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Archive for August, 2016

A mother and her fawns

These two are aggressive nursers.

Coyotes are supposedly killing all the fawns, but they didn’t get these two.

 

 

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A buck with a damaged antler is the first to visit this year’s feeding station:

The antler could very well continue to grow out at this weird angle. The antler is still in velvet and will be for the next month or so.

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Turkey bunch

A big flock of wild turkeys (hens and this year’s poults) cam by the Moultrie 1100i.

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Canis cedazoensis

Canis cedazoensis was an early species of the wolf-coyote-jackal tribe. It lived what is now the American Southwest and Northern Mexico until 300,000 years ago. It probably scavenged kills of bigger predators and lifted off the fawns of the various species of pronghorn.

Conventionally, we believed that the lineage from which this jackal-like canid gave rise to the wolf, the coyote, and the golden jackal. We based these assessments on comparative morphology from fossil and subfossil remains, and it all made sense.

These jackal-like forms entered Eurasia and Africa. They gave rise to the Xenocyon, the first wolf-like canid to evolve of this lineage.  The Xenocyon gave rise to the dhole and the African wild dog. Then the actual wolves evolved in Eurasia, and they walked back into North America to found the Armbruster’s wolf and the Dire wolf. They spread to South America, and endemic North American wolves, Canis edwardii and the putative red wolf evolved out of an unrelated jackal-like line.

The coyote descended from some sort of jackal-like canid in North America and a least a million years of evolution separates the coyote from the modern gray wolf.

The most recent study that examined full genomes of various wolves, dogs, and coyotes revealed that the separation between coyotes and gray wolves happened only 50,000 years ago. This finding pretty much destroys all this thinking.

We’ve conventionally thought of the lineage starting out with jackal-like forms that evolve into wolf-like forms, but the truth is we have a lineage that started out with jackal-like forms. Wolf-like forms evolved at least twice from this lineage, and jackal-like forms have evolved from wolf-like forms as well.

What we’ve missed that just as the Xenocyon and the dhole and African wild dog have evolved into wolf-like forms in parallel to actual wolves, the real story of Canis is that there has been a constant tension between selection for wolf-like traits and jackal-like traits. The coyote is a wolf that has re-adapted itself to the jackal-like form. To become a jackal is to become a generalist again. To evolve towards the wolf is become an apex predator and be forced to hunt for large game to survive.

What we know from the fossil record is the story of wolves and dogs and coyotes and their kin is that it began with “jackals.”  Paleontology says that North America is where this story got started, but the oldest species in this lineage of dogs lives in Africa.

I would love to know the full story.

Canis cedazoensis is a creature lost to time. If we could see one, maybe we know some answers. Maybe we would see something very much like a black-backed jackal. Maybe it would answer some questions.

And it would probably raise more.

Yet more of the mystery to which we should humble ourselves.

It began with jackals, and in the Anthropocene, it may end with them as well. The coyote and Eurasian jackal have continued to spread their range. The coyote is from from Alaska and Newfoundland to Panama– on its way to Colombia. The Eurasian jackal (the “golden jackal,” as it is normally called) spreads north and west through Europe. Both are generalists of the jackal type.

Phenotypic plasticity and convergent evolution have played quite a game with this part of the dog family.

Science is always provisional, and often takes just one profound discovery to turn over the apple cart.

And oh, has it been turned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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gray fox in the meadow

 

The sun sets on a muggy July day in northern West Virginia. As darkness envelops the land, the stidulations of crickets and other buzzing insects replace the last of the birdsong. The last rays of the sun cast shadows on an old hayfield, leaving a hazy glow among the grass just now growing back green from the first cutting.

White-tailed deer wander into the hayfield with caution. Months before, the bullets flew through the air at them, and though those days are long way off, the deer do not forget the lesson of November. In the open, man and his bullets can drop the deer at many yards. In the forest, there is security, but sweet clover grows in the rowen. And for that repast, they  will risk exposure.

