas.  Just for reference, a typical refrigerator magnet pulls in at about 5,000 microteslas.  Which means that electrical lines, despite being some distance off the ground from these cows could still provide enough of a disruption to Earth’s magnetic field to confuse cows.

And confuse cows they did.  The researchers found that cows under electrical lines were oriented randomly, not in neat north-south orientations.

Of course, none of this explains the picture I provided above.  It’s not from Google Earth, but from Microsoft Live.  It’s a picture of cows from the Netherlands, which if correctly depicted, shows them oriented more east-west (see the link below if you don’t believe me).  None, in fact, are oriented north-south.

Perhaps it’s just another example of things being done a little differently over in Holland.  Or maybe there are underground wires that are interfering with these cow’s internal compass. Regardless, for now go ahead and put me on the skeptical but highly amused side.

Image source: Live.com


  1. j
    March 17th, 2009 at 22:37 | #1

    It is possible that the scientists, with their imperfect human eyes, only noticed and counted the cows that were arranged in a pattern that attracted the human eye, thus leaving the randomly oriented cows uncounted? Impossible! It’s science!

    It is further possible that the electrical lines merely served as a search image that drew researchers’ attention to nearby cows that would have been otherwise overlooked?

  2. Dave Oei
    March 17th, 2009 at 22:41 | #2

    I think the scientists were skewed to Google Earth and neglected to take a look at Microsoft Live.

    Still, if only I could find those cow images they were looking at. It’s worse than a needle in a haystack!

  3. meyotch
    March 23rd, 2009 at 05:16 | #3

    This was published in a pretty well-respected journal, so you can be sure it was looked a pretty closely by some good scientists. It’s available for free at http://tinyurl.com/crerac.

    I love a good science blog, but can I suggest that you actually link to the real study in these kinds of posts? So many good journals are available for free now. It took me literally 10 seconds to locate this study using . . . Google. I suspect Yahoo Search would have done the same. ;)

    Good scientific writing is readable by anyone with a college education. This paper is really interesting and well-written. (I’m not involved with these guys, tho I am a professional scientist.) Encourage people to see the real science!

    Also, one of the hazards of being a scientist is we tend to get on soap-boxes with little provocation. It’s why we’re no fun at parties.

  4. John Taylor
    March 23rd, 2009 at 06:56 | #4

    Cows ingest ‘cow magnets’ which are given to them to collect metal they may eat. Bits of barbed wire etc. Maybe this has something to do with it ?

  5. Dave Oei
    March 23rd, 2009 at 17:22 | #5

    Meyotch – good point! I usually do attribute the source and for some reason forgot. Thanks for including it!

    John Taylor – no, it probably doesn’t have to do with ingesting barbed wire! As far as I know, there’s no answer. But we do know that many different animals exhibit the ability sense Earth’s magnetic field. How? We don’t know yet! Even some bacteria have magnets: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2006/05/70882

  1. August 12th, 2016 at 09:57 | #1
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