Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« More Obama Art | Pelz to Clinton Delegates: "Ge... »

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Meat Compass

posted by on August 26 at 10:04 AM

cows1.jpgIt took the invention of Google Earth to reveal a simple fact about our friend, the cow: It likes to stand facing north. Or south.

German scientists used satellite photos to analyze 8,510 cattle at 308 places around the world. The animals were standing on flat ground and not near water, feeding areas, or other things that might influence their position.

The resolution of the images was not sufficient to tell which ends of the cows were pointing north, however.

Researchers have long known that certain bacteria, birds, fish, whales and even rodents have minute organs in their brains containing particles of magnetite that can act like a compass.

The LA Times article ends with this comically dour sentence:

Experts acknowledged that the research almost certainly has no practical applications.

Obviously, they’ve never been lost in the countryside.

RSS icon Comments


No wonder vegans are so aimless.

Posted by Ziggity | August 26, 2008 9:51 AM

Is it really hard to resize an image?

Posted by Pohleeeze | August 26, 2008 9:51 AM

Phew yeah. That took my work connection like 30 seconds. Too big!

Posted by leek | August 26, 2008 9:53 AM

I'm with #2. It took forever for that image to load. That is going to eat your bandwidth alive!

Posted by Exactly | August 26, 2008 9:53 AM

some of the cows in your photo are facing east/west. so they must "like" to stand that way, too.

and if you're lost in the country, try using the sun to orient yourself.

Posted by max solomon | August 26, 2008 9:54 AM

Relax, people. I'm fixing it.

Posted by Brendan Kiley | August 26, 2008 9:55 AM

From the picture, it looks to me like the shadows are coming off the back of the cow. Which means they are facing south, not north. Unless they are in Australia or Argentina.

Posted by Mahtli69 | August 26, 2008 9:55 AM

Is the sun fixed in the sky where you live, Mahtli69?

Posted by Fnarf | August 26, 2008 9:58 AM

Do cows at the equator wander in circles, unsure of which way to go?

Maybe that explains why the Mayans liked to sacrifice humans - they didn't wander off.

Posted by Will in Seattle | August 26, 2008 9:59 AM

#9, don't you mean at the north pole?

Posted by w7ngman | August 26, 2008 10:01 AM

cows face into the wind. anybody who's spent time ranching knows that.

shoddy journalism. and research.

and, to debunk another myth, they tend to lie down after dark, unless they're still working on that day's digestion. they don't sleep standing up. besides, drunk-tipping is much more fun and humane.

Posted by countryboy | August 26, 2008 10:01 AM


You are at the Strangers site. Any reference to journalism should include quotes:


Posted by Non | August 26, 2008 10:03 AM

Touch her heart with your meat compass!

Posted by Spamalittle | August 26, 2008 10:04 AM

#9, don't you mean the magnetic north pole?

Posted by w8ngman | August 26, 2008 10:04 AM


Posted by w9ngman | August 26, 2008 10:06 AM

#1 lol

Posted by Phenics | August 26, 2008 10:07 AM

@10, 14, 15: you make me very happy today.

Posted by Fnarf | August 26, 2008 10:15 AM

i call photoshop. i can tell by looking at the pixels, and having seen a few shops in my days.

Posted by expert | August 26, 2008 10:16 AM

Thanks sock puppet. That is what I meant.

Posted by w7ngman | August 26, 2008 10:17 AM

Why would you need to photoshop that? The picture isn't even rotated properly to give the impression that they are facing north.

Posted by w7ngman | August 26, 2008 10:20 AM

Christ. You all are cranky today.

@11: The scientists say they accounted for wind, position of the sun, and other environmental factors. I didn't want to post the whole damned research paper.

@everyone analyzing the photo: It isn't from the study. It's just an aerial photo of cows. Stand down.

Posted by Brendan Kiley | August 26, 2008 10:26 AM

Stand down?! FUCK YOU MAAAAAN!!

Posted by I'm offended. And cranky. Weee! | August 26, 2008 10:35 AM

#11, I heard about it on KUOW this morning, that means it's true.

Posted by w7ngman | August 26, 2008 10:35 AM

@10 - um, I don't think there are many cows at the North Pole. Probably due to the polar bears.

I've seen them at the equator, though.

Posted by Will in Seattle | August 26, 2008 10:36 AM

@21-did they account for being full of shit, too? I've ranched for many a year, and I agree w/ the wind facing comments. And no, I am not an ignorant red neck. I was a professor of logic before retiring to ranch.

Posted by Devils advil | August 26, 2008 10:43 AM


The Mayans didn't have cows or any domesticated animals other than dogs.

Wait. Why am I arguing facts with WiS?

Posted by keshmeshi | August 26, 2008 10:45 AM

Why are you asking yourself a question on a blog?

Posted by trailer trash | August 26, 2008 10:47 AM

WiS -- uh, I feel like an idiot saying something this obvious, but, if they cows prefer to face north or south, they wouldn't be any more likely to wander in circles at the equator than anywhere else (except the magnetic north pole). Which direction north or south is is still very much apparent at the equator.

Posted by Julie | August 26, 2008 11:02 AM

Um, Julie, you're talking to a block of wood there.

