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Mariton: Snow and the Vernal Equinox

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

Last week, I would go inside during breaks in my plowing and shoveling to flip on the television to see the latest predictions. I found both disdain and amusement in the anchors who showed such shock that a winter storm could strike so close to the Vernal Equinox.  My, my.  I am ready for some spring too, but all things will come in good time.  Sitting on the tractor I knew there was verse that addressed my feelings on the situation.  Over the weekend I went to the bookshelves.  (Sure, I could have typed in a few key words and quickly found the poem.  It just isn’t the same – just as it isn’t the same to read about the outdoors without actually going outside.)  I found what I was looking for in Robert Frost’s The Onset. In high school I was attracted to Frost’s poetry. Sure, he wasn’t as hip as some of the modern poets, but he sure captured the many moods of nature.  He put into words the same things I had been discovering as a young woods walker.  In the following poem he also captured my mood about the latest snow fall.

The Onset

by Robert Frost

Always the same, when on a fated night

At last the gathered snow lets down as white

As may be in dark woods, and with a song

It shall not make again all winter long

Of hissing on the yet uncovered ground,

I almost stumble looking up and round,

As one who overtaken by the end

Gives up his errand, and lets death descend

Upon him where he is, with nothing done

To evil, no important triumph won,

More than if life had never been begun.

 

Yet all the precedent is on my side:

I know that winter death has never tried

The earth but it has failed: The snow may heap

In long storms an undrifted four feet deep

As measured against maple, birch and oak,

It cannot check the peeper’s silver croak;

And I shall see the snow all go down hill

In a water of a slender April rill

That flashes tail through last year’s withered brake

And dead weeds, like a disappearing snake.

Nothing will be left white but here a birch

And there a clump of houses with a church.

 

The world keeps turning.

Mariton: The Day After…

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

Most of yesterday was spent getting the parking lot and walks cleared of snow so people could visit and enjoy the snowy scenery. This morning I went out to check out the trails.  I knew there would be some branches down, as the snow was sticky and heavy.

Here are a few of the scenes I found along the way.

 

February 10th, 20 degrees F, and the Christmas Fern is still green.

A trail waiting for you.

 

 

Enjoy Winter! Black Bears

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

BEAR TRACKS

Black Bears (Ursus americanus) have a really interesting strategy for dealing with the winter.  Their winter sleep is not considered true hibernation by some scientists, but it is truly remarkable.  If you remember from an earlier post, groundhogs are considered true hibernators because they radically lower their metabolism (body temperature, heart rate, and respiration) for extended periods.  Bears by contrast, lower these functions but not enough to drastically lower their energy needs.  This fact makes their winter sleep even more amazing.

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Like Groundhogs and Deer, black bears binge eat in the fall.  Bears can increase their weight substantially (40%) before denning.  Their winter layer of fat will be several inches thick and provides insulation as well as nourishment.  The decision to den is closely related to food availability, or more accurately calories.  Bears will generally den when the calories expended to find food exceeds the calories gathered.  Females usually den in November.  Males can stay active through December if food is abundant and not covered by snow.

Because they aren’t true hibernators, bears burn calories at basically the same rate as we would while asleep.  This is where things get pretty amazing.  Burning calories produces by-products, in particular toxic urea.  We rid our bodies of these toxins when we urinate.  Bears, however, don’t urinate or defecate during their winter sleep.  (You’ll recall that even groundhogs rise from their hibernation periodically to void waste products.)  Bears have the amazing ability to recycle urea back into proteins.  This process allows them to maintain muscle mass and avoid urea toxicity.

