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Limpet teeth are the toughest biological material in the world

Scientists have discovered that spider silk is no longer the strongest biological material in the world. That honor belongs to teeth of sea snails.

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Limpet teeth are the toughest biological material in the world
Photo by University of Portsmouth: Asa Barber

“What is the hardest mineral” in the world sounds like a vintage pub quiz question. So does, “what animal has the toughest teeth?” The answer to both of these questions involves the teeth of the humble limpet, a form of sea snail native to the British coast.

Naturally, you may be wondering how this was discovered. Was somebody bitten an angry limpet and lost an appendage? The answer is considerably more sedate. Asa Barber, a scientist and professor at the University of Portsmouth was thumbing through the pages of a biology textbook when he noted the entry on limpets.

If you’re wondering why limpets need such strong teeth, it’s to survive the onslaught of the sea’s tides. Limpets cling to rock formations and feed on algae. They do not move at speed, so when the tide is in the limpets need to be able to cling on. The power found in their teeth helps the aquatic critters do just that.

Barber’s imagination was fired up by this information, so he dispatched a student to collect limpets from the British coast for study. The creatures were examined under a microscope. Given that a limpet’s teeth measure under a millimeter, this additional equipment was required.

It was revealed that the secret to the strength of limpet teeth is goethite, a mineral found within. The gravity of goethite typically weighs in between 3.3 to 4.3 on the Mohs Scale, though it can scale as high at 5.5. What’s more, it was discovered that all limpets have equally strong teeth. Ordinarily, increased size and mass would result in flaws. This would make the teeth easier to crack. This is not the case in limpets.

The results of Barber’s research confirm that a limpet’s gnashers are stronger than spider silk – previously considered to be the strongest biological material on earth. Limpet teeth have the webbing of our eight-legged chums beaten some five times over.

What does this all mean, though? Can we start building homes from limpet teeth that will withstand all weathers? Not quite – but engineers will inevitably imitate the composite of these pearly whites in the future.

Think about vehicles that rely upon a combination of light structure and strength to perform — the hull of a boat, for example, or even a sports car or airplane. The lighter the chassis of these constructs, the higher they’ll perform. What’s more, the less material used, the cheaper the construction will be.

This needs to be achieved without compromising safety, however. Knowing what we now do about limpet teeth, expect to find goethite as a regular feature of such constructs in the future.

As for the limpets themselves? Well, they’re going nowhere. The species has survived for millions of years, so it’s safe to assume that they have mastered the art of staying alive. We know that we won’t be picking a fight with one any time soon. Their teeth may be tiny, but they pack quite a punch.

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