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  1. In search of otherworldly sights? Just find the right icy pond. On certain days during Boston’s long winter, residents can glimpse the stars by looking down. On the dove-colored surfaces of frozen ponds or lakes, shapes appear, rounded in the center with spiky arms stretching outward. The water, a scramble of gray and white, seems to mirror a star-pricked sky. Instead of appearing brighter than their surroundings, as their spacefaring counterparts do, these shapes are darker, showcasing the deep blue below. The moody wells and meandering branches might evoke a tie-dyed shirt or a squashed spider, legs akimbo. (Or, if your mind’s eye gazes inward, maybe the forking dendrites of a nerve.) Scientists have dubbed these shapes “lake stars,” and they speckle frozen water from Boston to Boulder, Chicago to Sweden. The celestial cast we meet on cloudless nights begins in dust. Those stars grow under immense pressure, in hot, collapsing clouds. Lake stars also grow under particular conditions: Temperature and precipitation have to be right. Lake stars are born when warm water wells up from beneath a thin layer of ice, covered with a just-thick-enough coating of snow and slush. It’s a meteorological Goldilocks situation. “If the initial ice is not thin enough, the warm water from below has difficulty seeping through. If the snow layer is not thick enough, then the water seepage doesn’t occur,” says Victor Tsai, a geophysicist at Brown University and coauthor, with Yale physicist John Wettlaufer, of a 2007 paper conveniently titled “Star patterns on lake ice.” The perfect lake star porridge is a short-but-mighty cold snap that freezes ice an inch or two thick, followed by warmer days that bump the ice temperature above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, “allowing it to become leaky,” National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Charles Knight wrote in a 1999 edition of the magazine Weatherwise. “Finally,” Knight continued, “in this ideal scenario, a cold front goes by, dropping several inches of snow.” The initial central hole could be formed by any number of things—a rock or branch splashing into the water, for instance, or the antics of an animal. Some appear at regular intervals. In the 1980s, other researchers, including Kristina Katsaros, then an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, speculated that the stars were a product of convection in the water, in which temperature differences cause water layers to shift, with warm water gathering near the surface and cool, dense water descending. Tsai and Wettlaufer didn’t dive into the origin of the circles in their 2007 paper, but they laid out a mathematical model to describe the formation of the reaching arms. Tsai and Wettlaufer then took their model for a spin in the lab, by dribbling water with a temperature of 1 degree Celsius (just above freezing) though a thin layer of slush spread atop a circular plate held just below freezing. They found that the number of tendrils reaching out from the center was typically between five and eight (but out in the wild, slushy yonder, results may vary). Studded with pockets of air, snow has pores through which water can wander. “If one location has a little bit more water flow than another, it tends to melt faster,” Tsai says. “This is the fundamental reason why the fingers form.” The reason that the spots don’t sprout zillions of fingers is that “heat likes to distribute itself evenly in space,” Tsai adds. “If one region is a little warmer than another, over time the temperatures tend to even out.” The flow promotes the fingers fanning out from the center, and the heat distribution curtails the zigs and zags. Wettlaufer says that, more than a decade after their paper came out, hole formation remains a little murky. Getting clarity on those mechanics might require a scalable lab experiment, he says. “Or someone really needs to set up an array of cameras or fly a drone systematically over an actual lake.” Meanwhile, as scientists continue to probe the celestial realm and rove alien worlds, lake stars remain one of winter’s loveliest mysteries here at home. View the full article
  2. A lobster recently caught off the coast of Maine is raising eyebrows thanks to its striking and incredibly rare yellow coloring. View the full article
  3. Low-cost seismometers could give rural communities an alert system, or begin to decipher elephant communication. When individuals in a group of elephants have been separated, even for the briefest of moments, they get rather excited upon reuniting. “They’re sort of like dogs who’ve come back to their owners after being separated for 15 minutes. Super excited, they’re saying, ‘Where have you been, it’s so good to see you again,’” says Oliver Lamb, a geophysicist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They get really happy, they’re really happy to see each other again.” It may seem a little odd that a geophysicist is describing elephant behavior, but Lamb isn’t just a fan. He’s using the tools of his trade—namely, seismometers—to see if he can listen in on