It's also true that the human sense of direction is simply less precise than that of many animals. For instance, migratory birds can use internal magnetic compasses or sonar maps to create incredibly detailed mental maps. And many animals' sense of direction is instinctual and is genetically hard-wired.
In addition, humans have faulty internal senses of direction. For instance, several studies have found that people walk in circles when blindfolded or disoriented (for instance, in an unfamiliar, heavily forested area), Ellard said. African desert ants, by contrast, can march in a straight line for miles. [Album: Stunning Photos of the World's Ants]
"They have this prodigious ability to keep track of where they are with respect to their initial starting point," Ellard told LiveScience. "They have a very accurate internal odometer."
But while animals' sense of direction is more precise, we have a much more flexible way-finding ability, Montello said. For instance, migrating animals travel thousands of miles but usually go to specific, pre-determined locations. But humans use landmarks, directional cues, a sense of how far they've traveled, as well as myriad other cues to go vastly more places, often with no prior knowledge.
"We travel much wider and farther than a lot of other animals," Montello said.
Tricks of the trade
A few simple techniques can help avoid getting lost.
"A common way that people get lost, is the environment looks different in a different direction," Montello said.
So when forging ahead on a long trek, it's helpful to look back and take a mental photograph to visualize the area from multiple orientations, Montello said.
Paying attention to visual landmarks and using dead reckoning — tracking of their speed and orientation, are also useful, he said.
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