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(Bear cub photo by Carole Mebus)

Bears also have their babies during the winter during pseudo-hibernation.  (In Pennsylvania, females generally become sexually mature in their second spring, and can have young every two years.)  Bears mate in June and July, but the fertilized embryo survives in a suspended state for several months until the female dens.  Then it becomes implanted on the uterus and begins to develop.  This delayed implantation is a safety measure in case a female isn’t able to find enough food in fall.  Implantation will only occur if the mother has built up enough resources for bearing cub(s).  Young are born only 7 weeks later in early January, while the mother is still in the den. So, during her deep sleep a pregnant bear has her babies and begins nursing, all nourished by just her fat reserves.  Remember during this time she doesn’t eat or drink, and she doesn’t go to the bathroom.  Oh, and bears don’t get osteoporosis even though huge amounts of calcium are being utilized to develop embryos, produce milk, and replenish the mother’s own bones.  (Think how unlocking those secrets could impact traveling in outer space!)

Now let’s talk about denning.  Bears don’t need to sleep in a cave or hollow log.  Because of their insulating fat and fur, they can sleep out on the ground all winter (although females usually den in protected shelters).  Bears den in a variety of places including brush piles, or next to a log.  Because bears are in a deep sleep, they can wake up fairly quickly.  They will be groggy at first, but they can get up and run if the need arises.  So, if they are displaced from a den site, they can find a new area, make a bed from leaves and grass, and continue their sleep.

If you find all of this fascinating, I invite you to join us at Mariton on Saturday, February 28 at 7:30 p.m.  I will be showing the movie On the Trail of Pennsylvania’s Black Bears.  This documentary covers the seasons of a Black Bear’s life with lots of interesting information and amazing footage.

Enjoy Winter: White-tailed Deer

by Tim Burris, Mariton Preserve Manager

1.07.15

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) stay active throughout the winter and have pretty big energy requirements. So, what adaptations do they have to make it through the cold, famine months?

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Like most wintering animals, bulking up during the fall is the first line of preparation. Acorns and other nuts, wild fruits, agricultural crops, and the last of the greenery need to be consumed during the fall so that deer can attain fat that will be instrumental for survival during a harsh winter. While deer can reduce food intake during the winter, they still need to consume a couple pounds of browse daily. During the winter, deer often feed on twigs, buds, evergreen needles, and even dried leaves. All of these things have very low nutrition, but fortunately deer have compound stomachs that can squeeze out just about every available calorie.

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Still, deer can’t find enough calories in the winter to keep their bodies warm. So they develop winter coats. In September, a deer’s dull brow-gray winter coat replaces its red summer coat. This winter coat is highly insulated with hollow hairs to add more warmth. You can easily feel the difference when you compare a summer and a winter deer pelt. You can see the difference if you ever find a deer bedded during a snowfall. A mantle of snow will build up on the deer’s body. That snow would melt if there was much heat loss from the deer’s body.

Deer yard

Deer also conserve heat by seeking shelter in evergreen thickets where they are shielded by the wind and where the vegetation acts like a blanket. I often think of the cedar swamps and spruce thickets of the Adirondacks and northern states. Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary has limited spruce and pine groves, but there is an extensive  labyrinth of rhododendron on the steep slopes overlooking the Delaware River. In the photo above, you can see by the amount of droppings and tracks that a few deer spent several days in this patch of rhododendrons. Not only does this provide thermal cover, but it is an area largely inaccessible to people, so deer can stay there for long periods without disruptions that would burn valuable calories. (One more reason why dog owners should keep their pets leashed, please.)

Doe and fawn

Even with their adaptations, it is a wonder that deer can survive harsh winters like we had last year. So, it is dumbfounding to me that during these cold, famine months a baby (or two, or three) is developing in the womb of almost every doe in our woods! The breeding season is in the fall (the reason for so many deer are struck by cars in October and November). It is important that deer be born in May and June (seven-month gestation) so that there is an abundance of greenery for does to convert into milk. During the summer lushness fawns can grow quickly, and they will need all the bulk they can get to weather next winter.

Enjoy Winter! Groundhog

by Tim Burris, Mariton Preserve Manager.  Photos by Carole Mebus.

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As part of my series about how animals handle winter I thought I would start off the mammals with the Groundhog (Marmota monax).  Groundhogs are also called Woodchucks, Whistle Pigs, and Marmots.  A rodent, groundhogs are a member of the squirrel family.  It is a good climber and I have seen them in trees often, especially eating mulberries and wild cherries.  While they are good climbers, their legs, claws, head, eyes, and ears are best adapted for burrowing underground, and thus the name.