these signs of joy. Seismometers are primarily designed to detect the seismic waves emanating from temblors: earthquakes, moonquakes, marsquakes. But these little boxes of mechanical magic are so sensitive these days that they can detect rumblings made by all sorts of things, from the sounds of hurricanes and snowmelt to the thumping rhythm of humanity. In recent years, scientists have been using them to listen to elephants, both the noises they make with their feet and their 110-decibel yawps. “The vocalizations are very loud,” says Lamb. “I don’t know if you’ve been close to elephants, but they really shake your whole body, they’re quite intense noises.” Those sounds shake the ground, too, making their own seismic noise. There are a few reasons scientists want to do this, but chief among them is conservation: Seismometers may be an effective way to track elephants, remotely and without disturbing them. It’s a promising idea, but Kate Evans, the founder and director of the nonprofit Elephants for Africa, says that affordability is key. High-tech seismometers can run upwards of $10,000 a pop, something that elephant monitoring efforts can’t always afford. “So much of this technology is just not applicable in the context of conservation,” she says. So Lamb and his colleagues wanted to know if a low-cost (that’s $1,000 or lower) seismometer could have some use. He opted for Raspberry Shake and Boom devices, which can pick up on acoustic waves traveling through the atmosphere and seismic waves zipping through the ground. They have already been shown to pick up earthquakes, avalanches, rocket launches, and meteors exploding in the air, so it seemed worth a shot. The team headed out to Adventures With Elephants, a 750-acre savannah reserve in Bela Bela, South Africa. “These elephants in particular, they’ve been rescued from situations where they could have otherwise been shot or killed,” Lamb explains. There, the team set up a series of Shake and Booms at varying distances from a group of seven African elephants, including adults and calves. These seismometers are designed to be deployed at home. You simply plug them into the wall, hook them up to the internet, and voilà, you have your own personal quake-tracker. That set up is impossible in the wild, so the team retrofitted them with solar-powered car batteries and storage devices that could be picked up when the experiment was over. As a first test, the objective was simply to see if the elephant vocalizations and locomotion could even be detected. The work focused on the aforementioned elephant reunions and their jubilant squeals. For the sake of comparison, more technically capable devices were also set up around the reserve. As reported last month in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science, it wasn’t quite as successful as the team had hoped. The quality of the vocalization signals dropped off precipitously with distance. The farthest a low-cost sensor was able to detect an elephant’s trumpeting was about 650 feet away. The drumbeat of elephant feet could be recorded within a 165-foot range. Neither result is ideal for tracking, but tweaks can be made. The seismometers were simply placed in soil, whose the loose grains can muffle incoming seismic signals. Ideally, explains Lamb, concrete vaults would help, and they’re standard practice for seismometers: The vaults shake in response to seismic waves, essentially making them more sensitive to signals. Refinements are needed, but experts agree that low-cost seismometers can play a role in conservation. African elephants are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and “endangered” in some regions. According to Vicky Boult, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Reading not involved with the work, who has studied African elephants for nearly a decade, both climate change and human-wildlife conflict are pressing concerns. “It’s a growing problem in Africa, because we’re seeing human populations expand into natural landscapes,” she says, which can lead to clashes that can be deadly on both sides. Lamb’s low-cost seismometers could give rural communities a cost-effective alert system for when elephants are heading toward their homes or farms. The cheap, easily set up devices could be placed around known elephant gathering sites nearby, such as watering holes, and set to “send out an early warning message via SMS to the farmers in the area,” says Evans, who also was not involved in the project. This would allow the opportunity to avoid the elephants or deploy a nonviolent deterrent. Evans suggests “burning chili with dried dung”—an all-natural tear gas that the elephants would seek to avoid. When the pandemic ends and travel restrictions are lifted, Lamb hopes to conduct more tests with low-cost seismometers to see if they might be helpful in tracking elephants as they move across the landscape, and even deciphering their long-distance communication. Elephants are often tagged with GPS collars, “but they can be quite stressful for elephants. You have to go up to them, tranquilize them, separate them from the herd,” says Lamb. The collars can also