Posted by Fnarf | August 26, 2008 11:15 AM

Yeah, this sounds fucking stupid. It sounds like their assumptions of correlation and causality are all fucked up, and I'm skeptical of how rigorously factors like sun and wind were considered.

I doubt cows are like Canadian geese or Monarch butterflies, driven by some instinct to relate to the Earth's poles. Just like us, cows are going to situate themselves in whatever way makes them the most physically comfortable within their environment. They may find it preferable to stand so the prevailing winds have the least effect on them, or so the sun warms them or isn't overcooking them.

Posted by Hoyt Clagwell | August 26, 2008 11:19 AM

great post, though, julie.

Posted by infrequent | August 26, 2008 11:19 AM

This is a Harvard Physics PhD and ex-rocket scientist talking:

On average, the Sun traverses the sky on an East-West arc. Thus, by orienting their bovine bodies along the north-south axis, they are maximizing their surface area to absorb its warming rays. No magnetite-in-ears or crystals or pyramids necessary.

Posted by Karlheinz Arschbomber | August 26, 2008 11:19 AM

But Karlheinz, this isn't rocket science!

Posted by Fnarf | August 26, 2008 11:26 AM

@8 - The sun isn't fixed the last time I checked, but if I'm in the northern hemisphere and ever cast a shadow due south, then I might have to go find religion or something.

If those cows are facing north, then they are violating some physics. Also, the shadows are relatively short, which says the picture was taken in the middle of the day and rules out east/west.

I suppose it is possible that I can't tell a cow's head from its ass in that picture, but I'm guessing the skinny side is the head.

Posted by Mahtli69 | August 26, 2008 11:27 AM

@34 - Shit ... OK now I actually read the article and it says they stand facing north OR south.

So, never mind.

Posted by Mahtli69 | August 26, 2008 11:29 AM

i guess it does take a rocket scientist, then?


Posted by infrequent | August 26, 2008 11:31 AM

Hey, Harvard PhD:

Wouldn't maximizing bovine surface exposure to the sun's rays mean orienting the broadest side of their body available perpendicular to the azimuth over the course of the day?

Posted by Hoyt Clagwell | August 26, 2008 11:35 AM

#25, of course cows face into the wind. No one disputed that.

The study did not "account for wind". There was NO wind.

Posted by w7ngman | August 26, 2008 11:37 AM

#37, yes.

Sincerely, EWU CS graduate

Posted by w7ngman | August 26, 2008 11:40 AM

#37, if the stupid, stupid cow-brained cow were forced to pick one particular orientation to maximize absorption, we could assume that, at the equator, the cow would face north/south. Further from the equator, however, with less east-west sunlight and the sun rising and setting further north/south, we might assume that the cow would face east-west and sacrife the pole-facing side of its body.

This begs the question, "why would a cow at the equator be trying to maximize warming ray absorption?", which would lead me to believe the cow would in fact face east-west in either particular scenario.

Sincerely, math and physics minors

P.S. Has anyone noticed that the noun form of "absorb" switches the "b" to a "p" before adding "tion"? That's just WEIRD and frankly un-American.

Posted by w7ngman | August 26, 2008 11:52 AM

Actually, to maximize absorption at the equator, the cow should just lie on its side and call it good.

Posted by w7ngman | August 26, 2008 11:53 AM

Are we talking about cows or iguanas?

Posted by Mahtli69 | August 26, 2008 12:02 PM

W7ngman, you can thank your Latin overlords for that.

Posted by Fnarf | August 26, 2008 12:12 PM


I don't know. Why are you trailer trash?

Posted by keshmeshi | August 26, 2008 12:19 PM

No practical application??

Bring a cow on your next hike. Lost? Compass!

Posted by GK | August 26, 2008 12:28 PM


I bet most people here didn't know "ranch" was a verb.

Posted by GK | August 26, 2008 12:29 PM

How do you account for wind by looking at Google Earth photos? You can't even be sure what day the photo was taken.

Also, thank you #11 and #25. It's funny how people will occasionally try to "solve" the mysteries of the country without actually asking someone who might know the answer.

Posted by Dougsf | August 26, 2008 12:43 PM

@28- yes they DID account for wind.

Posted by My handz | August 26, 2008 12:48 PM

@48, they used satellite photos to get the position of the cows in 308 places. satellite photos don't contain wind data.

so, they got some meteorological data to correlate with the satellite photo locations. my question to you is whether that generic meteorological data actually included exact ground-level conditions, accounting for hills and valleys and specific high/low pressure systems and temperature gradients and etc.?

wind isn't generic. just take a glance at the live PWS data at to see how much variation of wind speed and direction there is, even in flat places.

occam's razor.

Posted by countryboy | August 26, 2008 1:16 PM

@46: pish tosh, "ranch" is a dressing. There's no such thing as cows; meat comes on styrofoam trays.

Posted by Fnarf | August 26, 2008 1:20 PM

Fnarf @ 8 -- Mahtli69 lives where the skies are not cloudy all day (or night).

Posted by RonK, Seattle | August 26, 2008 1:32 PM

Comments Closed

Comments are closed on this post.