Birds do it, bees do it, and so, apparently, do . . . cows?
No, it's not that. We're talking about sensing the Earth's magnetic field.
German scientists using satellite images posted online by the Google Earth software program have observed something that has escaped the notice of farmers, herders and hunters for thousands of years: Cattle grazing or at rest tend to orient their bodies in a north-south direction just like a compass needle.
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.
Asked whether he had ever observed such behavior in cows, dairy farmer Rob Fletcher of Tulare, Calif., said, "Absolutely not." But, he added, "I don't spend a lot of time worrying about stuff like that."
Experts acknowledged that the research almost certainly has no practical applications.
No practical applications? I can't imagine why.