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Professor Journeys to Africa with National Geographic TV, Seeking Hippos

July 25, 2007

MERCED - Engineering professor and materials science researcher
Christopher Viney is heading for Zambia, Africa, this weekend for a
10-day adventure in South Luangwa National Park.

Viney, whose 2004 research into the antiseptic and protective
properties of the oily, red secretion known as hippo “sweat,” will
track the wild animals in their habitat and perform tests on
secretion samples, all while being filmed for a National Geographic
television documentary.

Two years ago, the Associated Press picked up a local television
news story about Viney’s investigation into the skin secretions of
Bulgy, the hippo at the Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, telling readers
worldwide about the possible human applications of hippo sweat as
an antiseptic, insect- and water-repellent sunscreen.

When the elderly and arthritic Bulgy died in November 2005,
Viney thought it meant the end of his hippo research - at least
until another hippo came to live nearby. But a call from National
Geographic earlier this year changed all that.

Viney said he hopes to get a better understanding of what makes
the hippo secretion so protective against the harsh sun, looking at
how molecules in the sweat are arranged. In his earlier research
Viney saw that flies avoid the sweat, which indicated it could be
an insect repellent, too. And he noted that although hippos are
often wounded in territorial battles, those wounds are rarely infected.

He’s interested in finding all the practical applications of his
research. But this time, it could be dangerous.

“Hippos are naturally quite aggressive - the most dangerous
animal in Africa,” Viney said. However, one of the highly
experienced National Geographic hosts will gather the samples so
that Viney can test them immediately.

Viney studies biomolecular materials and looks at ways to design
materials based on nature’s principles, especially polymers and
liquid crystals.

When he looks at hippo skin secretions under the microscope, he
sees fascinating pictures that look like mountains and wheels.
Learning enough about those structures may eventually allow
replication of the materials for human use.

His trip to Africa could provide important breakthroughs.

“It’s a unique opportunity,” Viney said. “The amount of
sample that can be collected in a zoo is very limited, and this
park we are going to has a higher concentration of hippos than
anywhere else in the world. Plus, they are in their natural
environment, where we will be best placed to learn from their
adaptations to it.”

The air date for the documentary has not yet been announced, but
the plan is for Viney to return Aug. 15. He will also be available
for interviews, and should have some great stories to tell about
his trip.