16.5 Ureters, Urinary Bladder, and Urethra

Created by CK-12 Foundation/Adapted by Christine Miller

16.5.1 Dog peeing on fire hydrant
Figure 16.5.1 Just leaving a message…..

Communicating with Urine

Why do dogs pee on fire hydrants? Besides “having to go,” they are marking their territory with chemicals in their urine called . It’s a form of communication, in which they are “saying” with odors that the yard is theirs and other dogs should stay away. In addition to fire hydrants, dogs may urinate on fence posts, trees, car tires, and many other objects. Urination in dogs, as in people, is usually a process controlled by the . The process of forming urine — which occurs in the kidneys — occurs constantly, and is not under voluntary control. What happens to all the urine that forms in the kidneys? It passes from the kidneys through the other organs of the urinary system, starting with the ureters.


As shown in Figure 16.5.2, are tube-like structures that connect the kidneys with the urinary bladder. They are paired structures, with one ureter for each kidney. In adults, ureters are between 25 and 30 cm (about 10–12 in) long and about 3 to 4 mm in diameter.

16.5.2 Urinary System - Ureters
16.5.2 Besides the kidneys, the urinary system includes two ureters, the urinary bladder, and the urethra.

Each ureter arises in the pelvis of a kidney (the renal pelvis in Figure 16.5.3). It then passes down the side of the kidney, and finally enters the back of the bladder. At the entrance to the bladder, the ureters have sphincters that prevent the backflow of urine.

16.5.3 Renal Pelvis and Ureter
16.5.3 Urine collects in the renal pelvis, which is continuous with the ureter. The ureter then carries the urine from the kidney to the urinary bladder.

The walls of the ureters are composed of multiple layers of different types of tissues.  The innermost layer is a special type of epithelium, called transitional epithelium. Unlike the epithelium lining most organs, transitional epithelium is capable of stretching and does not produce mucus. It lines much of the urinary system, including the renal pelvis, bladder, and much of the urethra, in addition to the ureters. Transitional epithelium allows these organs to stretch and expand as they fill with urine or allow urine to pass through. The next layer of the ureter walls is made up of loose connective tissue containing elastic fibres, nerves, and blood and lymphatic vessels. After this layer are two layers of smooth muscles, an inner circular layer, and an outer longitudinal layer. The smooth muscle layers can contract in waves of to propel urine down the ureters from the kidneys to the urinary bladder. The outermost layer of the ureter walls consists of fibrous tissue.

Urinary Bladder

The  is a hollow, muscular, and stretchy organ that rests on the pelvic floor. It collects and stores from the  before the urine is eliminated through . As shown in Figure 16.5.4, urine enters the urinary bladder from the ureters through two ureteral openings on either side of the back wall of the bladder. Urine leaves the bladder through a sphincter called the internal urethral sphincter. When the sphincter relaxes and opens, it allows urine to flow out of the bladder and into the urethra.

16.5.4 Urinary Bladder
Figure 16.5.4 This diagram of the urinary bladder shows (a) a cross-sectional drawing of the entire bladder and (b) a microscopic cross-section of the tissues in the wall of the bladder.

Like the ureters, the bladder is lined with transitional epithelium, which can flatten out and stretch as needed as the bladder fills with urine. The next layer (lamina propria) is a layer of loose connective tissue, nerves, and blood and lymphatic vessels. This is followed by a submucosa layer, which connects the lining of the bladder with the detrusor muscle in the walls of the bladder. The outer covering of the bladder is peritoneum, which is a smooth layer of epithelial cells that lines the abdominal cavity and covers most abdominal organs.

The detrusor muscle in the wall of the bladder is made of smooth muscle fibres controlled by both the and nervous systems. As the bladder fills, the detrusor muscle automatically relaxes to allow it to hold more urine. When the bladder is about half full, the stretching of the walls triggers the sensation of needing to urinate. When the individual is ready to void, conscious nervous signals cause the detrusor muscle to contract, and the internal urethral sphincter to relax and open. As a result, urine is forcefully expelled out of the bladder and into the urethra.


The  is a tube that connects the to the external urethral orifice, which is the opening of the urethra on the surface of the body. As shown in Figure 16.5.5, the urethra in males travels through the penis, so it is much longer than the urethra in females. In males, the urethra averages about 20 cm (about 7.8 in) long, whereas in females, it averages only about 4.8 cm (about 1.9 in) long. In males, the urethra carries semen (as well as urine), but in females, it carries only urine.  In addition, in males, the urethra passes through the prostate gland (part of the reproductive system) which is absent in women.

