The competitive dominance of mussels in the wave-swept rocky intertidal zone is in part due to their ability to maintain a secure attachment. Mussels are tethered to the substratum by a byssus composed of numerous extracellular, collagenous threads secreted by the foot. Each byssal thread has three serially arranged parts: a corrugated proximal region, a smooth distal region and an adhesive plaque. This study examines the material and structural properties of the byssal threads of three mussel species: Mytilus californianus, M. trossulus, and M. galloprovincialis. Tensile tests in general reveal similar material properties among species: the proximal region has a lower initial modulus, a lower ultimate stress and a higher ultimate strain than the distal region. The distal region also yields at a stress well below its ultimate value. In whole thread tests, the proximal region and adhesive plaque are common sites of structural failure and are closely matched in strength, while the distal region appears to be excessively strong. We propose that the high strength of the distal region is the byproduct of a material designed to yield and extend before structural failure occurs. Experimental and theoretical evidence is presented suggesting that thread yield and extensibility provide two important mechanisms for increasing the overall attachment strength of the mussel: (1) the reorientation of threads towards the direction of applied load, and (2) the 'recruitment' of more threads into tension and the consequent distribution of applied load over a larger cross-sectional area, thereby reducing the stress on each thread. This distal region yield behavior is most striking for M. californianus and may be a key to its success in extreme wave-swept environments.