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Scientists Discover Cows Point North 558

Dr Sabine Begall and colleagues from the University of Duisburg-Essen have discovered that cows tend to point north. The researchers studied deer in the Czech Republic and looked at thousands of images of cattle on Google Earth. The animals tended to face north when eating or resting. "We conclude that the magnetic field is the only common and most likely factor responsible for the observed alignment," the scientists wrote in an article. I guess cows will become the must-have item for long-distance hikers now. Having an edible compass would come in handy if you get lost.


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Scientists Discover Cows Point North

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  • by suso ( 153703 ) * on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @01:44PM (#24753697) Homepage Journal

    Is it possible? Yes. But I wonder how many factors they really looked into before coming to this conclusion. What about how cows perceive things like the locations of houses, barns and roads. Are a lot of farms on north/south roads or are fields on the south side of the farm so the cows are facing towards the barn or house? I don't know, but from reading the article, it doesn't sound like they looked into much other than making conclusions from Google Earth. What about the fact that aeriel photography is done during certain times of the day or during certain seasons. Surely those have an effect on cows. Poor science in my opinion. And the sad thing is that an article like this only causes people to start propogating facts that might be wrong. Not that what direction cows face is a big deal, but its common enough that it only propogates stupidity.

    And why use Google Earth? Indiana (I know cows are sacred in India) seems like a prime candidate for studying cows from space. In 2005 Indiana University released a complete set of aerial photos of the whole state that had as high as 6" per pixel resolution. Which is better than Google Earth.

    Besides that, how many good research scientists are going to promote their work by posting a link to Slashdot to an article in a newspaper.

  • by baldass_newbie ( 136609 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @01:46PM (#24753723) Homepage Journal

    They may just like sun on their backs and not in their eyes.
    Not everything requires 'scientific' conjecture (which is, I think, your point.)

  • by AlpineR ( 32307 ) <> on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @01:53PM (#24753801) Homepage

    Maybe the cows base their orientation on sunlight rather than magnetic field. I mean, what about the magnetic field would make cows want to align with it? Nothing I can think of, but facing north might protect their heads from excess sunlight (or help rid pests from the other end).

    The researchers say that they ruled out sunlight orientation based on variations in direction, but maybe the cows are smart enough to average out the direction of the sun to find north. Since cows tend to stay in the same place day-to-day, it wouldn't take long to figure out which direction in the landscape is north. And a whole herd of cows each estimating north itself should settle on true north pretty easily.

  • by Chemisor ( 97276 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @01:55PM (#24753825)

    A much simpler explanation is that a north-facing cow does not have the sun in her eyes? Cows have eyes on the sides of their heads, so looking directly away from the sun is the only way to avoid glare. Cows would rest during the hottest part of the day - in the afternoon, when the sun would be furthest to the south, so resting cows would naturally tend to face north. A simple experiment could be devised to verify this hypothesis with a shade and a giant mirror.

  • by Nymz ( 905908 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @01:55PM (#24753829) Journal
    While cows may actually have some ability to sense magnetic fields, like some other creatures can for navigation or migratory purposes, why would they do so for just standing around? I'm still inclined to believe that their north/south inclination is related to the east/west inclination of the sun.
  • by Colonel Korn ( 1258968 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @02:01PM (#24753921)

    They may just like sun on their backs and not in their eyes.
    Not everything requires 'scientific' conjecture (which is, I think, your point.)

    Mod parent up to +5.

    In the northern hemisphere the sun is to the south.

  • by toleraen ( 831634 ) * on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @02:02PM (#24753931)

    Subject Requires More Study IMO

    I'm not sure this subject warrants any study at all...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @02:13PM (#24754099)

    If it is truly a result of magnetic field, then they'd be able to show it by showing a correlation to the magnetic declination.

  • by Nymz ( 905908 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @02:16PM (#24754149) Journal

    I'm not sure this subject warrants any study at all...

    Funny, but you never know, a lot of discovers come from looking into non-obvious places.

  • Re:Huh (Score:3, Insightful)

    by bonehead ( 6382 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @02:21PM (#24754217)

    Agreed. I live in Iowa, and the only time I really notice a uniformity is in the winter when the weather is harsh. Then they tend to stand with their backs to the wind. I would hypothesize that this is to keep the blowing snow out of their eyes.