But they will not enter with out their noses and ears and eyes trained into the distance. Every once in a while, a deer jerks its head up and rotates its ears at some sound. It might only be the scurrying of a mouse or vole, but it might be a spotlighting deer poacher pushing the safety forward on his rifle.

It takes only one mistake, so each sound is taken seriously.

But as the darkness draws, the deer begin to relax a bit. The clover is good and fresh and cool.

As the deer graze the clover, a gray form materializes on the opposite side of they hayfield. It is cat-like in its movements, but it sniffs the ground with purpose, like a beagle tracking a cottontail through the edge of a brier patch.

It is the form of a little gray fox, a creature that lies somewhere between the foxes we all know so well and the primitive raccoon-like dogs from which all dogs descend. The gray fox’s kind first appeared during the Pliocene and evolved to live in humid forests much like the one that surrounds the hayfield on all sides.

During the day, the fox seeks the same shelter in the forest that the deer seek. For generations, the hunters have shot the foxes for their fur and to protect their stupid chickens, which foolishly roost in trees where a fox can easily climb up and catch them.

This fox is not a chicken poacher. She never even seen one. Her whole life’s work is the pursuit of the vole and the mouse and the dashing run at the cottontail. In the spring, she robbed a few turkey nests and climbed into the trees to rob the nests of robins and thrushes and warblers.

Tonight she has come to check out some vole trails that ravel along an old access road and end in a hedgerow of autumn olive where she came across a rabbit nest a few weeks earlier.

A fox in her second year should have a growing litter of kits to feed, but this fox’s litter all died when her mate was killed running across a road where he was certain there would be no traffic. With no mate to bring her fresh meat during the nesting season, her milk dried up and hunger forced her to abandon the den.

She has been a lone fox all these months and only now is she coming back into her fine form. Her summer pelt is thick and platinum silver trimmed in an elegant tawny red behind her ears and on her legs and under belly. Down her tail runs a strip of black hair, which she an raise as a hackle whenever she is enraged or nervous.

But there is none of that now. Her nose is quivering at the scent of meadow voles. One has just run down this little trial. The fox lifts her nose to see if she can catch its scent in the air.

A tiny bit of vole scent wafts into her right nostril. She turns to the right, cautiously stepping into stalk. The vole becomes nervous and scurries a bit.  The fox’s ears catch the sound, and she stops. She cocks her head to catch the sound a little more clearly. The vole scurries again, and, in its confusion moves, into a copse of grass just two yards from the fox.

The fox inches closer to the copse. The vole remains still. The fox cocks her head again. Her black nose quivers to catch the vole scent again. She knows that in that copse of orchard grass there is a nice fat vole, and now she must prepare to make her leap.

She digs into the ground, and one can almost hear her counting off before she bounds forward into the vole’s poorly-chosen refuge. Her jaws hit the grass with just precision that vole almost explodes into them as she draws down upon her quarry.

She raises her head from the grass as a squeaking vole screams out in its death throes in her mouth.

One vole down. One more bit of protein to hold over starvation.

The deer raise their heads and stamp and blow warning bark-wheezes at the sound. They know the sound of successful predation. In the spring, the coyotes and bears had lifted some their fawns in much the same manner, and the bawling fawns were unable to be saved as the forest monsters carried them off to their deaths.

A squeaking mouse unnerves them in much the same way.

The fox becomes unnerved by the agitated deer, but she soon dispatches the vole and chokes him down. All that noise might be attracting a deer, but they could just as a easily drawn in a coyote or another fox.

And she is more than content to have this hayfield to herself. Last week, she’d run out a young dog red fox who thought he could chase rabbits here all night long. She set the record straight with a few well-timed bites on the backside.

But this little gray fox is not the empress of the hayfield. At any moment, a coyote could show up and run her off. An enterprising predator hunter could take a few shots at her. Dogs could come running after her for nothing more than a good chase. A great horned owl could come sailing silently from the sky and carry her off.

Her life is harrowing yet perfect. Fields of voles and mice and rabbits will feed her well. Feral apples and pears will give her a little desert.

