Now for something really practical. If you ever have the misfortune to get completely lost in a cattle farming area on a day when the sun is obscured and it is not clear in which directions traffic on the nearest highway is heading, you could begin to get oriented by looking carefully at the cows. According to new research, cattle have a good sense of direction and tend to point to the north — possibly a relic of the days when their ancestors migrated across the plains of Africa, Asia and Europe.

Researchers looked at thousands of images of cattle on Google Earth in Britain, Ireland, India and the USA. They also studied 3000 deer in the Czech Republic, and the deer tended to face north when resting or grazing. Thus, although images were not always clear enough to determine which way the cattle were facing on a north-south axis, the scientists concluded they were behaving in the same way as the deer.

Huge variations in the wind direction and sunlight in the areas studied meant that these factors could not be ruled out as influencing the cows’ direction. However, in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research team concluded that “the magnetic field is the only common and most likely factor responsible for the observed alignment”. It is already known that many species, including turtles, salmon and birds, use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate across the planet. Animals are thought to use their own internal magnets made of crystals of magnetite.

Oh, and if you are still lost, ask the nearest farmer. ~ Telegraph (UK), August 26


Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet