Unassuming aquatic snail possesses the strongest teeth on Earth

Big surprises can come in small, seemingly ordinary packages. So is the case with the humble limpet and its mighty teeth. Researchers in the U.K. find that the teeth of a class of aquatic snails are made of the strongest biological material ever studied.

The name “limpet” is a common name for aquatic snails possessing shells that lack any obvious coiling architecture. All limpets fall into the Gastropoda class of mollusks. Their conical shells are described as “patelliform,” or “dish-shaped.” Limpets live on tidal rocks and feed on algae and sea weed during high tide. When the tide moves out, they hunker down in small depressions that they carve for themselves in the rock, specific territories called “home scars.”

But how do the inconspicuous little creatures create these home scars? It turns out that they have on their tongues, called radulae, tiny teeth that they use to scrape away at the surface of the rock on which they dwell. These teeth are made of a protein-mineral composite material that exhibits extraordinary strength. The teeth are stronger than spider silk and all but the very strongest man-made materials.

“Biology is a great source of inspiration as an engineer,” said the study’s lead author Asa Barber, from the University of Portsmouth. “These teeth are made up of very small fibres, put together in a particular way – and we should be thinking about making our own structures following the same design principles.”

The teeth themselves are less than one millimeter in length and are comprised of an iron-based mineral called goethite threaded in fibers through a protein base. Using an atomic force microscope, Barber and colleagues measured the force necessary to pull apart the tooth material filed to 100 times thinner than a human hair. The tooth material could withstand up to five times the force necessary to pull spider silk apart.

“People are always trying to find the next strongest thing, but spider silk has been the winner for quite a few years now,” he told the BBC. “So we were quite happy that the limpet teeth exceeded that.”

The limpet tooth material is stronger than Kevlar and almost as strong as the highest quality carbon fiber material available today.

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