Vulgar kneecaps and superstrength materials

I ostensibly grew up on the North East coast of England in a small fishing village made famous by the "American Turner" artist Winslow Homer who lived there for a couple of years in the nineteenth century. He painted the local fish wives and would have been all too familiar with the bay's piers, its small, but perfectly formed, golden sandy beach and its rocky outcrops that flanked the outer edges of the piers. As the tides ebbed in their almost twice-daily cycles, Homer would have seen the pools exposed by the retreating waters and the microcosms left behind with their anemones, crabs, tiddlers, and, of course, their limpets.

The limpet, is a type of marine snail although its near conical shell gives it its scientific binomial Patella vulgata - which might be literally translated as the common, or vulgar, kneecap. For any small Geordie boy kicking about on those outcrops, crabbing in the pools and avoiding the stinging touch of ruby red jelly-like anemones, a perennial pastime was always to see which of the gang might cruelly release the limpets from their fierce grip on the seaweed coated rocks. Country kids had spiders to dismantle, we had limpets. I dare not admit to a particular tally for fear the local marine conservation society might come after me and endow me with a hefty fine, but I would plead ignorance and juvenile innocence.

Nevertheless, the activity inadvertently taught us children a lesson in biological materials science - whatever fantastical glue allowed the limpet to stick to the rocks so vehemently was far stronger than any of the tacky adhesives we had in the classroom. Similarly, the beds of mussels (Mytilus edulis) that rested at low tide with their tangles of beardy strands also proved a tough shell to crack if a youngster wished to prise those from their rocky repose. So, on a visit to a village a lot further south this week where rocky outcrops and limpets are sadly lacking but the mussels in garlic and a creamy white wine sauce are delicious, I was intrigued to read a small item in the newspaper about how scientists had discovered that limpet "teeth" are the strongest known material, stronger than mussel beards even! Certainly, pound for pound (kilogram for kilogram in SI units, of course) this material it turns out is stronger even than spider's silk, which has always been held up as the greatest of natural engineering materials.

The news snippet and the bracing sea air, which despite the railway tourism posters of the last century never did contain ozone, took me right back to those limit-kicking days of my youth. It was interesting to hear a fellow guest explain to his kids over a hearty breakfast and another round of the card game Uno, the fascination of these super-strength gastropods. We all enjoy a biggest, strongest, longest, record holder and having enjoyed the moules marinière the evening before it was indeed interesting to learn that that bivalve creature might well be usurped as the biomimetic materials scientist's focus.

Of course, news items associated with the limpet story hinted at and hyped up the idea of new strong materials for bridge building, airplanes, cars and other hi-tech engineering applications. And, maybe one day there will be machines made with limpet strength that will remind all those coastal kickers that never really grew up of sandy beaches and rocky outcrops.

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".