sometimes irritate the elephant’s skin if not fitted properly. Seismometers could, in some places, remove the need for them. Prior work has revealed that elephant vocalizations are remarkably complex symphonies packed with information that helps elephants coordinate their movements, notify others of their moods and reproductive states, and distinguish friends from strangers. And they don’t just use their ears. Their feet pick up on the seismic waves made by other herds. Lamb and his colleagues hope they can use seismometers to unravel this advanced form of long-distance communication. Machine learning algorithms could even be deployed to differentiate between various elephants’ signature rumblings. Seismometers could, in theory, autonomously identify individuals within herds. It’s still very early days, but this technology could take a place alongside GPS, drones, satellites, and staff as “another tool to add to the toolkit” of conservationists, says Boult. And they’ve already given scientists not usually seen studying living things a newfound appreciation for wildlife biology. “They’re incredibly gentle animals. They have a presence that I never realized before, one you don’t get from places like zoos,” says Lamb. “They’re amazing animals.” View the full article
  4. In botanic gardens, the lineage of a famously smelly plant is threatened. What can save it? This story was originally published on Undark and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. The alien-like blooms and putrid stench of Amorphophallus titanum, better known as the corpse flower, draw big crowds and media coverage to botanical gardens each year. In 2015, for instance, around 75,000 people visited the Chicago Botanic Garden to see one of their corpse flowers bloom. More than 300,000 people viewed it online. But despite the corpse flower’s fame, its future is uncertain. The roughly 500 specimens that were living in botanical gardens and some university and private collections as of 2019 are deeply related—a lack of genetic diversity that can make them more vulnerable to a host of problems, such as disease or a changing climate. Corpse flowers aren’t doing much better in their native home of Sumatra, where they are dwindling because of deforestation for lumber and crops. In 2018, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the plant as endangered. There are fewer than 1,000 individuals still in the wild. To combat the lack of genetic diversity in the corpse flower and six other species with shallow gene pools, the Chicago Botanic Garden spearheaded the Tools and Resources for Endangered and Exceptional Plant Species (TREES) program in 2019. The program will see widespread genetic testing across partnering botanic gardens, as The New York Times reported in December. This allows participants to create a database of the plants’ family trees, so to speak, to make more informed breeding choices and increase genetic diversity. TREES could pave the way for future plant reintroductions into the wild, should any of the seven species continue to dwindle or come too close to extinction, says Jeremie Fant, a conservation scientist with the Chicago Botanic Garden, which leads the efforts for the corpse flower. However, some experts express concern about bringing genetics from foreign-grown plants into their native habitats. The corpse flower is a tricky plant to preserve outside its native habitat. It blooms rarely and it has specific heat and humidity requirements to mimic its native habitat. Like many of the plants in the TREES program, the finicky flower also produces recalcitrant seeds, which can’t be easily stored because drying and freezing—the main way seeds are preserved—will kill them. Other plants in the program simply produce too few seeds to make seed banking a viable option. While the Chicago Botanic Garden is taking charge of the corpse flower, the National Tropical Botanic Garden in Hawai’i is heading the collecting and testing of two species: Hibiscus waimeae and the critically endangered Phyllostegia electra. There are two other botanic gardens heading up other species to tackle this widespread issue. “We at botanic gardens have to work together to save some species,” Fant says. “Because we can’t do it on our own.” Currently, most plant conservation happens in seed banks, such as the International Potato Center in Peru and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria. These banks of genetic information regularly freeze seeds for long-term research and use. In Arctic Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds a backup collection of seeds from around the world in case local stores are compromised. But this doesn’t work for plants with recalcitrant seeds. Usually, it is warm-climate plants—including the corpse flower—that produce these seeds, but there are exceptions, including oak. According to research out of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom, 36 percent of critically endangered plants have recalcitrant seeds. Many well-known crops also produce recalcitrant seeds, such as coconuts. If a plant is socioeconomically important and produces recalcitrant seeds — like coconuts — conservationists will often create what are called “field gene banks,” according to Nigel Maxted, a professor of plant genetic conservation at the University of Birmingham, who isn’t part of the TREES program. These field gene banks have many of the same plants growing in the same area. They take up a lot of space, and the proximity of the plants to each other opens them up to other threats as well. “Disease could very easily go through the whole lot,” Maxted says. As such, preserving plant species by spreading individual plants across many botanic gardens, or other collections, can be a useful bulwark against extinction, because it greatly decreases the likelihood that every single plant will die at once, says Susan Pell, deputy executive director of the United States Botanic Garden, a TREES participant. “We at botanic gardens have to work together to save some species, because we can’t do it on our own.” But fostering genetic diversity in the botanic gardens can be difficult, especially with finicky and rare plants. Like many plants, corpse flowers can reproduce in different ways. Sometimes, they reproduce asexually: a tuber-like bulge at the base of their stem, called a corm, grows large and eventually splits, producing multiple genetically identical plants. While this has effectively grown the raw number of corpse flowers in botanic gardens, it has done little for the population’s genetic diversity. Corpse flowers can also reproduce sexually, which requires pollination by insects—or, in botanic gardens, by humans wielding paint brushes. There’s no set schedule for a corpse flower to bloom; each plant takes a variable number of years and blooms unpredictably based on conditions such as heat, light, humidity, and other factors. To help breed on this unpredictable schedule, the Chicago Botanic Garden is creating a store of corpse flower pollen, which can be sent across the country when another specimen that isn’t closely related blooms. These targeted cross-pollination efforts could lead to more genetically robust offspring. While TREES has yet to lead to a crossing of corpse flowers, the Chicago Botanic Garden has used the methodology to strategically cross another plant called Brighamia insignis, also known as a cabbage-on-a-stick plant, which is critically endangered. The TREES program is starting from a place of low genetic diversity for the corpse flower and its peers. Over the last 100 years, there have only been 20 documented collections of the plants from the wild for botanic gardens. Sometimes, botanic gardens will get rare plant genetics from nurseries and private collections. For example, three of the U.S. Botanic Garden’s corpse flowers were acquired as seeds from a plant grower in Hawai’i. But, as collecting plants from the wild can be difficult and expensive, the botanic gardens will usually propagate the specimens and share the offspring with other collections. In the case of plants with low genetic diversity, this means an increase in raw numbers, but does little for genetic health. “In terms of genetic diversity, it’s hopeless,” Maxted says. TREES may help, he adds. The program’s approach has been successfully deployed in the animal kingdom for a long time. For example, many zoos and conservation efforts create studbooks, or documents used to track the family trees of specific species. This tactic has been used to follow the lineages of myriad threatened species around the world, including the red panda. “In general, all you’re looking for is to maximize variation,” Maxted says. While TREES could increase genetic diversity for domestic corpse flowers, some researchers aren’t sure the flower—and plants more generally—should necessarily be reintroduced into the wild. This is particularly true for plants in botanic gardens that are located far away from their native range. There are two competing trains of thought, Pell says. The first is that only nearby plants should be reintroduced into an area. For the corpse flower, this could mean pulling from the Bogor Botanical Garden in Indonesia, which has a few specimens. The other supports the idea of putting foreign-grown plants back into nature and letting natural selection play out, even if it means that the foreign plants may thrive or outcompete their wild counterparts. (While TREES aims to make it possible to reintroduce the corpse flower into the wild, should conservationists decide it is necessary, so far there have not been any efforts to do so.) Reintroduction can also take a lot of time, money, and effort, says Joyce Maschinski, director of plant conservation at San Diego Zoo Global and president and CEO of the Center for Plant Conservation. So can the long-term monitoring and care that the plants would need to thrive in the wild. Similarly, moving plants across borders can be difficult, and the laws surrounding it vary from country to country, although, she adds, moving pollen or seeds from botanic garden plants is likely easier. Despite the challenges, conservation organizations and botanic gardens have gotten good at reintroducing plants, Maschinski says. The groups provide more monitoring, record-keeping, and