Those little seashells loitering on your bathroom shelf are hiding quite a secret—at least, their teeth are. According to a new study from the University of Portsmouth, the strongest material found in nature is the tooth of a tiny sea creature. The aquatic, snail-like creatures’ millimeter-long teeth feature a biological structure so strong that it could provide us with a way to build tougher cars and planes in the future.

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It has long been thought that spider silk was the strongest material to be found in nature. The discovery has inspired new ways to construct everything from a fine thread with the strength of steel to better bullet-proof vests. After a series of tests, researchers from the University of Portsmouth believe that spider silk has met its match.

Limpet teeth have to be exceptionally strong so as the small creatures can grind away at rock and algae to feed when the tide is in—in spite of being just a millimeter in length and as small as 100 times thinner than the diameter of a human hair. The key to the limpets’ dental strength lies in the mineral goethite, which forms as the limpet grows. According to lead researcher Professor Asa Barber, the fibers of goethite found in limpet teeth are just the right size to make up a resilient composite structure.

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Not only are the teeth exceptionally strong, but they have the highly unusual property of maintaining the same level of strength regardless of size. As Barber explained to “Generally a big structure has lots of flaws and can break more easily than a smaller structure, which has fewer flaws and is stronger. The problem is that most structures have to be fairly big so they’re weaker than we would like. Limpet teeth break this rule as their strength is the same no matter what the size.”

This provides some exciting possibilities for the construction of super-strong, exceptionally lightweight materials for use in, say, high-performance vehicles. As Barber explains “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.”


Lead image via Shutterstock, secondary image courtesy University of Portsmouth