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, 105 (36), 13451-5

Magnetic Alignment in Grazing and Resting Cattle and Deer


Magnetic Alignment in Grazing and Resting Cattle and Deer

Sabine Begall et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.

Erratum in

  • Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Nov 4;105(44):17206


We demonstrate by means of simple, noninvasive methods (analysis of satellite images, field observations, and measuring "deer beds" in snow) that domestic cattle (n = 8,510 in 308 pastures) across the globe, and grazing and resting red and roe deer (n = 2,974 at 241 localities), align their body axes in roughly a north-south direction. Direct observations of roe deer revealed that animals orient their heads northward when grazing or resting. Amazingly, this ubiquitous phenomenon does not seem to have been noticed by herdsmen, ranchers, or hunters. Because wind and light conditions could be excluded as a common denominator determining the body axis orientation, magnetic alignment is the most parsimonious explanation. To test the hypothesis that cattle orient their body axes along the field lines of the Earth's magnetic field, we analyzed the body orientation of cattle from localities with high magnetic declination. Here, magnetic north was a better predictor than geographic north. This study reveals the magnetic alignment in large mammals based on statistically sufficient sample sizes. Our findings open horizons for the study of magnetoreception in general and are of potential significance for applied ethology (husbandry, animal welfare). They challenge neuroscientists and biophysics to explain the proximate mechanisms.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.
Axial data revealing the N-S alignment in three ruminant species under study. (A) Cattle. (B) Roe deer. (C) Red deer. Each pair of dots (located on opposite sites within the unit circle) represents the direction of the axial mean vector of the animals' body position at one locality. The mean vector calculated over all localities of the respective species is indicated by the double-headed arrow. The length of the arrow represents the r-value (length of the mean vector), dotted circles indicate the 0.01-level of significance. Triangles positioned outside the unit circle indicate the mean vectors of the cattle data subdivided into the six continents (dotted: North America; gray: Asia; checkered: Europe; striped: Australia; black: Africa; white: South America) (A) and the mean vectors of resting (black) and grazing (white) deer, and of deer beds (dotted) (B: roe deer; C: red deer).

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