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Spring Field Trips: Amphibians, Reptiles, Invertebrates, Birds

NET, LOOKING, CRAYFSHRecording the first time I see various creatures each spring is a habit that stretches back to my childhood, and to this day I keep and even re-read my old notebooks. Over the last few years, the unbridled enthusiasm of a new field partner (not to mention his wonderfully keen eyesight!), has kept me outdoors even more than in the past (see photos).

Spring 2015 has been slow to arrive and seemingly loathe to take hold here in southern NY and northern NJ. But we have persisted in looking for our favorite spring sights, and over the past several weeks have finally been rewarded with views of old favorites and some new observations as well.


Early Spring Amphibians

There are several vernal ponds in southern Westchester County, NY, where, if the weather and amphibian gods favor us, spotted salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers can be observed breeding on the same night. As the large, vividly-colored Spotted Salamanders have always been favorites of mine, and are the most elusive of the “Big Three” early spring amphibians, I usually focus on finding them.


HOLD SPOTTED SALAMANDERLast year, we hit it just right, and were able to find males beneath leaves along the shore of a breeding pond, awaiting the females’ arrival (the sexes arrive in 2 separate waves, co-mingling only “when necessary”). I’ve found breeding groups as early as March 19th in southern NY, but last year the salamanders showed up during the second week of April. I returned to one favored site during the same week this year, only to find snow on the ground and ice along the pond’s edge! I’ll return soon, hopefully to be rewarded by the sight of their rounded, algae-tinged egg masses.


An even earlier spring breeder, the Eastern Tiger Salamander (in NY, limited in distribution to eastern Long Island) is sometimes roused to action by mid-February. I was unable to visit any sites this year, but assume they were late in breeding as well, given the frigid February we experienced.

Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers were also weeks later than usual, at least per my records, but have now (May 1) reproduced. A friend called tonight from Cape Cod to say that spring peepers were still in full chorus there.


IMG_9954Mid-April in a NJ Swamp: Snappers, Frogs, Birds & Butterflies

On April 17, 2015, we visited a small button bush swamp in northern NJ. Last year at this time, it was alive with bullfrogs, painted turtles, aquatic insects and other typical warm weather residents. We almost immediately came upon a large male common snapping turtle, half-buried in the mud in very shallow water. The cool weather rendered him quite sluggish – a plus for the little turtle wrangler who hauled him out for closer inspection! Snappers are about as cold-tolerant as a turtle can be…several years ago I found one basking on February 16th. By mid-April, they are usually their normal feisty selves, ready and willing to do battle…not so this cold, old fellow.



IMG_5757 SM FROGWe saw none of the American bullfrogs that normally abound in this swamp, but did net several second-year tadpoles that had emerged from hibernation. Green frogs were also absent from the main swamp, but we flushed several near a small, sun-warmed vernal pond. Our net failed to find any water scorpions, diving beetles or other common aquatic insects, but many over-winter as eggs, and so are difficult to locate prior to maturity.


Happily, the red-winged blackbirds were out in force, and calling all day. I’ve observed these early harbingers of spring to return to NY as early as February 2nd. A single mourning cloak, one of the few local butterflies that over-winters as an adult, flitted through the still largely-brown woodland that borders the swamp. At 6 PM, a light rain began to fall, and a small chorus of spring peepers, undaunted by daylight, started-up…assuring us, as little else can, that spring was finally here!


snapper in waterThe Great Swamp: Amorous Snappers, Snakes & Beetles

It’s impossible for a naturalist to have a disappointing visit to New Jersey’s magnificent Great Swamp, and our April 24th trip there confirmed this once again. Although perhaps a bit behind schedule, spring was now in full throttle. A pair of snapping turtles mated (or “wrestled”, according to my 7-year-old cohort!) with abandon within 2 feet of a boardwalk (please see photo). The first rainy night in June should bring the female, and almost all others in this part of the country, out to nest.


Garter, haidenGarter snakes, green frogs and painted turtles were very much in evidence, and flickers issued forth with staccato calls that seemed more suited to a central African rainforest than a NJ suburb. Our prize insect find was a larval caterpillar-hunter beetle. At the nearby Raptor Trust we were treated to several birds we hadn’t seen in some time, including short-eared owls, ravens and, most surprisingly, an albino/leucistic American robin.




