LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Scientists studying rats have found both male and female newborns have an innate sense of direction before they've even begun to move around, and this is likely to be the same for all animals -- including humans.
The researchers found no difference in directional sense between male and females, suggesting both sexes are born with have the same tools on which to build navigational skills.
"Perhaps the age-old question of whether males or females have a better sense of direction could be a case of how we choose to build our map, rather than the materials we start with," the scientists said in report on their study, which was published in the journal Science on Thursday.
The team of researchers from Britain and Norway implanted miniature sensors in rat pups before their eyes had opened and before they had started to move about. This technique allowed the researchers to record neural activity when the rat pups left the nest for the first time to explore a new environment.
They found that the directional signal, which allows an animal to know which way it is facing, is already at adult levels as soon as it can be measured in newborn rats.
"These cells were almost adult-like right from the beginning," said Rosamund Langston of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who worked on the study.
Sense of place is also present early, but improves with age, and a sense of distance develops within in a few days.
"The question of how we acquire knowledge of the outside world and form our sense of place in it is one that has challenged both scientists and philosophers for centuries," said Francesca Cacucci of University College London's Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience, who also worked on the study.
"This work clarifies the processes involved for the first time, and shows that the concept of space is something that develops very early -- most likely within the first two weeks of being born, and is unlikely to have been learnt."
Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Paul Casciato