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This Snail’s Teeth Could Stop Bullets if They Weren’t So Small

The limpets’ teeth are stronger than a bullet proof vest, according to researchers, making them the strongest known material in the natural world.

by Kari Paul
Feb 18 2015, 5:00pm

​Limpets at Robin Hood's Bay. Photo via Albert Freeman/Flickr

Researchers in the UK have discovered the tiny teeth of an aquatic snail are stronger than a bullet proof vest, making it the strongest natural material known to scientists yet.

The findings, published in the The Royal Society Journal Interface, show the teeth of the unassuming mollusks are even stronger than spider silk, which was previously considered the strongest known material in the natural world.

Also known as limpets, the snails use their teeth to scrape food off the surfaces of rocks.

"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," said Asa Barber, a professor at the University of Portsmouth who led the study, in a stat​ement.

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A view of limpet from underneath. Photo via LHG Creative Photography/Flickr

The reason why limpets' teeth are so strong is the structure of a hard mineral-protein composite called goethite.

"The whole tooth is slightly less than a millimetre long but is curved, so the strength is dependent on both the shape of the tooth and the material," Barber said. He suggested the durable material—its fibres "just the right size" to make a super resilient structure— could be replicated to make cars, boats, and airplanes.

"Biology is a great source of inspiration when designing new structures but with so many biological structures to consider, it can take time to discover which may be useful," he said. 

"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."