Science Daily has a report on investigation of animal sense of direction. (here) R. Langston found that baby rats have a space map before they can see or navigate outside the nest.
The research team implanted miniature sensors in rat pups before their eyes had opened (and thus before they were mobile). That enabled the researchers to record neural activity when the rat pups left the nest for the first time to explore a new environment.
The researchers were not only able to see that the rats had working navigational neurons right from the beginning, but they were also able to see the order in which the cells matured.
The first to mature were head direction cells. These neurons are exactly what they sound like — they tell the animal which direction it is heading, and are thought to enable an internal inertia-based navigation system, like a compass. “These cells were almost adult-like right from the beginning,” Langston says.
The next cells to mature were the place cells, which are found in the hippocampus. These cells represent a specific place in the environment, and in addition provide contextual information — perhaps even a memory — that might be associated with the place. Last to mature were grid cells, which provide the brain with a geometric coordinate system that enables the animal to figure out exactly where it is in space and how far it has travelled. Grid cells essentially anchor the other cell types to the outside world so that the animal can reliably reproduce the mental map that was made last time it was there.
It has been assumed by many, for a long time that our 3D space perception is hard-wired and not gained from experience of space. This and similar research seems to confirm that assumption.