Most people think of open fields when they think of ground hogs, but they also den in wooded areas (thus the name Woodchuck).  Some groundhogs build two dens:  a summer den in a sunny field, and a winter den in a brushy or woody area.  These dens are pretty extensive, with multiple tunnels and entrances, and different chambers for sleeping, hibernating and raising young.  They even have a chamber for going to the bathroom.

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Hibernation is how groundhogs deal with winter.  Groundhogs are one of the few true hibernators in that they lower their body temperature, heart rate and respirations markedly during their winter sleep.  Imagine if we lowered (and then maintained) our body temperature at 42 degrees Fahrenheit (the same amount that a groundhog lowers its body temperature)?  Severe hypothermia sets in when our bodies drop to about 80 degrees.  Besides the body temperature, the groundhog’s heart rate drops to about 4 beats per minute (!) and breathing slows considerably.  Pretty amazing.

Of course, an important part of the groundhog’s hibernation strategy is a layer of stored fat to fuel the body during its period of inactivity.  (This explains the “hog” and “pig” names.)  Having lowered their metabolism so much they can get by on the stored calories.  Groundhogs like other herbivores have the ability to convert complex carbohydrates into protein and fats.  (Grasses, clover, and goldenrods pass right through our digestive systems without leaving any calories for our bodies to use.)

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Before hibernating, groundhogs seal the entrances to their burrow with dirt which maintains the temperature at a balmy 50+ degrees.  Then they curl up into a ball in their leaf lined hibernation chamber.  Many people don’t realize that groundhogs rouse periodically during their slumber (some call it a deep coma) to walk around their burrow and go to the bathroom (explaining the bathroom chamber).  This periodic activity probably prevents damage to the brain, organs, muscles and bones that one would expect after such a long period of inactivity.

So when Maureen asks me what I plan to do on a winter weekend; I am joking when I tell her that I plan to “hibernate” with a good book by the woodstove.  (You can decide which part of that statement is the joke.)

Sources:  Joseph F. Merritt’s Guide to the Mammals of Pensylvania,  Audubon Field Guide to Mammals.

Mariton: Signs of the Season

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

Snow shoe tracks

(My snowshoe tracks on the Main Trail, in the meadow.)

I have been snow shoeing on the trails this week.  The conditions have been good, and it has been great to get out in the woods.

I really enjoy walking in the snow to look at tracks and figure out what animals are doing.  Long before we had trail cameras, “woodsmen” could read the subtlest signs in nature.  I think I am a pretty good tracker, but know I am nowhere as good as my Grandpa.  Technology has dulled our senses, and lack of use has weakened our skills.  Anyone should be able to find tracks in the snow though.  It is fun to flex our primordial muscles and figure out what the tracks are telling us.

Fox hunted here

(A fox hunted here.)

The photo above shows where a fox dug into the snow for a rodent.  Foxes can hear rodents, like voles, moving under a few feet of snow.

Deer bed

(The dark oval is a deer bed.)

So far this winter has been fun, because there have been frequent little snow events.  These little flurries help me gauge when the animal walked by.  There is just enough snow in the deer bed in the photo above for me to know that a deer slept right in the middle of the River Lookout Trail yesterday afternoon.  My fresh tracks are just to the right of the deer bed.

It was time spent with Grandpa, and my fascination with tracks as a child that has helped me retain some tracking skills.  It is never too late to start practicing, and this winter is ideal.

 

Enjoy Winter! Birds of a Feather

by Tim Burris, Mariton Preserve Manager.  Photos by Carole Mebus.

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Last winter I wrote of a series of Blog posts that listed my tips for dressing for success during the winter.  If you want to review, you can click on this Enjoy Winter! link.

