Research has focused mainly on the acquisition phase of spatial tasks, while retention has been relatively ignored. In three experiments, we determine the type of information that is retained in spatial memory using the water maze task. In experiment 1, we demonstrate that by rotating the distal cues 180degrees post-acquisition Wistar rats search in the opposite area to where the platform should be. This search continues for a maximum of 30 s. We then demonstrate (experiment 2) that by rotating the starting position (180degrees post-acquisition) animals remain at the starting-point for 10 s. They then commence searching in the platform area. In experiment 3, we demonstrate that rotations of distal cues and starting position post-acquisition impair retention of the platform's location. We suggest that the association between the configuration of distal cues and platform location is retained in memory but the association is fragile and sensitive to disruption. (C) 2003 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.