This Insect Pees at High Speed ​​Using ‘Butt Flicker’ and Superpropulsion

Everyone and almost everyone pees. Some things, it turns out, just do it by flicking the liquid from their backs at high speed with an anal stylus.

That very unusual scenario sums up the work of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology on how a leaf-hopping insect called the glassy-winged sharpshooter relieves itself. Although it may sound esoteric, their discovery may one day provide technological advances such as easily removing water from sensitive electronics.

The investigation of the sharpshooter’s excretion process began the way many scientific journeys begin: pure curiosity. Saad Bhamla, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, noticed one of the insects repeatedly forming a perfectly round droplet of liquid in its tail and then launching it at speed.

“Little is known about the fluid dynamics of excretion, despite its impact on the morphology, energetics, and behavior of animals,” Bhamla said in a statement. “We want to see if this little insect has made any innovations in engineering or physics to urinate this way.”

Studying the bug using high-speed video and microscopes revealed that the sharpshooter has one particular feature that enables its impressive urination performance: an anal stylus that Bhamla calls a “butt flicker.”

Bhamla compared this feature to the flippers of a pinball machine that sharpshooters use to launch drops of urine at incredible speeds. The flicker accelerates the liquid more than 10 times the speed of the fastest supercars.

“We realized that this insect effectively transforms a spring and lever like a catapult and that it can use these devices to throw urine droplets repeatedly at high speeds,” explained Elio Challita, a bioengineering graduate student who worked with Bhamla.

The team’s research is published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature Communications.

When the researchers timed the speed of the flicking droplets they noticed that the urine droplets traveled faster through the air than the flick of the cylinder that launched them. This suggests the presence of superpropulsion, a phenomenon that has not been observed in natural systems until now.

Superpropulsion occurs when an elastic projectile gains more energy by synchronizing compression and launch time. One way to visualize this is to imagine a diver launching a springboard at just the right moment to get the maximum boost from the spring impact. It seems that the sharpshooter’s stylus does something similar by compressing the drop before launching, storing more energy through the surface tension of the liquid which then gives it a speed boost when flicked.

Researchers believe that pee flicking is the most efficient way for sharpshooters to process the enormous amount of plant sap they drink each day to survive — up to 300 times their body weight.

Peeing helps you and me

Researching the bathroom habits of sharpshooters may have some direct benefits for humans because the insect is a major pest that causes millions of dollars in damage to crops, especially in vineyards. and citrus orchards in California and Florida. Species are expected to spread with climate change, and this new discovery will make it easier to track the spread of species and inform insights that can help prevent their reproduction.

However, engineers can also learn from the biology of sharpshooters and develop new systems to remove water from disposable electronics.

“What sharpshooters face is like us trying to dodge a beachball-sized glob of maple syrup stuck in our hand,” said Miriam Ashley-Ross, a program director at the US National Science Foundation, which partially funded. the job. “The efficient method these tiny insects have evolved to solve the problem could lead to bio-inspired solutions for removing solvents in micro-manufacturing applications such as electronics or rapid shedding of water from the complex contents of the structure.”

It’s crazy the things we can discover from taking a second to contemplate a drop of bug pee.

“This work reinforces the idea of ​​curiosity-driven science being valuable,” Challita said. “And the fact that we discovered something very interesting — superpropulsion of droplets in a biological system and heroic feats of physics with applications in other fields — makes it even more interesting.”

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