This winter, I thought I would touch on adaptations used by local wildlife to survive frigid temperatures.  I’ll start the series with birds.  (Much thanks to Carole Mebus whose photos illustrate several of my points perfectly.)  Birds have an interesting strategy for dealing with the cold.  Many people think that birds migrate to escape the cold, but that isn’t completely true.  Most birds migrate to find food.  If you eat flying insects, finding food becomes difficult when it gets cold.  So, you either change your diet, or follow your food to some place where it is warmer.  On the other hand, if food is available through the winter why risk the dangers of migrating?  Birds that feed on seeds, dried berries and burrowing insects can find enough calories to survive the cold winter.  Here are some of the ways that they do it.

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Insulation.  The best sleeping bags and jackets use goose down because down provides amazing insulation.  Down has lots of air spaces to trap heat.  Birds “fluff” up on the coldest days to make their insulating down layer even thicker with more air spaces.  To further protect from heat loss, outer feathers serve as a shell, providing a barrier to heat loss, as well as another insulation layer.  The oils on outer feathers repel water and add even more insulation.

Migrating birds add fat reserves to help provide fuel over lengthy migrations.  Wintering birds also add fat reserves in the fall that will provide an extra layer of insulation, and important calories in times of need.

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Furnace.  Birds are warm-blooded and have high metabolisms.  Their hearts are more efficient than ours, and they maintain higher body temperatures.  So the internal furnace runs hotter, but that means it takes more fuel to maintain.  We can help by putting out foods with lots of fat calories, such as suet and oily seeds.

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Circulation.  Birds have a neat adaptation that allows them to restrict blood flow to their feet and legs where heat would be rapidly lost.  Think about ducks standing on the ice, or a Cardinal perched on an ice-coated branch.  They can reduce the volume of blood reaching those extremities by constricting arteries.

They also use a technique copied recently by home heating technology.  They facilitate heat exchange by running arteries (warm blood flowing away from the heart) next to veins (cooled blood flowing back to the heart).  In this way, warm arteries exchange heat to leg veins before that blood renters the body core.  So, blood returning to the heart is not as cold, which reduces fuel needs in keeping blood warm.

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Of course, eventually extremities in severe situations would freeze (much as we would get frost bite).  So, a bird’s body can release short bursts of warm blood to keep the tissue alive.  It is quite an amazing adaptation.

Torpor.  It is a risky adaptation, but severe situations call for extreme measures.  Many birds can temporarily lower their metabolisms and body temperatures to enter a state called torpor.  It allows the bird to conserve energy at a cost of being virtually immobile during torpor.   When human body temperatures drop significantly, the condition is called hypothermia.  Hypothermia can be deadly for humans without medical aid.  But birds can come out of torpor and raise their core temperatures back to normal when the weather improves, or food becomes available again.

Behavior.  There are lots of simple things that birds (and smart people) do to conserve heat.

Get out of the wind.  Whether you stand behind a tree or nestle into a spruce tree, getting out of the wind is important to retaining body heat.  Grouse even bury themselves in snow banks.

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Perch in the sun.  There have been lots of mornings perched in a tree stand when I really appreciated the sun as it rose above the horizon.  Watch birds in cold weather and you will witness them taking advantage of the sun.

Tuck.  Just as we tuck cold hands under our arms for warmth, birds can insert their face or feet into the insulation of their feathers to warm their extremities.

Shiver.  It is a short term solution, but in both humans and birds shivering is the body’s method of burning calories to generate heat.

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Find a friend.  Some birds roost together and share body heat.  I have occasionally found chickadees bundled together in nest boxes during the winter.  But in the absence of a cavity, birds can huddle together on a protected branch.

You can help.  If you have bird feeders, keeping them full of high quality foods during the winter is important.  Food is fuel for a bird’s heating system.  (If you have ever run out heating oil, gas or electricity during the winter you can understand the consequences wildlife running out of food.)  Shoveling patches of snow under feeders and around the yard can also expose food for foraging birds.

