The Strongest Natural Material in the World Belongs to Sea Snails, Not Spiders

First Posted: Feb 18, 2015 08:18 AM EST

Move over, spider silk. There's a new natural material that's the strongest on Earth. Scientists have found that sea snail teeth may be the strongest natural material known to man.

The researchers studied small, snail-like creatures known as limpets. More specifically, they studied the small-scale mechanical behavior of their teeth using atomic force microscopy, a method used to pull apart materials all the way down to the level of the atom. Surprisingly, the researchers found that limpet teeth contain a hard mineral known as goethite, which forms in the limpet as it grows.

"Limpets need high strength teeth to rasp over rock surfaces and remove algae for feeding when the tide is in," said Asa Barber, one of the researchers, in a news release. "We discovered that the fibers of goethite are just the right size to make up a resilient composite structure. This discovery means that the fibrous structures found in limpet teeth could be mimicked and used in high-performance engineering applications such as Formula 1 racing cars, the hulls of boats and aircraft structures."

Surprisingly, limpet teeth are the same strength no matter what the size. While a big structure usually has a lot of flaws and can therefore break more easily than a small structure, limpet teeth don't seem to have that issue.

"Nature is a wonderful source of inspiration for structures that have excellent mechanical properties," said Barber. "All the things we observe around us, such as trees, the shells of sea creatures and the limpet teeth studied in this work, have evolved to be effective at what they do. Until now we thought that spider silk was the strongest biological material because of its super-strength and potential applications in everything from bullet-proof vests to computer electronics but now we have discovered that limpet teeth exhibit a strength that is potentially higher."

The findings could mean that researchers could apply this structure found in limpet teeth to artificial materials. This could be huge in terms of developing super-strong materials in the future.

The findings are published in the Royal Society Journal Interface.

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