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Beef over magnetic cows keeps on sizzling

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By Hamish Johnston

In 2008 zoologist Sabine Begall from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany and colleagues shocked the bovine world with the claim that cattle prefer to align their bodies along the Earth’s magnetic field – that is along the north–south direction. The team used images from Google Earth to study the orientation of 8500 cattle from 208 pastures around the world to come to their conclusion, which was described in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

But then in January of this year, Jiri Hert from Charles University in the Czech Republic and colleagues reported that there is no evidence for such alignment in their Europe-wide study of some 3412 individual cows in 322 herds (arXiv:1101.5263. This work was later published in Journal of Comparative Physiology A. You can read our take on this development here.

Now, Begall and colleagues have hit back with a paper in that very same journal, where they re-analyse data used by Hert and coworkers. In their paper, Begall and team argue that about half of Hert’s data are noise – that the resolution of corresponding images are too poor, or the cattle are on slopes or in other locales that could affect their orientation.

In their paper, Begall et al. take a fresh look at Hert’s data and claim to see that “cattle significantly align their body axes in north–south direction”. Furthermore, the researchers say that they have uncovered evidence that resting cattle are even more likely to align themselves than their standing neighbours.

Hynek Burda, who works with Begall, described the exchange of views as “a holy war against magnetoreception”. We look forward to the next salvo from Hert’s army.

In the meantime, you could do a bit of research of your own. To get you started I’ve embedded a Google image of what appears to be cattle grazing in a field somewhere in England. But beware, apparently it can be difficult to tell the difference between sheep and cattle!

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