Professor Journeys to Africa with National Geographic TV, Seeking Hippos

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.

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