And though her kind must face danger in order to survive, there has been no time in the gray fox’s evolutionary history when times were so good. The death of the agrarian economy in West Virginia has meant more old fields and more reforestation. The gray fox is a creature of the forest, and when this land was heavily forested before, it was forced to share it with any number of larger predators, including cougars and wolves.

And with fur prices not being worth the trouble for all but the most devout predator hunter and trappers, there really aren’t that many people out to get her.

She may not be the empress, but in this moment is she is certainly regal. She is a predator that has just successfully caught her prey. The ancient call of predators to seek their prey has driven evolution in truly profound ways, yet its successful sequence is both brutal and spectacular. It’s not quite the same as watching a pride of lions take down a Cape buffalo.

But it is essence, it is the same thing.

With the vole now thoroughly swallowed, the fox stops to drink from the muddy ditch that runs alongside the access road. A northern green frog leaps out as the fox approaches. She offers to give chase but gives up as soon as the frog buries itself in the mud at the bottom of the ditch.

The fox drinks the water and then caster her nose into the wind. She quivers her nose  to catch the scent of any quarry or predators or competitors that might be nearby. Her nose registers nothing.

She trots down the access road then dives down into the treeline. She crosses an unnoticeable trail that goes through a patch of multiflora roase and then turns  to take it deep into the woods where dogs and man never go.

And thus the meadow fox leaves the hayfield and whatever drama she brought to it.

The deer continue their clover supper, and the crickets carry on with their night song.

 

 

 

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These are bite marks on quaking aspen nearly seven feet up the three.

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And some shed out hair. Moose have hollow hair like white-tailed deer, but it’s based upon on a much larger scale. They also have a much denser undercoat.

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The moose weren’t on the trail that day, but they weren’t that far off.

 

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I really haven’t felt myself in maybe a decade. I felt myself here in the taiga.

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black panther hoax

Trail camera photo of a black leopard in Africa, but often claimed to have been photographed in lots of different places in the US!

I am in the minority.

To an outsider, it might seem weird that I am in the minority, but I most assuredly am in a minority.

Here’s what gives me minority status:

I live in West Virginia, and I don’t think there are black panthers of any sort roaming the forests here.

If you go to any little town in West Virginia– or just about anywhere in rural America east of the Mississippi– and ask the first ten people you see if they’ve seen a black panther. You will most often hear either an affirmation that the person has seen one or they know someone who has seen one.

It doesn’t really matter that melanism hasn’t been officially documented in North American cougars or that cougars haven’t even been confirmed in this part of the East yet.

They’ve seen a black panther.

Maybe it’s a black leopard let loose on the countryside. That’s usually the claim when we hear the British talk of alien big cats:

Someone had a black leopard. The laws changed against their ownership. The leopard was turned loose, where it met other leopards who met the same fate.

In West Virginia, the panther casts a shadow long into the psyche.  West Virginia is a place where the land was cleared and stock was run and crops were raised.

That world has largely disappeared as new industrial opportunities expanded in neighboring states. Those who remained got jobs off the land, where could afford to buy things that were grown or butchered out of state.

The old fields grew in with brush. Then the trees returned.

If you look at densely-forested hillside long enough, you can imagine any number of fell beasts residing in the thickets and brush.

The great Appalachian writer Joe Bageant wrote of seeing a “panther” when he was only 5 years old. He saw it in a meadow near his family homestead in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Whether he saw such a creature is certainly up to question. Bageant died in 2011, and this writing is but a distillation of a childhood memory.

In the meadow sycamore, a panther so black it is almost blue. Neither Nelson nor I have ever seen a panther. Never expected to in our lives. But there it is. Big as life. Nelson’s face shows almost holy amazement in the red light. He takes his pipe away from his quivering lip. Not that fear was a part of it, only awe of this beast. The panther drops weightlessly to the ground and glides into the loblolly* pines with all its lithe power. We let out our breath. We gesture at each other for a minute, then trot for home. By the time we reach the house twilight had settled.

“Maw,” I blurt. “We seen a panther down by the big sycamore. Black as night. Long and black as night.”