Along the Hudson: Eels, Eagles & Nesting Herons

When last I searched the southern reaches of the Hudson River, back in late February, bald eagles rode some of the waterway’s many ice floes. Friends who frequent the river’s west shore north of Bear Mountain report that resident eagles are now feeding chicks, great blue herons are brooding eggs, and millions of tiny “glass eels” (juvenile American eels) are on the move.


A late spring means that there’s still time to see some of the wonderful natural events you may have missed, and that we can look forward to the explosion of life that herald’s early summer – get out there if you can, and please post your observations below!



Further Reading

Amphibian Breeding Site Conservation

Collecting Insects: Traps & Tips

How Reptiles, Amphibians and Spiders “Celebrate” Valentine’s Day

Mating psir of jumping spiders

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Kaldari

As Valentine’s Day draws near, I thought it might be time to give some competition to the inevitable stories that will surface concerning monogamous mammals and “gift-giving” birds. To be sure, penguins presenting mates with rocks are cute, but how many folks know about the far-more complex (and often longer-lasting!) pair bonds formed by reptiles and amphibians, and the risky – sometimes “deceitful” – gifts borne by some amorous spiders? Recent research has turned-up frogs that mate for life, skinks that build communal dwellings, monogamous alligators, nest-defending monitor pairs and many other astonishing examples of fascinating long-term relationships among our favorite creatures.


You Call This a Gift!?

Male invertebrates of many species utilize “nuptial gifts” to convince females of their desirability as mates…or, perhaps, to avoid becoming a meal as opposed to a father! But matters become a bit complex where the aptly-named Gift Giving Spider (Paratrechalea ornata) is concerned. In one study of 53 courting males, 70% of the silk-wrapped insects they presented to females were found to be “leftovers” – hollow exoskeletons whose contents had already been consumed by the conniving suitors!


Scorpion fly

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Richard Bartz,

Thin male spiders usually offered worthless husks, while well-fed males presented entire insects. Follow-up lab studies revealed that females accepted both intact and empty gifts (it takes time for them to unwrap the insects and discover the con-artists!), but were more likely to mate with heavier, well-fed males, regardless of the condition of their gift. While it seems that thin male spiders bearing useless gifts may be “getting away with something” if they mate successfully, it may be that females have the last laugh. Female spiders mate with several males, and may be able to store sperm. As occurs in some other species, the female may then somehow control which male’s sperm ultimately fertilizes her eggs.


Mate Fidelity and Cooperation among Amphibians and Reptiles

It has long been suspected that certain reptiles and amphibians form long-term relationships and engage in cooperative behavior. Several recent studies have confirmed this…and some have taken herpetologists completely by surprise. Several of my favorites follow…please post your own below.


Mimic Poison Frog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Gabsch

Mimic Poison Frog: two parents needed

Perhaps the most surprising has been the discovery of the world’s only completely monogamous amphibian – Peru’s Mimic Poison Frog (Ranitomiya imitator). Driven by the need for close cooperation in raising the tadpoles, pairs form lifelong bonds.


The tadpoles are deposited in tiny, nutrient-poor pools within bromeliads, and would not survive without the unfertilized eggs provided by their mothers as food. Many other Poison Frogs do the same, but Mimic males stay near tadpole pools and call to their mates when the tadpoles need to be fed (how they know when to call remains a mystery)! A closely-related frog that places its tadpoles in nutrient-rich pools is not monogamous.


Great Desert Skinks: hard working, “semi-faithful” males

Although at least twenty lizard species live in family groups, only the Great Desert Skink (Liopholis kintorei) is known to cooperatively construct complex, long-term dwellings inhabited by several generations. Researchers from Australia’s Macquarie University have discovered that these subterranean homes have up to 20 entrances and separate latrine areas, and may span 50 feet or more. Tunnel maintenance duties are carried out by family members based upon size, with the largest individuals doing most of the “heavy lifting”, but all contribute some effort.