caring for the plants after they are placed in the wild, including fencing off newly-planted areas and watering them. For some plants, the approach may be the only hope. While there are concerns about reintroducing foreign-grown plants back into the wild, Maschinski adds, particularly rare species may otherwise go extinct. If a future comes when reintroduction becomes a necessity, efforts like TREES could ensure a healthy and diverse population of corpse flowers and other endangered plants, Fant says. The researchers involved in TREES also say they hope that the methods could be rolled out to other species that could benefit, as the need arises. The program is already growing, and asking for samples from botanic gardens—including groups outside of the U.S. like the Bogor Botanic Garden. “I sort of think of the corpse flower as the panda of the plant world in a lot of ways.” According to Maschinski, plants are primary producers in their natural habitats, and, as such, preserving some plant species can have a “cascade effect” on the environment—they feed bugs, which feed birds which feed animals, for instance. But according to Pell, the corpse flower’s role in its native habitat is relatively unknown. Whether or not it’s a keystone species, the corpse flower could still be a valuable ambassador, one that raises awareness of the plight faced by many other species, she says. “I sort of think of the corpse flower as the panda of the plant world in a lot of ways,” she says. “It is just so fascinating and people are so taken in by it that it can be the kind of spokesperson for the importance of conserving all of our biodiversity, and certainly in the plant world.” Even if the TREES program doesn’t lead to reintroduction in the wild, there’s value in protecting the corpse flower in botanic gardens, says Cyrille Claudel, a biologist at the University of Hamburg. It also might be easier to simply leave the plants alone in the wild, he says, rather than attempting to bring them back. Safeguarding captive corpse flowers would allow the curious to continue their research on the plants—or allow people to simply marvel at them. The plant is also worth saving just for its own sake, Claudel adds: “It’s probably just the coolest species on Earth, so I would very much like it to be preserved in nature, and cultivation.” View the full article
  5. 62 Year-Old Snake Lays ‘Miracle Eggs’ The oldest snake in captivity – known only as 361003 – hasn’t been near a male python for two decades On July 23, a 62-year-old female Ball Python laid seven eggs despite having been separated from any male pythons for at least two decades. The manager of the St. Louis Zoo said that it is not unknown for Ball Pythons to produce without a mate, or even to reproduce asexually. Some snakes will store sperm in their bodies for ‘delayed fertilization.’ It is, however, unusual for this species of snake to lay eggs after they reach 60 years of age. Three of the eggs are at present in an incubator and two are being used for genetic sampling to find clues to the unusual event. Two of the embryos did not survive. Although the snake was given to the zoo by a private owner in 1961, it is known only by the number “361003.” Source Associated Press
  6. The California peak’s striking presence and geological complexity have inspired many believers. There’s a well-known legend that says that somewhere deep beneath Northern California’s 14,179-foot-tall Mount Shasta is a complex of tunnels and a hidden city called Telos, the ancient “City of Light” for the Lemurians. They were the residents of the mythical lost continent of Lemuria, which met its demise under the waves of the Pacific (or the Indian Ocean, depending on who you ask) thousands of years ago. Lemurians believed to have survived the catastrophe are said to have settled in Telos, and over the years their offspring have been sporadically reported wandering around the area: seven-feet-tall, with long flowy hair, often clad in sandals and white robes. Lemurians aren’t the only unusual figures said to inhabit this stand-alone stratovolcano, easily seen from Interstate 5, about 60 miles south of the Oregon border. Mount Shasta is believed to be a home base for the Lizard People, too, reptilian humanoids that also reside underground. The mountain is a hotbed of UFO sightings, one of the most recent of which occurred in February 2020. (It was a saucer-shaped lenticular cloud.) In fact, the mountain is associated with so many otherworldly, paranormal, and mythical beings—in addition to long-established Native American traditions—that it’s almost like a who’s who of metaphysics. It has attracted a legion of followers over the years, including “Poet of the Sierras” Joaquin Miller and naturalist John Muir, as well as fringe religious organizations such as the Ascended Masters, who believe that they’re enlightened beings existing in higher dimensions. What is it about this mountain in particular that inspires so much belief? “There's a lot about Mount Shasta, and volcanoes in general, that are difficult to explain,” says Andrew Calvert, scientist-in-charge at the California Volcano