Maw turns away from the hand pump by the galvanized sink where she had been drawing dishwater. “Never been a panther in these parts I know of,” she says. But the set of Nelson’s wide dark face tells her this is a true thing. “Hear that Pap?” she asks. “The boys seen a panther. A panther is a sign of war and troubles of war.”

My grandfather frowns, says nothing in reply. Then he raises up his lanky frame from the kitchen chair, picks up the kitchen slop bucket and heads for the hog pen.

What about the sign of war? I wanted to know. Silence from Maw. Well, if it was a sign, I figured, Maw would sure as hell know about it. Maw knew her signs. Maw knew what poultices cured chicken pox, how to plant and reap by the almanac.

“If talk was corn that old man couldn’t buy grain,” Maw grumbled at Pap’s non-response.

And that was all I ever got in the way of answers about the panther and the sign of war. I would one day learn that panthers were among the first beasts killed off by the English and German settlers in our region, along with red wolves [sic] and the eastern woodland bison. And that black is just one of the color possibilities of panthers anywhere on the planet. But in that day and in our world on Shanghai Road along the drains of Sleepy Creek panthers inhabited their place alongside witches, wolf trees, milk drinking snakes and other such creatures as prowled the subconscious and gave explanation to the greater unknown.

Even though I’m actually only removed by three generations from people who lived much like this, it doesn’t change the fact that I am indeed removed from it.

When I was a child, I had a blowhard relative call up everyone in the family that he had killed a bobcat while deer hunting.

It certainly captured my imagination, and I was really thrilled that he was going to have his trophy “stuffed,” so that I could see when we went visiting over Christmas.

Even now I can remember my great disappointment, when I was brought into the room where the trophy cat had been set up for display, only to discover that he’d shot a tortoiseshell Manx cat. The taxidermist had done a good job polishing up this fake bobcat, but it didn’t change anything.

By then I’d learned to keep my mouth shut, and I let everyone bask in the glory of a dead house cat. I remember someone asking how such a little cat could kill such a big thing as a deer and just cringing.

West Virginia is a place that needs its panthers. It doesn’t matter if they are real or not, any more than it mattered whether my relative had killed a bobcat. This is a place that needs its folklore, its animism, its spirits in order to commune with a great unknown that becomes more perplexing every day.

Black panthers dreams must be real, for it is only in their possibility that gives the land its magic, its mystique.

As much as I’d like there to be black panthers in the forest here, I know they really don’t exist here. But I still look into woods in hopes I might be wrong.

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*He probably means same tree that my grandpa called a “jack pine,” which is more properly known as a Virginia pine. True jack pines grow well to our north, while loblollies are the common pines of Eastern North Carolina and also grow in coastal Maryland and Virginia. But not in the land west of the Blue Ridge.

 

 

 

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hybrid

The scent of canid estrus wafts out of the clouds of the Harenna Forest in Ethiopia’s Bale National Park. It floats out of the wet jungle into the land of lichens that lies way up high in the Sanetti Plateau, where he smells it.

He stops to savor the scent, which is almost like that of his mother and sisters but not exactly.

Yet is strangely beguiling.

His kind are the red-coated “wolves” of the Ethiopian Highlands. They are Africa’s rarest canid and may be the rarest of all wild dogs. They spend their days hunting big-headed mole-rats and other rodents. They are rare and found only in these Afro-Alpine lands of Ethiopia.

His kind stay in the open moorland of lichens. They don’t wander down in the cloud forest. That is the realm of the black leopard, the creature that savors the taste of dog-flesh above all others and would love nothing more than to swipe an arrogant little tawny wolf.

But the smell is strong, and the last few months have been hectic in his pack. The bitches have all come in estrus, and his mother ran off his older sisters. By the law of Ethiopian wolves, only one bitch produces a litter and that one bitch is the sole mate of a single male.

Thus, our wolf friend has spent a long time smelling the beguiling fragrance of estrus but never getting a chance to partake in any mating.

This smell isn’t quite the same, but it’s so similar that he can’t help be drawn to it.

