Olympic swimsuit mimics shark skin

15 August 2008

A high-performance swimsuit worn by record-breaking athletes at the Beijing Olympics this week was developed using the science of shark skin

The Speedo LZR Racer suit, worn by gold medal winner Michael Phelps, is the result of many years of research, including the study of preserved sharks at the Natural History Museum.

Fish expert Ollie Crimmen led this research into shark skin at the Museum and he is talking at a free Nature Live event next week at the Museum.

Shark skin

Speedo wanted to find out how sharks swim so speedily and then use this science to help human swimmers improve their performance.

Researchers discovered that the surface of shark skin is covered in tiny 'teeth' or dermal denticles. The shape and positioning of these denticles varies across the shark's body, managing the flow of water in the most efficient way.

Each species has denticles of a different shape and you can feel them if you stroke a shark's body from back to front - but if you move your hand front to back, the skin feels smooth.

The denticles also work in the area between the skin and the water, reducing drag and allowing the shark to 'slide' through the sea.

Super swimsuits

The research lead Speedo to create a bodysuit called Fastskin FSII that was used by swimmers at the Olympic in Athens in 2004.

Speedo's latest swimsuit takes this technology even further - they also carried out tests with NASA on the drag properties of different materials.

Shark swimmers

Streamlined bodies, powerful muscles and the secret weapon in their skin make sharks highly efficient swimmers. Some species, such as the shortfin mako , can reach amazing speeds of around 75 km/hour (46mph).

Prehistoric sharks

There are more than 460 known species of shark, about  21 of which can be seen around the coast of Britain. They have lived on our planet for more than 450 million years.

These magnificent creatures saw the dinosaurs come and go and have evolved into extremely successful predators of the sea. But they have also received a bad reputation over the years, perpetuated by films such as Jaws.

Shark threats

Many shark species are threatened with extinction. Every year more than 150 million sharks are slaughtered for sport, their meat, oils, fins and cartilage. They are also being affected by over-fishing and pollution.

One-third of European sharks qualify for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Crucial to marine ecosystems

Sharks are top predators and play a crucial role in keeping the natural balance between the different creatures that live in marine ecosystems. They are slow-growing and late to mature, so their populations take longer to recover if their numbers are reduced.

As Speedo's record-breaking swimsuit has shown, there are many exciting things we can learn from these wonderful creatures, and their protection should be a high priority.

Nature Live event

Join our scientist Ollie Crimmen to talk about the science of speed and how the Olympic swimsuit was developed in a free Nature Live event at the Museum. Swift Fishes and Olympic Dreams is at 12:30 on 21 August.

  • by Yvonne Da Silva