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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING DOGS)

RATH: Walking up to The BoneYard, the Culver City Dog Park. We're investigating what might be the most fascinating science discovery of 2014. It's about dog poop.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING)

RATH: I have a question. Your dog, I guess, is with you today.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, he's right here. Yeah.

RATH: Has he, you know, dropped anchor yet?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah. (Laughter)

RATH: And did you notice which direction Bo was facing when he dropped anchor?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I didn't. I was on the other end of the park.

RATH: Have you noticed that Bo tends to be facing a particular axis when he's baking brownies?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Baking brownies - no. It's actually nothing that I've paid attention to, ironically enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING)

RATH: You'll be relieved to know that someone is paying attention. A new study of pooping dogs found that they strongly prefer to do their business facing north or south. Sabine Begall is one of the researchers.

SABINE BEGALL: All people know dogs, and know that they are pooping. And so we had a team of 37 dog owners, and they went out with - in total - 70 dogs. The dogs were not on the leash. They were in the open field. And the reporters noted the direction in which the dogs were facing when doing their No. 1 or No. 2.

RATH: Dogs prefer to face north or south; but only when the Earth's magnetic field is stable, which it often is not. A lot of the time, the magnetic field is kind of wobbly and unstable. And when that happens, the dogs will drop their payload - well, any which way.

BEGALL: So we had this analogy: If you were on a hike, for example, and you look every now and then on a map; or you hold a compass. And if the compass needle is shaky or the map is not readable, then you might dismiss, also, reading the map.

RATH: Dogs aren't the only animals that sense magnetic fields. It's called magneto reception. And migrating birds, hungry foxes, and fish and bees all use it. Begall and her colleagues added cattle to that list a few years ago.

BEGALL: After we published our first study on cattle - in 2008 - we got a lot of calls from people from all over the world. And they said, hey, I can also sense the magnetic field. And in the beginning I was like, huh, I can't believe it. But, you know, there were also at least one Noble Prize winner among them. And then I said, huh, so maybe there is something in the story that people can sense the magnetic field.

RATH: And what could humans accomplish with magneto reception? That's still a mystery.

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