Providing habitat around your feeding area is also important.  Planting food producing shrubs in your yard is a good start.  I also place unsold Christmas trees around the bird blind to provide shelter (from both weather and predators).  They lose their needles in the spring, but still provide safe perches until the following December 26th.  Put out roosting shelters where birds can snuggle together during bad weather or a cold night.  These can be as simple as a bird box, a shelf under your house’ s eaves, or a hollow log protected from predators.

Birds delight us with their flight, colors, and songs.  The winter is hard for them too, but how they deal with the weather makes them even more amazing to bird watchers.

Sources:  The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior,  Melissa Mayntz, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Mariton: Spring Break is Relative

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

Two of my friends visited over the weekend to escape winter .  As you ponder their sanity, you have to put a few things in perspective.  My buddy Paul lives just south of Buffalo, NY. He had a long, snowy and cold winter.  Paul called Bruce, who lives north of Pittsburg, to plead:  “I need a break!”  Bruce had already been contemplating a lateral migration to visit the Martin Guitar museum and factory, so suggested they call me.  It was a great idea!

They arrived during last week’s big chill, but for Paul it was an improvement.  The guitar factory was a pretext, but since we share a love for guitars, canoes and the outdoors, it was a great excuse for them to get away.  To continue the guitar theme we visited local luthier, Bill Mitchell.  That was great inspiration to play guitar in front of the wood stove in the evenings.  (We usually play guitars around a campfire, so this was close.)

We spent a lot of time hiking the trails.  Most of the trails on the south side of the hill are clear now, and Paul and Bruce were happy to get out in the woods.  I lapsed into naturalist mode when they asked about trees and birds.

Delaware River in March

The lakes were still frozen, so we canoed on the Delaware River on Saturday morning .  The wind was gusting, the sun was hidden, but we were glad to be traveling on liquid water for a change.  (We wore dry suits and life vests, so we were comfy and prepared for any mishaps – none of which happened.)   The ducks were flighty and we only got long distance views of them.  But this was new water for Paul and Bruce, so they were taking in all the sights and sounds.

Delaware River 3.15.14

When we returned to Mariton, the sun finally appeared and we wore t-shirts as we sat on the patio.  Paul’s experience is a good reminder that while this spring is reluctant, it is close at hand.  Paul left Buffalo in a snow storm on Thursday, and returned on Sunday to snow showers with a smile on his face.

Enjoy Winter! The Core of the Matter.

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

I have outlined ways to keep our extremities (feet, head, and hands) warm during the winter in this series.  However, you need to keep the core of your body warm to make all those methods work.  Heat retention and heat regulation is similar when it comes to the core.   It is good to start with an under layer that will keep you warm, but dry, during strenuous activity.  While those old waffle knit cotton long johns had great insulation, they were lousy when it came to wicking moisture away from the body.

If you haven’t caught on yet, I love wool.  I have merino wool thermal underwear that is light, and warm.  It is my go-to underwear for cold, stationary activities.  You can feel the warmth as soon as you put it on.  Wool also seems to regulate heat well.  (So, I don’t usually overheat when I get back inside.)

My only problem with wool is it is relatively expensive.  “Stuff” happens at work and I don’t’ want to rip it on multiflora rose, sharp tools, or other equipment.  So, I often rely on synthetic thermal underwear for everyday use.  There has been an explosion of synthetic fabric technology in recent years.  The polyester blends are usually proprietary information for manufacturers, so I just stick with mid-weight options in my price range.  These products work well for a range of activities and temperatures.

For my second layer, I might add another set of thermal underwear if it is cold and I will be stationary.  My everyday work layer is a flannel shirt if I feel I will stay dry, otherwise it would be light wool sweater.   I might add a fleece, wool or down vest if I need more warmth but don’t want to restrict movement in my arms.  My regular work shell is an insulated canvas jacket with a hood.  The canvas is fairly wind and water resistant.  The hood helps regulate heat loss from my head and keep my neck warm.  Otherwise I have a closet of wool jackets and coats.  I also have nylon shells for snowy activities like cross country skiing.  I usually wear jeans, but have shells in case it is wet.  Gore-Tex coats and shells are ideal for the winter.  Down jackets are also great in the winter.

