the powers of hippopotamus slime -- 7/17/19

Today's selection -- from The Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke. The powers of hippopotamus slime:

"Pliny the Elder provided an imaginative analysis in Naturalis Historia, his great encyclopedia completed in AD 77:

When [a hippopotamus] has become too bulky by continued over-feeding, it goes down to the banks of the river, and examines the reeds which have been newly cut; as soon as it has found a stump that is very sharp, it presses its body against it, and so wounds one of the veins in the thigh; and, by the flow of blood thus produced, the body, which would oth­erwise have fallen into a morbid state, is relieved; after which, it covers up the wound with mud.

"What reads as a tragic tale of a self-harming hippo with weight is­sues was in fact a portrayal of the ancient art of bloodletting -- a pro­cedure used in the treatment of an array of ailments for almost three thousand years. If you were a feverish Greek or a bubonic medieval Brit, then your doctor's top-line treatment would be to puncture a vein and drain some of your blood. If you were very lucky, leeches might be used instead of a sharp wooden stick. Bloodletting was practiced by the Egyptians but, according to Pliny, that other famous resident of the Nile, the hippo, had showed the way. 'The hippopotamus was the first inventor of the practice of letting blood,' he claimed, not once but twice, in his encyclopedia.

"We may scoff at Pliny, but the truth is that this big amphibious beast has pioneered a pharmaceutical fashion, one that's practiced in our time (and, crucially, one that actually works).

"The liquid the ancients observed seeping from the hippo's hide does look remarkably like blood; it completely fooled me the first time I saw it. But it isn't blood -- nothing like it. Instead, this crimson goop is produced by special glands tucked underneath the animal's thick skin. For many years it was thought to act like a sort of sticky red sweat to keep the hippo cool. Scientists have recently discovered it does some­thing much more remarkable.

"The slime's bloodlike appearance is the product of red and orange pigments, unstable polymers that start out clear but change shape and color as they absorb and reflect UV light. This is rather handy, because it means the hippo is essentially secreting its very own sunblock -- an evolutionary adaptation for a massive, hairless mammal regularly ex­posed to the blazing sub-Saharan sun.

"The slime is also believed to contain antibacterial agents -- the rea­son why a hippo's war wounds hardly ever get infected despite its pre­dilection for wallowing in water awash with its own feces. And despite their fondness for a poo party, flies tend to leave the hippo alone, sug­gesting this supergoop could be an insect repellent to boot.

"This three-in-one formula is significantly more sophisticated than your average overpriced sun-slop from Walgreens. In fact, it's such a revolutionary substance that Christopher Viney; a biomimicry scien­tist in California, has been trying to turn hippo sweat into the next big thing in sunscreen. 'It is the unusual combination of properties that makes it so enticing: sunblock, bug repellent, and antiseptic all rolled into one,' he told me.

"'Nature's most successful materials have had plenty of time to be­come optimized for purpose. If Nature makes a good skincare prod­uct, we will be hard-pressed to improve on it,' said Viney.

"There are some issues to be worked out. 'The challenge,' he noted, 'is to get a sample that is not contaminated by feces.'

"Undeterred, I decided to put the professor's research to the test by smearing my own skin with fresh hippo slime. The hippo in question was an overly tame orphaned baby called Emma, resident of a rescue center in South Africa. I was feeding her when I noticed rivers of red running down her back and collecting in the folds of fat on her neck. So I decided to help myself

The liquid had the tacky consistency of egg whites and lathered up into a creamy foam; on application, my skin quickly absorbed it. Sadly my hands were so sun worn it was hard to deduce its SPF powers, but one hand was now noticeably silkier than the other. The owner of the sanctuary was also a fan of its moisturizing qualities; she told me she regularly uses hippo goo as a lip salve and swears by it."



Lucy Cooke


The Truth About Animals


Basic Books


Copyright 2018 by Lucy Cooke


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