    On a side note: So browsing through Google Earth now qualifies as being a scientist? Cool! Time to update my resume!

  • by SoCalChris ( 573049 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @02:27PM (#24754295) Journal
    I live in Montana, and there's plenty of cattle up here.

    There was an article in the paper last winter about ranchers having to roam their pastures at night looking for cattle giving birth (They give birth in the middle of winter). The calves would immediately need to be taken to a barn, otherwise they would quickly freeze in the -20 to -30 temperatures we frequently get during winter nights.

    Adult cows are very hardy though, and survive just fine in extreme cold, although they do tend to huddle together to block the wind and conserve each others heat.
  • by Thelasko ( 1196535 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @02:28PM (#24754309) Journal
    I believe a cow's eyes are on the sides of their head. Not at the front of their head, like ours. Therefore, the sun would be in their right eye in the morning, and the left eye in the afternoon.
  • by Paradise Pete ( 33184 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @02:42PM (#24754503) Journal

    You're right. People should never think critically and try to find other, simpler explanations for a supposed phenomenon, not as long as it comes from a scientist, of course.

    Critical thinking is good, of course, but what usually happens here is that people think for about ten seconds, come up with something obvious, and just assume that the researchers who've been working on for months and sometimes years somehow never thought of it. Like this guy, [] for one example.

  • by G-forze ( 1169271 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @02:53PM (#24754651)

    Or maybe satellites take images at noon when the lighting is best because the sun happens to be at its highest (and in the south)?

  • by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @02:58PM (#24754725) Homepage

    Then they wouldn't constantly be pointing north. Only at the poles do you see a drastic north to south disparity of the sun.

    Exactly to the contrary. Outside the polar regions, a cow facing due north, or due south, will never have the sun directly in front of them.

    There's no need to invoke magnetism.

  • by Antibozo ( 410516 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @02:59PM (#24754749) Homepage

    Indeed, keeping the sun out of their eyes would make it easier for them to spot a predator.

    The claim that the scientists could rule out sunlight based on "huge variations" is absurd, given that they are using satellite photographs as their source and thus automatically selecting imagery where the sky is clear. The fact that they rely on Google Earth imagery even more specifically selects images outside the extremes of morning and evening when the sun is low on the horizon.

  • by j00r0m4nc3r ( 959816 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @03:10PM (#24754907)
    Whoosh! I'm pretty sure that was the entire crux of his one sentence, which you expanded into three paragraphs.
  • by HTH NE1 ( 675604 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @03:12PM (#24754939)

    How about learned patterns of sunlight corresponding to landmarks? Or did they also try blinding the cows?

    Or sealing them inside a large white dome with no discernible edges so that it was all white to infinity?

    And did they ask for guns? lots of guns?

  • by hedwards ( 940851 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @03:20PM (#24755039)

    I don't think that you can conclude that. It seems really odd to me that if it were just a reaction to the sun, that they'd be facing north, rather than directly away from the sun.

    Pointing directly north is going to have the sun never directly in front of the cow, but it's not going to minimize the light either.

    Really, without some evidence that cows have an awareness of time, this sort of hypothesis is no better than the one it claims to refute.

  • by MythoBeast ( 54294 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @03:35PM (#24755251) Homepage Journal

    I hate to say it, but their sampling is flawed. Since they were using satellite images for their study, they automatically selected a sampling for which sunlight was visible. Even if the sunlight were not currently visible, the kindly bovines might just prefer to stare in that direction out of habit from when the sun IS visible.

    Who are these people who call themselves "Scientists", anyway?

  • by SYSS Mouse ( 694626 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @03:42PM (#24755319) Homepage
    You mean aerial photograph?
  • by Free the Cowards ( 1280296 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @04:51PM (#24756309)

    The alternative to causation is not only reverse causation. Correlation could be due to causation in either direction, but also due to a shared cause or even total coincidence.

    For example, the building I live in is lined up north/south. Is this due to the Earth's magnetic field? No, it's because it's built on a north/south road.

  • by Chuckstar ( 799005 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @04:56PM (#24756363)

    Humans have been observing cows for millenia. Don't you think someone would have noticed this by now? Its not like cowherds have a lot of other things on their mind when they are minding the herd.

