Magnetic bull

So somebody wrote a press release yesterday about Google Earth Magnetic Cows, but it sounded so silly that I decided to go for celebratory end-of-panorama-trip cocktails instead of dirtying my blog with it. Imagine my surprise to see it hit the interwebs with a vengeance today, but the greatest surprise of all was that only one blog so far, The Earth is Square, has reported this “news” skeptically. [I just noticed Google Earth Blog is also skeptical:-)]

The bottom line: It’s entirely possible that cows have a magnetic sense, but we’re not going to find out about it by looking at Google Earth. What possible fallacies might there be? I came up with these in, oh, a few seconds:

  • What cow? Have you ever seen a cow on Google Earth? Are you sure? Most of Google Earth’s imagery is not in high enough resolution to let you discern cow from car from tent from bear. And you certainly can’t tell which end is up, so to speak. In any case, your sample population of successfully found cows is bound to be miniscule compared to the total population.
  • Now cow? The imagery in Google Earth is exclusively taken on cloudless days — or we wouldn’t have had the imagery. Are we sure the cows weren’t using the sun to align themselves, say to maximize solar exposure in winter and minimize it in summer? As the best satellite photos are taken when shadows are at a minimum, i.e. noon, that alone would lead to aligned cows.
  • Stupid cow: Cows are walking stomachs. If they hit a fence while grazing, they will move along it. At most, this study tells us that fences have a slight preponderance to point North-South — and fences are even harder to see on Google Earth than cows.

So what happened? Either this story is an elaborate hoax, or it isn’t and these scientists are just not very good, or the story has been reported inaccurately. It’s a cow toss as to which of these explanations is the right one, but I suspect hoax, in part because of the study’s claim that it could discern a predispostition in cows for magnetic north over true north — a difference that is miniscule in most places on Earth. It doesn’t help that you have to pay the US National Academy of Sciences $10 to read the paper — that’s the price of a cocktail here in Stockholm, one which I’m about to go buy.

6 thoughts on “Magnetic bull”

  1. FYI, cows are not stupid animals.

    Then what about deers? They claimed seeing deer resting places on snow. Perhaps depressions oriented in north-south axis are better visible because shadows are bigger. Similarly, cows are best visible when they’re aligned in that way.

    I wouldn’t say this is a hoax, but the evidence does sound rather vague. Magnetic sense itself wouldn’t be extraordinary, many animals are known to have it (and many even more exotic senses). Such as finding a prey by detecting its electric field, or actually seeing magnetic lines.

  2. Every life form have a magnetic sense.

    the thing here is if cows prioritize it for a certain function. and if they do, to accomplish what? that’s what it needs to be studied.

  3. Wanna know what’s funny.. the local paper I worked at had a slower than normal news day and this made the bottom of the front page.. told the boss about it and we both laughed as we read it because the author was making all kinds of wacky conjectures.

  4. With a surname like Nell Greenfieldboyce, it’s hard not to expect a hoax in the press release. :)

  5. Good questions all, to be sure. However, “walking stomachs” and “stupid” are two unfortunate anthropomorphically oriented comments that I (and at least one other commentor) must challenge. Just scan the PEER REVIEWED literature on grazing behavior over the last half century and you will quickly see corroborating evidence of this claim. Further, you will find resounding evidence that, as one commentor put it, “cows are NOT stupid.” I am not in defense of cattle here, but I am just pointing out that mother nature spent millions of years designing that “walking stomach” and they OPTIMIZE their diets with or without fences in place…have incredible spatial memory, and more. Now, about your other comments…yea those are great comments. I wonder if the original article about these findings was peer reviewed. If it was, then I can guarantee that those comments also came up in the first 5 minutes of ANY dissertation or thesis defense or any peer review of the research. So, if this is legitimate research, trust me, it has been attacked and critiqued and has passed muster….although I would like to see their answers too!!!!! This is great stuff tho…imagine what else we can discern from imagery that is put through other intelligent filters and studied. I am never disappointed by the depth of human ingenuity.


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