Entomologists everywhere are pooting for science. That’s not a euphemism—they’re using the scientific tools known as “pooters,” and they’re pooting up a storm.
A pooter (named for its inventor, William Poos, for real) is also called an insect aspirator. It’s a low-tech device with a bug at one end, a scientist’s mouth at the other, and a tube or tubes in between. The bug collector aims one end of the tube at the bug and inhales sharply, trapping the minibeast in the tube.
Many entomologists make their own pooters, since they have the supplies on hand, but a basic pre-fab pooter from a lab-supply company only costs about $8. (Coincidentally, the hand-held analog fart-noise-maker calling itself “The Original Pooter” will run you $7.95, unless you want a two-pack.)
Pooters can take many forms. There’s the electric pooter, the surgical tube pooter, the vacuum pooter, and the classic pooter. There are suck-type pooters and blow-type pooters. All of these pooters ideally have one thing in common: a piece of mesh or muslin at the mouth end to prevent pooter users from swallowing their research subjects.
This works … most of the time.
“I am sure that most, if not all of us, have managed to end up with a mouthful of small insects,” entomologist Simon Leather, Ph.D., wrote on his blog. Pooters see a lot of use, he tells mental_floss, and can get worn out. “You tend to just get your pooter out and poot without checking to see if the muslin is still there,” he says. “Luckily, most of the things I poot up are small and harmless.”
Other pooting hazards include “pooter’s mouth”—dry mouth or allergies caused by a long day of inhaling dust and leaf litter—and aspirating insect eggs without realizing it.
In the 1950s, an entomologist named Paul D. Hurd reported a rather surprising souvenir from his latest collecting trip, which he discovered when when he looked in his handkerchief and saw not just boogers, but bugs:
Approximately 2 mo. after the completion of the past summer's work at Point Barrow I became ill. During the week following the onset of illness four major groups of insects … were passed alive from the left antrum of the sinus.
Because it’s cheap, portable, and precise, the pooter has become a favorite tool of entomologists and budding scientists around the world. There are several Australian “Make a Pooter!” lesson plans. One reminds the reader not to suck up stinging or poisonous insects. Another lesson plan suggests other fun activities like breeding mosquitoes, or making a pooter that can suck up tadpoles.
There are even pooting contests. Years before she discovered the peacock spiders known as Sparklemuffin and Skeletorus, researcher Madeline Girard took home first and second place in two consecutive Poot-Offs.
To the uninitiated, pooting may seem a little weird. But to the dedicated men and women of science who have made insects their living, it’s really a wonderful tool.
Dr. Leather keeps a pooter in his jacket pocket and a portable magnifying glass on a lanyard around his neck. “If you really want to understand the wonders of the world,” he says, “you’ve got to look at the small things.”