Adhesive systems are ubiquitous in benthic animals and play a key role in diverse functions such as locomotion, food capture, mating, burrow building, and defence. For benthic animals that release adhesives, surface and material properties and external morphology have received little attention compared to the biochemical content of the adhesives. We address temporary adhesion of benthic animals from the following three structural levels: (a) the biochemical content of the adhesive secretions, (b) the micro- and mesoscopic surface geometry and material properties of the adhesive organs, and (c) the macroscopic external morphology of the adhesive organs. We show that temporary adhesion of benthic animals is affected by three structural levels: the adhesive secretions provide binding to the substratum at a molecular scale, whereas surface geometry and external morphology increase the contact area with the irregular and unpredictable profile of the substratum from micro- to macroscales. The biochemical content of the adhesive secretions differs between abiotic and biotic substrata. The biochemistry of the adhesives suitable for biotic substrata differentiates further according to whether adhesion must be activated quickly (e.g. as a defensive mechanism) or more slowly (e.g. during adhesion of parasites). De-adhesion is controlled by additional secretions, enzymes, or mechanically. Due to deformability, the adhesive organs achieve intimate contact by adapting their surface profile to the roughness of the substratum. Surface projections, namely cilia, cuticular villi, papillae, and papulae increase the contact area or penetrate through the secreted adhesive to provide direct contact with the substratum. We expect that the same three structural levels investigated here will also affect the performance of artificial adhesive systems.
© 2010 The Authors. Biological Reviews © 2010 Cambridge Philosophical Society.