Mated pairs of Great Desert Skinks, which are native to the red sand plains of central Australia, remain together for years. Females seem to copulate only with their mates, but 40% of the male skinks father young “outside of their primary relationship”.


Rosenberg's Monitor

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble

Rosenberg’s Monitors: tag-teaming nest predators

A 16-year-long study of Rosenberg’s Monitor (Varanus rosenbergi) on Australia’s Kangaroo Island has revealed that females are sometimes joined by males when guarding their nests. Nest-attending females attack intruding male Rosenberg’s Monitors (the main threat to eggs) whether or not their mates are present…when mates are on hand, they assist females in repelling others. Males were also observed helping their mates to cover nests on several occasions.


Shingleback Skinks

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Coojah

Shingle-Backed Skinks: absence makes the heart grow fonder

The Shingle-backed Skink (Tiliqua rugosa / Trachydosaurus rugosus), much loved by lizard keepers, has the distinction of being the first documented monogamous lizard. What’s more, paired individuals live solitary lives for up to 10 months of the year, but they re-connect each breeding season. Field research has shown that pairs spend an average of 43 days together during September and October, usually in close physical proximity, at which time they mate (and, one would imagine, sort out bills, “to do” lists and such!). They then go their separate ways, having little or no contact with one another until the following September.


Female alligatoir with young

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Catholic 85

Faithful Female Alligators

Biologists working with American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) in Louisiana’s Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge were surprised to find a high degree of mate fidelity in their study population. Writing in the October, 2009 issue of Molecular Ecology, the researchers explained that 70% of the female alligators studied over a 10 year period mated with the same male each year. This is the first time such behavior has been documented in any Crocodilian, and is rendered even more interesting by the fact that the refuge supports a very dense population of alligators, and females freely move through the territories of many males.



Further Reading

Great Desert Skink Communal Dwellings

Monogamous Frogs


The 5 Worst Reptiles and Amphibians to Choose as Holiday Gifts

Choosing a live amphibian or a reptile as a holiday gift may be a nice gesture, but it is also fraught with potential problems. Please see The 5 Best Reptiles and Amphibians to Choose as Holiday Gifts for further cautions. General considerations aside, certain species are almost always a bad idea…even when the recipient has some experience. Unfortunately, many of these “bad choices” are promoted as being easy-to-care-for, and indeed all have some very desirable qualities. In the right hands, some can make great, long-lived pets – but, unfortunately, the “right hands” are often few and far between.


Please see the articles linked under Further Reading for detailed information about the animals mentioned in this article, and be sure to post any questions you may have below.


resturtleRed-Eared Slider, Trachemys scripta elegans

Bred in the millions on farms in the American Southeast, Sliders are among the most readily available of all reptilian pets. Responsive and hardy, they invariably surprise first-time owners with their rapid growth rate. An adult female, which will measure 8-12 inches when fully grown (the one pictured here is moderately-sized), requires a 75-100 gallon aquarium.  Powerful filtration, frequent water changes, UVB exposure, heat lamps, water heaters, and a proper diet are essential in meeting their needs.


With proper care, these active turtles can easily live into their 30’s. However, few people are prepared to commit the time and expense necessary to achieve this. As a consequence, millions of released pets and their progeny now inhabit dozens of countries worldwide – I’ve seen them in places as far flung as Kyoto, Japan temple ponds and sewage catchment basins in Caracas, Venezuela.


Burmese python

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Glogger

Young Burmese Pythons or other Giant Constrictors

I’ve had the immense good fortune of working with all of the giant constrictors in zoos, and with some in the field as well. I realize that the ability to live out this childhood dream is not available to most people, and so I’m somewhat torn when asked to comment on Burmese Pythons, Anacondas and related species as pets. Unfortunately, all are capable of killing an adult human, and they are far too large to be accommodated in most homes.


Novices usually find it hard to imagine that the slender, 18-36 inch-long youngster they buy will need a 6-foot long cage within 2-3 years and a professionally-built room-sized enclosure shortly thereafter. A 10-foot-long Burmese Python or similar snake can be expected to consume 100-150 pounds of food yearly. The nonsense about “dog tame” giant snakes prevalent on the internet should be ignored – snakes, no matter how long in captivity, will not distinguish between food and owner, and will bite anything moving within range!


