Grazing cattle display animal magnetism

By | August 26, 2008

Researchers have explained why cattle will tend to face the same direction when grazing – a behaviour long known to herdsmen and hunters but previously attributed to either prevailing winds or the sun’s position.

In fact, Reuters reports, they align their bodies along a north-south axis, suggesting the Earth’s magnetic field is the “polarizing factor”.

To prove it, Sabine Begall and colleagues at the University of Duisburg-Essen perused 8,510 Google Earth images encompassing 308 pastures and plains worldwide, plus “deer bed” impressions in snow created by around 3,000 deer in over 225 locations in the Czech Republic.

The team found that “whether grazing or resting, these animals face either magnetic north or south”. Since the direction of the wind and sun “varied widely where the images were taken”, it’s reasonable to suggest they’re reacting to the planet’s magnetic influence.

Begall and colleagues reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Our results call for an in-depth study of this phenomenon and challenge neuroscientists, biochemists and physicists to study the proximate mechanisms and biological significance of magnetic alignment.”

As Reuters notes, “birds, turtles and salmon are known to use the Earth’s magnetic field to guide their migrations, while rodents and one bat species have been found to possess an internal magnetic compass”. This is the first time, however, that large mammals have shown this kind of animal magnetism.

The team’s report does, though, suggest that humans and whales are “suspected of having an innate magnetic compass”, demonstrated by previous research showing that people who “sleep in an east-west position have far shorter rapid eye movement or REM sleep cycles… compared with north-south sleepers who got more REM sleep” – register

3 thoughts on “Grazing cattle display animal magnetism

  1. Patrick

    I’d love to read some responses to this. Any far-fetched extrapolations?

    Here’s one: I am the only one in my huge family to have an abysmal sense of direction. Seriously, it’s to the point of disability. I recently read that some ornithologist–do you remember this article, Xeno–discovered what they think is a fluid in the skulls of birds that helps guide them around the planet. Am I short on this fluid? Are you?
    Which mammals have more of it? What does your sense of direction or connection to the magnetic forces of the earth say about who you are and the personality that you’ve formed? Your talents?

    Can you picture a society 100 years in the future in which roads, walkways and buildings are aligned, ala feng shui, to take advantage of, and ut us in the proper place of the earth’s magnetic fields?

    So fun to imagine this stuff.

  2. Xeno

    I thought it was super cool that on one Star Trek episode Spock should have been blinded by something, but we learn that Vulcans have a second eyelid which descends to protect them from a certain level of strong light. That’s just Science Fiction, of course, but I like the idea that we too have some very real hidden senses.

    “There’s a theory that birds can “see” a magnetic field because of a chemical reaction in their eyes. That’s how they migrate to specific spots around the globe. Peter Hore, a physical chemist at the University of Oxford, thinks he has replicated this reaction in the lab.” – npr

    “Researchers have found that bats have a special ability to detect the polarity of a magnetic field, meaning that the creatures can tell the difference between north and south. The only other animal known to have this ability is the mole rat, while birds, fish, amphibians, and all other non-mammals possess a different version of the magnetic compass. The finding may not only explain bats’ long-distance navigation and foraging abilities, but also may provide insight on when and how magnetic field detection evolved in mammals and non-mammals.” – physorg

    Magnetoception (or “magnetoreception”) is the ability to detect changes in a magnetic field to perceive direction or altitude and has even been postulated as a method for animals to develop regional maps. It is most commonly observed in birds, though it has also been observed in many other animals including honeybees and turtles. Researchers have identified a probable sensor in pigeons: a small (dwarf), heavily innervated region of the skull, which contains biological magnetite.

    Humans have a similar magnetite deposit in the ethmoid bone of the nose, and there is some evidence this gives humans some magnetoception. Although there is no dispute that a magnetic sense exists in many avians (it is essential to the navigational abilities of migratory birds), it is a controversial and not well-understood phenomenon. Certain types of bacteria (magnetotactic bacteria) and fungi [3]are also known to sense the flux direction, these contain organelles known as magnetosomes for this purpose. In bees, it has been observed that magnetite is embedded across the cellular membrane of a small group of neurons; the theory is that when the magnetite aligns with the Earth’s magnetic field, induction causes a current to cross the membrane which depolarizes the cell. – wiki

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