Not Exactly Rocket Science

For centuries, farmers have known that their livestock not only gather in large herds but also tend to face the same way when grazing. Experience and folk wisdom offer several possible reasons for this mutual alignment. They stand perpendicularly to the sun’s rays in the cool morning to absorb heat through their large flanks, or they stand in the direction of strong winds to avoid being unduly buffeted and chilled.

But cows and sheep don’t just line up during chilly spells or high wind. Their motivations for doing so during warm, pleasant and unremarkable weather, or indeed in the dead of night, have been a mystery until now. In a new paper, Sabine Begali from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany spied on aligned herds of cows and deer using satellite images from Google Earth.

The images revealed a striking behaviour that had been going unnoticed for millennia, right under the noses of herdsmen and hunters – their herds were lining up in a north-south line like a living compass needle. Influenced by a magnetic sense that has only just become apparent, their default point of reference is not the source of wind or the angle of the sun, but the Earth’s magnetic poles.

i-02de29c8041334b2da2e80b4d82d3c63-Angus_cattle.jpg

Google Herds

With Google Earth’s images at their disposal, Begali’s team spied on a massive sample of cattle across six continents, from South Africa to India to the UK. They recorded the positions of over 8,500 individuals at more than 300 sites, including a range of different breeds, altitudes and times. Their global cattle census showed that the animals oriented themselves along a north-south axis so consistently that the odds of them doing so by chance was less than one in a hundred thousand.

The animals don’t quite point towards the north pole, but instead face slightly off it in the direction of magnetic north. As this position, known as magnetic declination, changes across the face of the planet, so too does the direction that local herds prefer to face. 

Deer aligned themselves to the magnetic poles even more strongly than cattle. Begali’s team travelled to more than 200 locations in the Czech Republic and observed the positions of almost 3,000 roe deer and red deer in the field. When the animals had moved, the team also recorded the alignment of the body prints that the resting animals left behind in snow. Again, their bodies faced magnetic north. Even their heads tended to gaze in that direction (although these, predictably, were more variable due to their need to scan for lynxes).

Sun and wind

i-4d82f291086f051c3b248458b78f9fa2-Reddeer.jpgBegali says that the study’s large sample size has helped the team to rule out other explanations for this uncanny alignment. Certainly, the typical answers of sun and wind seem less applicable in the face of such standard behaviour across the globe. Unfortunately, Google Earth images aren’t time-stamped with enough accuracy for the researchers to be able to compare the shots with weather data. But the fact that the photos exist at all suggest that they were taken on cloudless days, and the shapes and positions of shadows suggest that the sun was not too bright.

If cattle were lining up primarily in response to gusty winds, the majority of the 308 locations that the team sampled must have been experiencing high winds at the time and specifically in a northerly-southerly direction. That’s very unlikely, given that westerly breezes dominate the Northern hemisphere and south-eastern trade winds rule the Southern. If that weren’t enough, wind atlases show that the prevailing winds in the countries in question vary throughout the year and if there’s any directional consensus, it’s a westerly one.

So much for the wind; Begali’s data rules out a major influence from the sun too. The satellite images also recorded the position of the animals’ shadows and these revealed that by and large, they weren’t getting their bearings from the angle of the sun. And the fact that deer still faced the same way at night also argues against the sun’s involvement.

There’s a third alternative – some animals including insects and migratory birds can sense polarised light from the sun and use it to navigate. There’s no evidence that cows or deer have the right retinas for picking up polarised light and given that they are partially active at night, they don’t fit the typical profile of polarised light-users, who are usually only active by day. 

Magnetic attraction

With these alternatives effectively discarded, only one explanation remains, and it’s the simplest one – the cows and deer were using the Earth’s magnetic field as their guide. They are not alone; many other animals, including flies, bees and goldfish, naturally line up like little compasses when there isn’t anything around to disturb them.

So why do it? That’s still a mystery. One slightly leftfield possibility is that keeping magnetic fields in symmetry about the axis of your body could affect certain bodily processes. There are tantalising bits of evidence to back this up – in humans, the time it takes to drift into REM sleep  and the electrical activity in the brain differs depending on whether we’re facing a north-south direction or an east-west one.

Alternatively, it could just be that orienting yourself in a constant direction makes it easier to get your bearings when travelling long distances or making quick getaways. Indeed, both cattle and deer are naturally social animals that travel large distances across landscapes that are often bereft of landmarks. A magnetic sense could be good for navigation (as turtles and birds could attest to) although Begali cautions that it’s not clear if the animals are even aware of their internal compasses. It’s possible for creatures to have the capacity to detect magnetic fields (“magnetoreception”), without consciously sensing them (“magnetoperception“).

Magnetic senses are one of the most enigmatic of animal abilities. Among our fellow mammals, only a few rodents and one species of bat are known to use internal compasses. Some believe that horses, dolphins and whales use the same trick but that’s been very hard to prove. Large groups of these animals don’t lend themselves to careful laboratory experiments. Begali’s innovation was in using satellites to turn the entire planet into a natural laboratory. Now, it’s time for others to follow up on her results.

Reference: PNAS doi.10.1073/pnas.0803650105

Images: red deer by Traoth, wildebeest by Vincenzo Gianferrari Pini

i-9795286ffaa2695d4690c0503f45622e-Gnufail.JPGI couldn’t resist

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    August 25, 2008

    It’s a southgoing Zax.

  2. #2 Patrick
    August 25, 2008

    Wow. So any idea what mechanism is doing the detecting?

  3. #3 Matthew L.
    August 25, 2008

    Do you have a citation about the human REM sleep relating to north-south vs east-west orientation? I’d like to know more (especially which direction does what).

  4. #4 John McKay
    August 25, 2008

    Mesmer was right! There is such a thing as animal magnetism.