Dart poison frogs

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by H. Krisp

Dart Poison Frogs, Dendrobates spp., and relatives

I recall a time when these living gems were rarely seen even in zoos. Today, captive bred specimens from a startling array of species are readily available in the pet trade. So colorful as to appear unreal, Poison Frogs are bold and active by day, and care for their tadpoles in “mammal-like” fashion – hard to resist!


Their tiny size might tempt the unwary into a quick purchase. But, in contrast to the other animals mentioned here, it is small size that renders Poison Frogs as difficult captives. They take live food only, and suitably-sized insects may be difficult to supply. Pinhead crickets and fruit flies, the most easily obtainable foods, are not an adequate long term diet. Springtails, flour beetle grubs, termites, leaf litter invertebrates, aphids, and other wild-caught insects are an integral part of their diets. Poison Frogs are also sensitive to ammonia in the water and substrate and to both cool and overly-warm temperatures, and thrive best in terrariums stocked with live plants.


African spurred tortoise

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Baseballchck02

The African Spurred Tortoise, Geochelone sulcata

These engaging tortoises exhibit a degree of responsiveness more commonly associated with dogs than reptiles, and captive-bred hatchlings are available for modest prices. Evolution in a harsh environment has primed them for rapid growth – two individuals that I’m familiar with topped 60 pounds by age 5, and an older animal tipped the scales at 190 pounds!


Few hobbyists are equipped to properly care for these behemoths, the largest of all mainland tortoises. In fact, a ½ acre outdoor exhibit proved too small for a pair of 80-pounders under my care at the Prospect Park Zoo. In most areas of the USA, winter care requires indoor accommodations, which translates into a room-sized enclosure for an adult.


Green iguana

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Paul Kehrer

Green Iguana, Iguana iguana

Cute, brilliantly-colored, and a mere 7 inches in length, hatchling Green Iguanas are often promoted as suitable pets for children and novice reptile keepers. But these arboreal lizards have very specific husbandry needs, and their adult size (4-6 feet in length) and potentially aggressive behaviors are serious considerations. Males affected by hormonal surges can be quite dangerous, as attested to by the numerous stitches on the neck of a zoo colleague of mine, and a scar on my arm; when disturbed, either sex may bite, lash out with the tail, or scratch (please see the article linked below for more on male aggression). At minimum, an adult Green Iguana will need a custom-made cage measuring 6 x 3 x 6 feet in size. Ample UVB and strict attention to their nutritional needs, which change with age, are necessary if they are to thrive.



Further Reading

Red Eared Slider Care

Green Iguana Aggression

The 5 Best Reptiles and Amphibians to Choose as Holiday Gifts

While most herp enthusiasts would be thrilled with a live holiday gift, it’s important to think very carefully before you make a present of a reptile or amphibian. Difficult as it may be to believe, the recipient may not share your enthusiasm! Presenting a pet to someone who is unwilling or unable to provide proper care is unfair to both the person and the creature. This is especially true of children…you must speak with their parents beforehand, and explain all that is involved in caring for your intended gift. With these cautions in mind, let’s look at some reptiles and amphibians that are well suited for mature children and adults new to herp-keeping.


Please see the articles linked under Further Reading for detailed care information, and be sure to post any questions you may have below.


snakeCorn Snake, Pantherophis guttata

The Corn Snake is one of North America’s most beautifully-patterned reptiles, and the world’s most popular serpent pet.  Despite having crossed paths with hundreds of species during my career as a herpetologist, I reserve a special fondness for these undemanding beauties. Topping out at a manageable 2.5 to 4 feet in length, Corn Snakes are amenable to gentle handling and can be housed in a 20-55 gallon aquarium. A hide box, incandescent heat bulb, water bowl, and a pre-killed mouse (available, frozen, at pet stores) each 7-10 days completes their needs. Longevities in excess of 20 years are known, and captive breeding – which has resulted in over 25 unique color phases – is commonplace.


