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Pee Pee Pew Pew!

A droplet of pee being ejected from the behind of an insect called a sharpshooter
Georgia Institute of Technology

As humans, we think of pee as a stream. Unless something has gone awry, our urine flows, trickles, even leaks. But across the animal kingdom, pee is not always a babbling yellow brook. What if I told you that pee could be balls. Perfectly round, glistening balls of pee? Balls that you can fling with a body part called an "anal stylus"? Would you be jealous?

Glassy-winged sharpshooters, insects that are about as long as a pinto bean and are excellent at spreading disease in crops, produce perhaps the most perfect pees on the planet. The bugs subsist entirely on xylem sap, a liquid so devoid of calories they must drink up to 300 times their weight of it each day to survive. So they pee almost constantly, excreting globules of urine at the hairy, pointy tip of their anus called the anal stylus. Glug glug glug! Splat splat splat! When the droplet reaches optimal roundness—after about 80 milliseconds—the sharpshooter rotates the anal stylus once more to fling the droplet far away at a remarkable speed, like a flipper in a pinball machine, to make room for the next pee ball. One could even say sharpshooters are number one at going number two. Pee pee pew pew!

Many different scientists have studied the sharpshooter's pee balls for obvious reasons (they are cool and pee is fun). Now, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have found the sharpshooters' butt catapults represent the first example of "superpropulsion" in nature, according to a paper published Tuesday in Nature Communications. The sharpshooter's prowess in superpropulsion, a phenomenon in physics in which an "elastic projectile receives an energy boost when its launch timing matches the projectile timing," is surely very exciting for anyone who would like to watch a video in which a cheetah races a Formula E car. I, a speed noob, am less excited about the invocation of superpropulsion than I am to know the speed of the catapulted droplets was faster than the speed of the anal stylus that launched them into the air. That alone is impressive to me! I do not need to hear any more words!

Isn't she lovely!!! Credit: Georgia Institute of Technology

After analyzing 22 pee balls from five sharpshooters, creating physical and mathematical models of the excretions, and taking micro CT scans of the insects' morphology, the researchers discovered that peeing in ball form is simply the most efficient way for the tiny bugs to pee. Big xylem-sucking cicadas can urinate in powerful jets. But wee sharpshooters can't produce the energy for such a stream. Their ballsy approach isn't just beautifully spherical; it also helps them conserve energy. (For a more technical breakdown of the research behind the paper, Jack Tamisiea has a great story at Scientific American.)

You and I are too big to pee in balls, and I do not wish to spend my entire day atop a toilet—or at my desk—producing itty-bitty droplets. But the sharpshooters' droplets are simply the most aesthetic approach to peeing I've seen, and I envy it because I admire beautiful things. Is this so different from a perfectly round pearl plucked from an oyster? Doesn't a urinary droplet's ephemeral nature make it even more precious? Will any blog I ever write be as beautiful as a glassy pearl of pee?

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