    I’ll bet if we got a giant cardboard picture of Patrick Stewart and let a herd of wildebeest roam on it, we could use a giant bar magnet underneath to arrange the wildebeest into a beard for PS. This could be Cristo’s next big project.

  5. #5 ropty
    August 25, 2008

    Where are the images from Google Earth with all the animals lined up? I find it rather surprising that no one noticed that their flock was lining up north-south!

  6. #6 phisrow
    August 25, 2008

    It would be interesting to see if herd behavior is noticably different in the vicinity of magnetic anomalies.

  7. #7 Caleb
    August 25, 2008

    This is pretty interesting, but I’m disappointed. Why did they not set up an artificial north pole, and see if the herds were attracted int heir direction?

    And I’d love to know more about the human sleep thing.

  8. #8 Keith
    August 25, 2008

    I guess this relates mainly to free-range animals, as intensively farmed cattle possibly don’t have this luxury of ‘magnetic expression’- often paddock shape and the need to find food will be the main drivers. In our hill country research, sheep with GPS were predominantly on the east side of the hill at 8-10 am and the west side 8-10 pm. We assume this was due to their trying to keep warm during autumn (mean temperature ~8-10C). Another interesting feature has been that sheep within a large mob will almost always synchronise grazing and resting behaviour.
    Thanks ofr your article ed

  9. #9 phisrow
    August 26, 2008

    Caleb: Setting up an artificial north pole, at least if you want it to fool more than a small area, is pretty nontrivial. The earth’s magnetic field is fairly puny(less than 1 gauss at the earth’s surface, where an ordinary rare-earth magnet could easily by 1,000 gauss at its surface); but magnetic fields drop off as the inverse cube of distance. Finding a magnet large enough to affect magnetic fields at a good distance, without being dramatic enough to affect herd behavior for nonmagnetic reasons, would be easier said than done. Luckily, some parts of the globe have geologic oddities that provide natural disturbances of the overall field, so sometimes you can make use of those.

  10. #10 Ed Yong
    August 26, 2008

    Mechanisms – no ideas from the paper, although there have been a few studies recently on mechanisms of magnetoreception in other species. Will try and dig those up if I have time.

    Human studies – here are the refs from the paper:
    Ruhenstroth-Bauer G, Ruther E, Reinertshofer TH (1987) Dependence of a sleeping parameter from the N-S or E-W sleeping direction. Zeitschr Naturf C 42:1140–1142.

    Ruhenstroth-Bauer G, et al. (1993) Influence of the Earth’s magnetic field on resting and activated EEG mapping in normal subjects. Int J Neurosci 73:195–201.

    And John, that is my favourite comment of all time.

  11. #11 Kat
    August 26, 2008

    This reminds me of a study from the Journal of Irreproducible Results about “bovinity rays”. will try and dig it out for you :)

  12. #12 Ian
    August 26, 2008

    You didn’t know that these are official “Holy Cow!”s?!

  13. #13 Ed Yong
    August 26, 2008

    The retinas of cows and other grazing mammals are equipped with a special receptor molecule called raviolin, that allow them to detect the noodly rays given off by the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Which always lives at magnetic north. TRUFAX.

  14. #14 Jessica
    August 26, 2008

    Great post!

  15. #15 SomeWhat Skeptical
    August 27, 2008

    When I try to use Google to see at that level of detail, I find it impossible. In a few cities you can see down to a level that just about shows people. But not out where the cattle are! I’d love to see the paper and proof from their images.

    This is about the best resolution you will find on Google (Maps or Earth – same database)

    Paris
    http://maps.google.com/maps?ie=UTF8&hl=en&ll=48.858624,2.294059&spn=0.000638,0.00169&t=h&z=20

    Frankfurt
    http://maps.google.com/maps?ie=UTF8&hl=en&ll=50.107372,8.664456&spn=0.000311,0.000845&t=h&z=21

    Now try it anywhere in the coutryside!

    These might be cows (Kent in the UK)
    http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&q=lewes,+uk&ie=UTF8&ll=50.885184,0.057437&spn=0.001223,0.00338&t=h&z=19

  16. #16 Skeptical
    August 28, 2008

    I posted some comments yesterday afternoon – with Google link – pointing out how impossible this would be to do – because there are no Google images at high enough resolution to be able to pinpoint cows!

    How someone else has posted: http://digitaldaily.allthingsd.com/20080827/magnetic-cows/

  17. #17 Ryan
    August 29, 2008

    Maybe they stand that way because the don’t want the Sun in their face?

  18. #18 Militant Agnostic
    August 30, 2008

    I used to go by a pasture containing both cattle and bison.
    During the day the bison mingled with the cattle, but they slept seperately in a circular formation with mostly males on the outside of the circle. They were not all facing the same way, instead they all faced the outside of the circle. I would think this would be a much safer arrangement. The sleeping cattle were scattered. I didn’t notice if they all faced the same way

  19. #19 Nomen Nescio
    September 2, 2008

    Maybe they stand that way because the don’t want the Sun in their face?

    maybe, but then they’d be shifting direction with time of day and probably pick random directions at night. this study apparently ruled both out.

    as well, if that were the case they’d be facing the other direction in the southern hemisphere. that should be easy enough to verify, from the raw data.

  20. #20 web
    September 13, 2008

    The geekiest FAIL image ever :)

  21. #21 Ed Yong
    September 16, 2008

    I call him Faildebeest

  22. #22 Susan L. Wright
    November 17, 2009

    Sorry, but in the wildebeest photo, Faildebeest is oriented in the right direction. S/he is just turning its head to check on the whether the rest of the herd behind has turned direction, given the direction of the beest directly ahead of it, which is clearly confused.