He abandons his caution and wanders down into the clouds. He soon finds himself in the wet jungle of the Harenna Forest. Moss lies hard upon the trees.Strange little monkeys chatter among the bamboo.

And the scent grows stronger.

He keeps following his canine  concupiscence through this strange world. For a creature so devoted to living in the open moorland, this jungle is a terrifying alien landscape. The buzzing of insect causes him to jump. The gentle falling rain upon the leaves vexes him.

Hunger soon begins set in, but just as he’s about to turn around and head home, he catches wind of some decaying meat.

He follows his nose and soon finds himself looking at the remains of a bushbuck. He also smells the odor of a cat of some sort, but it has long since passed. But smells another odor. It almost like that of his own kind but not quite.

He is in the land of strange wolves, and his hackles are raised.

He knows he might have to fight for a bit of food, but he doesn’t know who these strangers are.

He eats a bit of the meat and raises his head to scan the undergrowth. He must eat, yet he is terrified.

He hears the approach of canine steps. He bristles. The time for a fight is now!

Then the beguiling scent of estrus fills the air. The hackles go down. He doesn’t consciously realize that he’s becoming softened.

The sound of canine steps grows stronger. They stop. Then they grow stronger again.

Then out from behind a stand of kokisa trees comes the creature. Our wolf notices that this is source of the beguiling estrus odor, and though he was expecting a strange Ethiopian wolf from another pack, she not one.

But in some ways she is.

She is almost entirely gray with black hairs mixed in. Along the sides of her back the pelt mixes in such a way as to form two stripes, each running from her shoulder to her hip. Her tail is tipped in white.

She is a side-striped jackal.  Her kind is numerous. They are found throughout Africa south of the Sahara and the Sahel. They are creatures of the brush and thicket. Their kind almost never makes it onto nature documentaries.

They are that banal, that common, that no one would would waste time filming a den-site or extolling their virtues.

Our two creatures stare at each other over the bushbuck carrion. Neither knows what to make of the other. 3 or 4 million years of evolution separate the two species. One is a specialist of an ecosystem that is dying. The other is a generalist of tropical Africa.

But the genetic difference between the two is trivial at this moment.

The young jackal bitch has been driven from her parents’ territory.  She is too defiant of her mother over the kills they scavenge, and her mother just can’t handle such recalcitrance. Estrus made the situation worse, for in jackal society, only one bitch and one dog mate and have the pups. Her sister accepted her mother’s edicts that only she would mother pups, but our jackal bitch fought back and tried to mate with her brother and then her father.

One big fight ensued, and now our jackal bitch is running through the forests, alone and in estrus. She has no territory, and no other dog jackals from other families have courted her.

Her desire to mate is strong now.  And though she’s has been eating off this old leopard kill– one that the old leopard decided wasn’t worth hauling up into the trees– she hasn’t been herself at all.

On her old leopard kill stands a jackal of sorts. He’s bigger than any jackal she’s seen before. He smells different, but he also smells good.

Part of her says to approach. Part of her says to flee. The former is pushing her forward, and as the wolf’s face begins to soften, she feels at ease.

She approaches the red stranger. They touch noses. She backs off.  He wolf-grins. She pounces at him playfully. He backs off. They stare at each other again.

The ritual goes on for an hour. They begin to forget what they are. The strangeness of the moment becomes an odd sort of familiarly.

She licks his lips. He licks hers.  He stands proudly with his ears back. She playfully paws him.

They smell each other.

She spins around and puts her tail to the side. He mounts. There is a tie.

For three days the eat from the bushbuck carcass and mate in the jungle. She alerts him to the scent of the leopard and shows him how much fun it is to chase monkeys into the trees.

On the evening of the third day, the young wolf stoops to drink from a puddle. The black leopard springs from behind a bush and is on the wolf before he knows it. The leopard doesn’t know that he has killed a rare wild dog. He’s caught a big jackal, and jackal meat is so tasty that he has to take it up into the canopy for storage.

The jackal bitch goes looking for her mate. She barks and howls into the night. There is no answer.

