Google Earth shows cows point north

A study by German scientists using images sourced from Google Earth shows that cows align themselves to the north-south magnetic axis.

My grandparents in England had cows on their farm so I've always had a lot of affection for them, and was delighted to read this story from the Los Angeles Times indicating a "hidden cow power." Turns out cows may have internal compasses much like birds and bees do for orienting themselves to magnetic north.

Using satellite images on Google Earth, German scientists were able to see that all over the planet, cows stand with their bodies pointing to magnetic north.

Studying photographs of 8,510 cattle in 308 herds from around the world, zoologists Sabine Begall and Hynek Burda of the University of Duisburg-Essen and their colleagues found that two out of every three animals in the pictures were oriented in a direction roughly pointing to magnetic north.
The resolution of the images was not sufficient to tell which ends of the cows were pointing north, however.

You have probably seen how cows will tend to face together in the same direction in a field, usually to face head on into a wind (reduces heat loss) or sideways to the sun (maximize heat gain), but because the photos on Google Earth are so widespread and taken in generally good weather, it appears that cows have a "default setting" of north-south orientation when local conditions don't override it.

As one of the researchers said, "This is an incredibly neat use of Google Earth. This is a study we would not have dreamed about doing five years ago."

Not just crowd-sourcing -- it's herd-sourcing!

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About the author

    Adam Richardson is the director of product strategy at frog design, where he guides strategy engagements for frog's international roster of clients, envisioning and creating new products, consumer electronics, and digital experiences. Adam combines a background in industrial design, interaction design, and sociology, and spends most of his time on convergent designs that combine hardware, software, service, brand, and retail. He writes and speaks extensively on design, business, culture, and technology, and runs his own Richardsona blog.

     

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