Chinese Fire Bellied Newts

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Dobromila

Japanese and Chinese Fire-Bellied Newts, Cynops pyrrhogaster and C. orientalis

Fire-Bellied Newts have much to recommend them as pets. They are active by day and quickly lose any shyness about exhibiting a range of interesting behaviors. Average room temperatures suit them well, and a pair can be kept in a 5 gallon aquarium equipped with a simple filter. Reptomin and other commercial foods, with occasional feedings of live blackworms (sold as tropical fish food), can serve as the basis of their diet. Fire-Bellies often surprise their owners with eggs, offering an excellent introduction to amphibian breeding.  Note: all newts produce skin toxins that can be harmful, and for certain species fatal, if swallowed; children must be supervised.


Leopard gecko

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Unibrow1994

Leopard Gecko, Eublepharis macularius

There’s good reason why this attractive little lizard is one of the world’s most desirable reptilian pets. Unlike Bearded Dragons and other popular lizards, the Leopard Gecko does not require access to UVB radiation. This simplifies care and reduces expenses. They are also slow-moving, calm in demeanor, and very amenable to handling…a big plus for children. Their dietary and space needs are quite modest, and a wide variety of inexpensive heat sources and other gecko-specific products are available. Although typically active by night, pets are always willing to eat during the day, and their nocturnal wanderings can be viewed with the aid of a red/black night bulb.


Musk turtle hatchling

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Karlwj1985

Common Musk Turtle, Sternotherus odoratus and its Relatives

I always hesitate to recommend turtles as first-time pets. Most need a great deal of room, expensive life support equipment, and their care can be quite time consuming. One possible exception is the Common Musk Turtle and such relatives as the North American Mud Turtle. While not exactly “simple” to care for, they make excellent choices for someone set on turtle ownership. Maxing out at 5 inches or so, the Musk Turtle can be accommodated in a 20 gallon aquarium equipped with an easy-to-clean filter. It differs from most turtles in not requiring UVB exposure, and a fish tank heater will meet its modest temperature requirements. A diet of high quality turtle pellets, supplemented with minnows, earthworms and other easily-obtainable foods, will keep them in great health long-term – as attested to by the 45 year-old female that is watching me as I type!


African clawed frogs and eggs

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Shields R

African Clawed Frog, Xenopus laevis

Several African Clawed Frogs in my collection have lived into their mid-20’s, and all have been most amusing. Bold and brassy, these aquatic frogs quickly learn to “beg” for food, and readily feed from the hand. They do fine at temperatures ranging from 55-90 F, and, unlike almost all other frogs, accept non-living foods such as reptile and fish pellets (occasional insects are also appreciated). A simple filter and weekly partial water changes are essential to their health…provided that, African Clawed Frogs will prove to be among the hardiest of all amphibian pets.




Further Reading

Fire Bellied Newts as Pets


Leopard Gecko Care


Musk Turtle Care


Keeping Corn Snakes and other Ratsnakes


The Care and Breeding of African Clawed Frogs

Thanksgiving at the Zoo: The Giant Appetites of Snakes, Frogs, and Moles

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAArticles on holiday over-eating always appear as Thanksgiving approaches. Throughout my career as a zookeeper, a variety of creatures have amazed me with their abilities to consume massive meals. Reptiles and amphibians are the most impressive diners, with a 60 pound deer, swallowed by a wild Green Anaconda, being my most notable observation. But several others take even larger meals, comparatively. For example, one Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops atrox) successfully consumed a lizard that exceeded the snake’s weight by over 50%! The 17 young Spitting Cobras taken in a single “sitting” by an African Bullfrog are also worthy of mention. From Star-nosed Moles to Asian Elephants, the mammals I’ve cared for have impressed me as well. Please feel free to quote my stories if friends and family criticize you for over-indulging this year, and have a Happy Thanksgiving!


Anaconad, me and MariaGiant Constrictors

I’ve had the good fortune to work with Green Anacondas for many years, in both the wild and captivity, and I’ve written several articles about their amazing appetites (please see links below). A 60 pound White-tailed Deer regurgitated by a massive wild female topping 17 feet in length remains the largest snake meal I’ve witnessed. Other memorable Anaconda food items include a 5-foot-long Spectacled Caiman, a large Red-footed Tortoise, and a hefty Giant Side-necked Turtle.


