Lost in drive-by country? Look for a cow. It will probably be pointing north—or south.
After analyzing satellite photos of 8,000 cows in 308 different locations, German scientists have found that the milk-makers usually confront the world in a north-south direction. This preference isn't an indication of the cows sunning themselves, researchers say—it shows that they can sense the Earth's magnetic field.
The scientists were careful to correct for the animal's whims: they only studied photos of cows that were resting on flat ground, and avoided ones that were near drinking or feeding areas. Couldn't the cows just be guarding themselves from harsh winds? Not so, says lead researcher Sabine Begall. There was no correlation between gusty weather and the cow's stance; in fact, if wind was the issue, cows would align themselves in different positions around the world, and not in a north-south direction.
Despite this finding, scientists will need to conduct more research before they settle on the magnetic theory for good. Magnetoreception is a laborious field to be in: after years of work, scientists haven't pinpointed a chemical sensitive to the Earth's magnetic field in birds, which are known for their magnetic personalities. They've come close in the lab, but haven't found it in the bird's bodies yet. Hopefully, they'll have better luck with cows.
Are we REALLY sure it's magnetism? I can think of any number of ways a cow can sense north and south (much like humans), using the sun. Notice anything about satellite/flyover imagery? That's right! It's sunny out, no clouds! Ever sit facing east at 10 am? West at 6pm? The sun is bright. Maybe cows don't like to look directly at it...
This story has been talked about too much to have such little detail and research behind it. 8,000 cows showing a tendency to be oriented in a north/south rather than east/west direction. How does that suggest magnetism? I've done a litle research of my own on Google Earth. It seems the only cows I could clearly see in the entire state of Michigan are the ones on Michigan State University's campus - the resolution is too poor anywhere else. Go ahead, try it, and tell me if YOU can tell the back end of the cow from the front end at 25,000 feet. Regardless, our campus cows seemed to be oriented in all sorts of directions. Is our magnetic field screwed up? Could tests at the cyclotron laboratory be interfering with the bovine 6th sense?
Our quarterback has been known to throw the ball generally down the field against the opposing team. Our stadium is oriented in a North-South fashion. Was drew Stanton following his magnetic instinct? Or did he have other motives behind throwing the ball down the field? Does correlation imply causation (for those of us who failed 3rd grade science, NO IT DOESN'T)
Then again, the screwed up magnetic field might be a great explanation for last few seasons...