Figure 16.5.5 The male pelvis on the left and the female pelvis on the right. Notice how much longer the male urethra is because it travels through the length of the penis to reach the external urethral orifice.

Like the ureters and bladder, the proximal (closer to the bladder) two-thirds of the urethra are lined with transitional epithelium. The distal (farther from the bladder) third of the urethra is lined with mucus-secreting epithelium. The mucus helps protect the epithelium from urine, which is corrosive. Below the epithelium is loose connective tissue, and below that are layers of smooth muscle that are continuous with the muscle layers of the urinary bladder. When the bladder contracts to forcefully expel urine, the smooth muscle of the urethra relaxes to allow the urine to pass through.

In order for urine to leave the body through the external urethral orifice, the external urethral sphincter must relax and open. This sphincter is a striated muscle that is controlled by the , so it is under conscious, control in most people (exceptions are infants, some elderly people, and patients with certain injuries or disorders). The muscle can be held in a contracted state and hold in the urine until the person is ready to urinate. Following urination, the smooth muscle lining the urethra automatically contracts to re-establish muscle tone, and the individual consciously contracts the external urethral sphincter to close the external urethral opening.

16.5 Summary

  •  are tube-like structures that connect the  with the . Each ureter arises at the of a kidney and travels down through the abdomen to the urinary bladder. The walls of the ureter contain that can contract to push through the ureter by . The walls are lined with transitional epithelium that can expand and stretch.
  • The is a hollow, muscular organ that rests on the pelvic floor. It is also lined with transitional epithelium. The function of the bladder is to collect and store urine from the kidneys before the urine is eliminated through urination. Filling of the bladder triggers the sensation of needing to urinate. When a conscious decision to urinate is made, the detrusor muscle in the bladder wall contracts and forces urine out of the bladder and into the urethra.
  • The is a tube that connects the urinary bladder to the external urethral orifice. Somatic nerves control the sphincter at the distal end of the urethra. This allows the opening of the for urination to be under control.

16.5 Review Questions

  1. What are ureters?  Describe the location of the ureters relative to other urinary tract organs.
  2. Identify layers in the walls of a ureter. How do they contribute to the ureter’s function?
  3. Describe the urinary bladder. What is the function of the urinary bladder?
  4. How does the nervous system control the urinary bladder?
  5. What is the urethra?
  6. How does the nervous system control urination?
  7. Identify the sphincters that are located along the pathway from the ureters to the external urethral orifice.
  8. What are two differences between the male and female urethra?
  9. When the bladder muscle contracts, the smooth muscle in the walls of the urethra _________ .

16.5 Explore More

The taboo secret to better health | Molly Winter, TED. 2016.

What Happens When You Hold Your Pee? SciShow, 2016.




Figure 16.5.1

Cliche by Jackie on Wikimedia Common s is used under a CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) license.

Figure 16.5.2

Urinary System Male by BruceBlaus on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) license.

Figure 16.5.3

Adrenal glands on Kidney by NCI Public Domain by Alan Hoofring (Illustrator) /National Cancer Institute (photo ID 4355) on Wikimedia Commons is in the public domain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_domain).

Figure 16.5.4

2605_The_Bladder by OpenStax College on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) license. (Micrograph originally provided by the Regents of the University of Michigan Medical School © 2012.)

Figure 16.5.5

512px-Male_and_female_urethral_openings.svg by andrybak (derivative work) on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) license. (Original: Male anatomy blank.svgalt.sex FAQ, derivative work: Tsaitgaist Female anatomy with g-spot.svgTsaitgaist.)


Betts, J. G., Young, K.A., Wise, J.A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D.H., Korol, O., Johnson, J.E., Womble, M., DeSaix, P. (2013, June 19). Figure 25.4 Bladder (a) Anterior cross section of the bladder. (b) The detrusor muscle of the bladder (source: monkey tissue) LM × 448 [digital image].  In Anatomy and Physiology (Section 7.3). OpenStax. https://openstax.org/books/anatomy-and-physiology/pages/25-2-gross-anatomy-of-urine-transport 

SciShow. (2016, January 22). What happens when you hold your pee? YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dg4_deyHLvQ&feature=youtu.be

TED. (2016, September 2). The taboo secret to better health | Molly Winter. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Brajdazp1o&feature=youtu.be


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Human Biology Copyright © 2020 by Christine Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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