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Bovine harmony: magnetic personalities

Cows have animal magnetism.

Or so concluded a team of European scientists that studied satellite photos of cattle herds around the world. The researchers found that cattle tended to graze or rest in positions perfectly aligned to the magnetic poles - due north and south.

Longtime Park Rapids veterinarian Kevin Haroldson, owner of Back Roads Veterinary Clinic, laughingly thinks it's a bunch of bull.

"After 33 years of working with cows, I don't think it's because they're overly intelligent," he said of the study released this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has generated worldwide buzz.

The researchers found that cattle aligned themselves to the magnetic fields regardless of which continent they were on. Now scientists wonder if humans may also be spontaneously aligned, not with the planets, but perhaps the polar ice caps.

Not all cows followed these alignments, but two-thirds seemed to be oriented in a north-south direction, which was higher than a random alignment, the scientists concluded.

Cows tend to seek wind and sun to regulate their body temperatures with the weather, but those weather effects were discounted when researchers analyzed photos showing different solar positions and shadows.

"There may be something with them laying a certain way, but when I go through these big freestyle barns, whichever way they have the stalls pointed for them to lay in, that's the way most of them lay," Haroldson said.

"In the fields, I'll have to admit, I probably will look a bit closer now. It's nothing that I ever paid attention to," he added.

The researchers noted that many species may have "passive alignments" to magnetic fields, such as bees, termites, mole-rats and certain types of deer. The scientists wondered if some type of sensory organ enables animals to detect magnetic fields.

Haroldson is still skeptical. He said cows especially are creatures of habit that either adapt learned behaviors or can be trained to act in certain ways.

He said like most other animals, cows in the field have strong mothering instincts to protect their young from predators such as wolves, behaviors that are innate after centuries of shielding calves.

"Maybe there's something to it," Haroldson said. "Birds know how to migrate in the winter and spring without any maps, so...."

He questions the relevance of the study, or its applicability to practical sciences.

"If there is (a magnetic pull) what really does that have to do with anything?" he asked, barely containing his mirth. "After working with cows, maybe it's because I don't think that way. I don't know what application it would have, other than it's kind of interesting and will elicit some conversation."

The researchers plan to study sheep, goats, horses and other species to see if the results can be repeated.

Meanwhile, Haroldson has no plans to replace his dashboard compass, or to shelve his Garmin in lieu of having Bossie ride shotgun in the passenger seat.

"I don't think I'd use a cow to get me out of the woods if I was lost," he said.