A couple things that I have found useful are tops and coats with a product called Windstopper.  It is a liner fabric (similar to Gore-tex) that blocks wind.  It is great for heat retention, especially when the wind is a factor.  Turtlenecks are often overlooked for keeping warm.  I think keeping heat from escaping the core is an important function of the turtleneck.  They also negate the use of a scarf and keep my neck warm.    I have a few wool dickeys that I keep in my winter arsenal.  Dickeys are the butt of many jokes, but they add an extra layer over the heart and back, yet they don’t restrict movement.  (They can also be removed relatively easily if you are getting overheated.)

Winter isn’t over yet.  While we are getting tired of the shoveling, there is still fun to be found outside.  Like the Scandinavian saying goes:  “There is no bad weather, just bad clothing.”

Enjoy Winter! Hands

by Tim Burris, Mariton Preserve Manager

Like our feet, our hands and fingers are a distance from our heart.  So, cold hands are a common complaint of people during the winter.  Keeping hands warm has its own challenges.  We do so many things with our fingers, that many of us wear gloves during the winter.  Gloves are going to be colder than mittens because they separate our fingers, and provide more surface area for heat loss.  Adding to that challenge; I find myself often removing my gloves for tactile jobs.  In cases like this, it would be wiser to wear mittens and remove them when I need my finger tips to do tasks.  Even better would be wearing a thin glove with the finger tips cut off inside of a mitten.

Wool Gloves

(Military surplus glove liners.)

One of my favorites are military surplus wool glove liners.  I wear them as regular gloves most of the time.  They are ambidextrous, so they fit either hand comfortably.  They are inexpensive.  They are thin enough that many things can be done without removing them – and they can be worn under mittens or work gloves.  They have long cuffs that keep my wrists warm.  They are easy to wash.  When the finger tips wear out, you can make them into fingerless gloves and keep using them.  Most importantly, they are wool, so they are warm even when wet.  If you can’t wear wool, there are polypropylene and fleece liners that would make a good substitute.

Insulated gloves

Besides my wool liners, I have a pair of insulated gloves with a thin layer of Thinsulate.  They have a leather palm and finger grips, so they are more durable.  They are thin enough to be serviceable for tactile projects.  I wish they had a longer cuff, but they are becoming one of my favorites.  Like my wool liners, I can wear these gloves inside some mittens.  I have never liked the big insulated ski gloves.  They are warm, but too bulky for most of my needs, but I think they would be ideal for a lot of people’s outside winter needs.

Mittens and liners

(Mittens with wool liners.)

I have a pair of military surplus mittens that I just love.  They have a trigger finger, which is handy for power equipment.  They also have long cuffs for added warmth and snow protection.  They usually come with heavy wool liner mittens that are really warm.  For warm activities, like shoveling snow, I often just wear the over-mitten without any liner.

Some people really like the glo-mitts.  These are basically fingerless gloves, but have a mitten that folds over to cover the fingers when you don’t aren’t doing fine tasks.  If I hadn’t discovered the wool liners first, I would probably like glo-mitts.  My issue with them is all the fingers on  both hands are exposed.  I usually just need a couple finger tips on one hand for my jobs, so don’t care to expose all of my fingers to the cold.

My hands have two cold spots.  My thumbs and forefingers have suffered frost-nip a number of times during my life.  So, when these areas get cold they become absolutely numb and frozen, and it takes quite awhile to get them warm again.  That is why I like to customize my fingerless gloves.  The other cold spots are my wrists.  That is why long cuffs on mittens and gloves that serve and extra layer of insulation are important to me.

Finally, there are the gloves with pockets for chemical heat warmers.  These can be great because they heat the blood that is going to the hands.  I don’t have a pair of these gloves (yet), but carry the warmers in my pockets for my hands on cold days.

Keeping your hands warm goes a long way to helping you enjoy the winter.  Find the right glove or mitten combination for the activity you will be doing and you will be able to have fun in the cold for hours.

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