The world’s other giant constrictors – Reticulated, Burmese, Indian and African Rock Pythons – are also champion diners. The largest meal I’ve been able to track down in a published source is a 130 pound Impala taken by African Rock Python. A captive 25-foot-long Reticulated Python came close, consuming 138 pounds of food (Ibex, domestic goats) over several days. Please see the linked articles for details.


Vipers and Elapids

But it is among the vipers that we find the true gluttons (or eating champs, depending on your point of view!). In his spectacular book Snakes, the Evolution of Mystery in Nature (U. Cal. Press, 1997), Harry Greene recounts examples of Viperids consuming prey that exceeded their own body weight. I was amazed to read of a Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops atrox) that ate a Whiptail Lizard which outweighed the snake by 56%, and a 23 gram Hog-nosed Viper (Porthidium nasutum) that swallowed a 29 gram Spiny Pocket Mouse. Mr. Greene likened such feats to himself downing a 200+ pound hamburger, intact, in less than 1 hour, and without the use of hands or utensils!


Gaboon Viper

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by TimVickers

Gaboon Vipers are well-known as large-meal specialists. Those I’ve worked with have awed me with their mass, and I have no trouble believing that a wild specimen was found to contain an antelope (Red Duiker) that was 4% heavier than the snake itself. A Harlequin Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius) – not known for taking massive food items – was able to down a Glass Lizard that exceeded its own weight by 37%.


Digestive Systems that Grow and Shrink

While most people who overdo it at Thanksgiving suffer a variety of discomforts, snakes have no such worries. Recent research has revealed that some have evolved a truly remarkable means of adapting to large, infrequent feeding bouts. Within 24 hours of a meal, the liver and intestines of Indian Pythons actually grow larger! Eventually, the intestine’s diameter increases by 30% and its mucus membranes, responsible for nutrient absorption, become 3x thicker than usual. The liver’s circumference becomes 2/3 larger than its pre-meal size. All returns to normal within a week or so after a meal has passed through the intestinal tract.


Indian Python eating Chital Deer

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Rakesh Kumar Dogra

I wouldn’t be surprised if other herps were found to have unique digestive adaptations as well. However, I can’t help but think that the cobra-eating African Bullfrog described in this article suffered at least some digestive distress!


Keeping up with Moles, Shrews, and Elephants

I have wide interests, and was, for a time, the Bronx Zoo’s head mammal keeper. Over time, I’ve had experiences feeding some of the world’s tiniest and largest mammals.


Back in my early teens, while working at a nature center in New Paltz, NY, I came across a Star-nosed Mole. Bizarre beyond belief, it was gorging on earthworms driven to the surface by heavy rains. I grabbed the surprisingly-powerful creature and popped it into a large coffee can. I tossed in several earthworms, and was shocked to see the mole slurp them down as if it was in its usual habitat! At the time, I was in charge of collecting and caring for a huge array of animals, including woodchucks, baby raccoons, flying squirrels and numerous native herps, birds, and insects, and simply could not keep up with the mole’s appetite. Reluctantly, I released the ravenous little beast – I’ve yet to come across another.


Star-nosed Mole

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by en:User:Big iron

I also kept another small insectivore, the Short-tailed Shrew. Driven by a heart that beats over 1,000 times per minute, these hyper little guys were quite common in fields at the Bronx Zoo. I trapped several, and kept them for varying periods. Just recently my nephew and I came across one while we were feeding some Chipmunks. The little guy surprised my nephew by hauling away a huge chunk of cheese bread (one of the few times I’ve seen this equally ravenous 6-year-old part with such a delicacy!).


Most shrews consume at least 1.25 x their bodyweight in food each day. By contrast, the Asian Elephants I cared for ate only 1-1.5% of their body mass daily. But this amounted to 300-375 pounds of yams, carrots, hay and such, delivered by the wheelbarrow-full…and nearly equal amounts of elephant waste. I much preferred caring for shrews and moles!




Further Reading

People as Python Prey: Surprising Statistics!

Giant and Unusual Snake Meals



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