An old male side-striped jackal who hasn’t had a mate for year finds her. She still smells of estrus, so she is accepted by him. The two jackals wander off into the darkness. They mate one time, but the two remain together as mates. Within her grow the whelps, one of which is sired by the old male jackal, and the other is the hybrid with the Ethiopian wolf suitor.

The pups are born in the den she digs. One pup is a typical side-striped jackal, while the other is marked with tan points and a black tail with no white tip. The hybrid grows up as a jackal, though she is clearly different.

One day, a group of researchers comes across her and takes her photograph. Then they take many photos.

She is so strange that the researchers believe she is new species of jackal. When her photos are posted online, a lot of debate develops about what she is. Is a new species?  Is she a hybrid of golden jackal (now a golden wolf) and side-striped jackal?  Is she a  hybrid of Ethiopian wolf and dog?  Ethiopian wolf and side-striped jackal?  Nah. She’s an unusual side-striped jackal without the stripes or the white-tail tip.

And the mystery jackal roams the Harenna Forest. The debate goes on.

This is the story of a hybrid.

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The above is an entirely fictitious account of what might have happened to produce the unusual jackal in the photograph above. The current consensus— based upon looking at the many photos taken of the creature– is that she is an unusual side-striped jackal.

The truth is this debate really can’t be settled definitely. We have no DNA samples from the beast.

But the possibility of other hybrids beyond the usual subjects in the genus Canis has long fascinated me. It could happen. It just hasn’t been confirmed anywhere.

Although the likelihood of this hybridization occurring is pretty low, it is very likely that the two jackals endemic to Africa, the side-striped and black-backed jackals, can hybridize. The two species usually fight with each other, but there could be instances where they have crossed.

We just don’t have as many genetic studies on these jackals as we do with wolves, dogs, and coyotes.

But I bet there are some interesting stories in the genetic history of these canids.

They just have to be explored a bit more thoroughly.

Jackals are a mystery waiting to be solved.

 

 

 

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Otaries

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It’s funny how some words fall out of use when they actually do have some great clarifying utility.

One of the hardest concepts to understand is that the creatures we call “fur seals” and “sea lions” aren’t actually “seals” in the same way we understand harbor or gray seals.

In modern English, these animals get called “eared seals,” which is confusing term in itself. The other seals do have ears, of course, but only fur seals and sea lions have external ear flaps. The eared seals can also pull their hind flippers under their bodies and walk, while the “earless” seals are forced to drag their bellies around on ground with their front flippers.

We currently classify the earless seals as “phocids” (easy to remember if you know the French word for seal is phoque). The eared seals are called “otariids,” which is easy to remember if you think that otters have ears and these are the seals that are most like otters.

But I have wondered where this word came from. Obviously phocid came from Latin by way of the Ancient Greek word “phōke.”  I don’t see much use in using this word in English, though in the Romance languages, some variant of this word is the actual word for seal.

The name for the eared seals is otariid. If you know your Greek, ōtos means ear, and ōtaros means “large-eared.” Because these animals have external ear flaps. they have larger ears, which is also another way to remember the two groups

The French use the word “otarie” for these animals, and as I was going through some of the nineteenth century naturalist accounts of these seals, I noticed that an Anglicized word “otary” was used for them.

The term has since fallen into disuse, but it might be necessary to revive it. A fur seal or a sea lion really isn’t the same thing as a seal in my mind. They swim and move so differently that they really aren’t in the same ball park. To me, a seal will always be an animal made up of blubber into a sausage that can barely move on land, while an otary is an animal that can run and swim.

Using otary for these animals divides them better cognitively from the seals.

But then I don’t think most people would lose sleep over calling a sea lion a seal, even if it’s not really a seal.

The English language first evolved in a place where there are no otaries, but when these animals were noticed by English-speakers, there was attempt to classify them as being like the gray and harbor seals that they knew so well.

But I think this leads to a confusion of two quite different families.

Maybe this is me being a nerd.

But I think it’s time to use the term “otary” in our common language.

 

 

 

 

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