  • by Thelasko ( 1196535 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @05:02PM (#24756439) Journal
    Be careful how you read this.

    Huge variations in the wind direction and sunlight in the areas where the beasts were found


    Huge variations in the wind direction and sunlight at the moment when the beasts were found

    The first one could mean the scientist ruled out the amount of sunlight the area gets on average. (Oslo gets less sun than Palermo)

    The second one means they took the pictures at various times in the day.

  • by kimvette ( 919543 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @05:06PM (#24756481) Homepage Journal

    RTFA? Are you nuts? This is slashdot. Unlike fark, we do not have to RTFA in order to come up with snarky comments! All one has to do is skim a thread to see all the GNAA and goatse and scat-eating posts to prove that claim.

    You underestimate the length to which we slashdotters will go to maintain our reputation of being lazy! Look at me. I have not RTFA yet and I'm procrastinating reading the fine article by making this post.

    Again, as further proof that slashdotters are lazy and will not RTFA I will continue this diatribe.

    It's not that we lack comprehension skills, nor is it that we don't understand the basic concept of science and learning, it is just that the vast majority of us simply don't care and would rather talk out of our asses and belittle the editors and other posters rather than read and learn for ourselves. We prefer our soundbites and summaries (if we could even be bothered to read the 'fine' summaries, let alone the articles) to detailed articles, and we prefer that a few of you who give a damn to predigest the knowledge and regurgitate it for us. We prefer that someone mention that animals are thought to use their own internal magnets made of crystals of magnetite, and that it is unknown at this time whether cows possess this anatomical feature. Why, I'd have to read the entire "fine" article in order to learn that the biologists investigating this don't yet know.

    Now obviously I read the article, but you know, the vast majority here couldn't be bothered.

  • by King_TJ ( 85913 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @05:30PM (#24756765) Journal

    I was thinking this might call for a Mythbusters episode on Discovery Channel involving a huge electromagnetic field set up in different places in the farmer's field?

  • by ecavalli ( 1216014 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @06:07PM (#24757129) Homepage
    True, but like all mammals with eyes situated to the sides of their heads, a cow's visual focus remains roughly straight ahead. They merely have a larger peripheral vision (and less ability to accurately judge distance) than, say, us humans.

    If their eyes allowed for simultaneous focus in two separate directions you'd see a lot more cows with headaches, vomiting up four stomachs worth of cud.
  • by philspear ( 1142299 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @06:31PM (#24757355)

    The linked article is not the actual journal article, so they don't explain what they did or detail their results.

    If you look at a summary of a paper you're not an expert in and come up quickly with some potential problems, it's likely that someone who works on this for months if not years is going to have considered that at some point. The fact that it's not in the summary does not mean they didn't look at it and you shouldn't assume they're bad researchers for not making sure this summary (which someone else wrote) had all the technical details.

    For example, the external factors like houses and barns, that seems pretty obvious. They would be unearthly stupid to not factor that in. There are ways in which you could factor that in too. If you find the article and they just look at cows removed from all else and find this bias, you're right, that could be from numerous other effects, not the least of which is HUMAN tendancy to north/south.

    The conclusion you should get is "poor summary," not poor science. You're the one jumping to unsafe conclusions.

    Another issue: how many good scientists promote their work by posting a link to an article? I don't know, are you sure they did or is this "samzenpus" writing this without any input from the researchers?

  • by Televiper2000 ( 1145415 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @07:39PM (#24758007)
    If you look at a diagram of a Sundial. Between the hours of 10am and 3pm there is about 125 degrees of variation in the sun's position. That's a pretty big margin of error. Somehow I don't believe they are that worried about shadow and glare in rural areas. Most cows live in rural areas. If you look at rural areas like North Western Ontario you'll find the odd group of cars with long shadows.
  • by Sparky McGruff ( 747313 ) on Tuesday August 26, 2008 @10:58PM (#24759951)
    And you forgot the part where the lady got a law passed demanding the teaching of "cow theory" and "turtle theory" in science classes.

FORTUNE'S FUN FACTS TO KNOW AND TELL: A giant panda bear is really a member of the racoon family.