Observatory, “and when you're having difficulty explaining something, you try and understand it.” Calvert has studied Shasta’s eruptive history since 2001. “It’s such a complicated and rich history,” he says, “and Shasta itself is also very visually powerful. These qualities build on each other to make it a profound place for a lot of people—geologists, spirituality seekers … even San Francisco tech folks, and hunters and gatherers from 10,000 years ago. It’s one that can have a really strong effect on your psyche.” Mount Shasta is one of the most prominent of all the Cascade volcanoes, an arc that runs from southwestern British Columbia to Northern California, and includes Washington’s Mount Rainier and Oregon’s Mount Hood, among others. “It’s so steep and so tall that it even creates its own weather,” says Calvert. This includes the spaceship-looking lenticular clouds that tend to form around the mountain, created, he says, “by a humid air mass that hits the volcano, and then has to go up a little bit to cool off.” But they only contribute to Shasta’s supernatural allure, along with its ice-clad peak, steaming fumaroles, and shape-shifting surface that’s being constantly broken down and rebuilt by ice, water, wind, and debris. The mountain also sits about 15 miles or so west of the standard arc line of the other Cascade volcanoes—a move that took place about 700,000 years ago. “We don’t really have a good explanation for why it moved out there,” Calvert says, a statement that seems to make Mount Shasta appear more mysterious by the minute. The spiritual legacy goes far deeper than contemporary myths and sightings. For Native Americans in particular, Mount Shasta is a sacred place, straddling the territories of the Shasta, Wintu, Achumawi, Atsugewi, and Modoc tribes, which can date their lineages back to a time when eruptions actually took place there. (Its last eruption, says Calvert, was a little over 3,000 years ago.) “Shasta is where G'mokumk, the creator, resided and the original bones of the Modoc people are placed,” says Taylor Tupper, a Modoc Indian of the Klamath Tribes, raised in the Klamath Basin just north of Shasta. “I always bring offerings such as water or tobacco when I visit,” she says, “because I never want to come to the mountain in a bad way.” But Tupper knows that there’s more to Shasta than that, even. “We'd be silly to think that we're the only ones here in this vast universe,” she says, pointing out that the volcano is also home to the matah kagmi, the Modoc word for Bigfoot, which are known as the “keepers of the woods.” “Bigfoot have been in existence as long as our people have,” says Tupper. “I haven’t seen them myself, but maybe I wasn’t chosen to see them. I have different gifts.” As does Phillip Dawson, a California Volcano Observatory geophysicist who has spent nearly four decades looking at how volcanoes work, listening to the noises of their magmatic and fluid processes (which he calls “talking”), and interpreting those signals in terms of physical processes. He studies volcanoes in a strictly scientific way, but also admits that “like the vast dimensions of this universe, there are unlimited interpretations of place.” So wherever he’s working, he finds out about the local spirits or gods, “and then I ask for their forbearance as I try to understand what they’re saying,” he says. “I guess that means I’m hedging my bets.” Shasta is an entirely different beast for Dawson, however, because it’s also home. “I grew up in the city of Shasta,” he says. “My father was a geology professor at the College of the Siskiyous in nearby Weed, and for years he cotaught a course called the History and Geology of Siskiyou County alongside history professor Jim Ray. I’d drive around with them and my dad would wave his arms about the geology of the county and Ray would tell how those features and humans interacted over time.” This has taught Dawson a lot about ways physical processes can inspire belief, from the metaphysical, such as Es Vedrà, Spain, a solitary limestone island that’s said to be an energy vortex of healing, to the traditional, such as Uluru, a massive sandstone monolith in the Australian Outback that’s sacred to Aboriginal Australians. But it’s volcanoes that Dawson can speak to best. “I've worked in many different places and almost always if you stop and listen people will tell stories about their volcanoes,” he says. “Almost inevitably, people tend to ascribe their violent processes to some kind of god or spirit, because they’re just not understandable, and this in turn comes out in oral histories.” Even in that context, Shasta is different, says Dawson. “You’ll find that people who are just traipsing through the area get stuck here,” he says. “The mountain is just so incredible for them. There’s so much energy [at Shasta], trying to figure out what it all means I think is a lifetime job.” It’s why Tupper says she leaves people to their own beliefs about Shasta as well: spiritual, metaphysical, or simply on another plane. “People always ask me about UFOs and such, and I say I’m not going to go poking around in others’ business. Every place you go is sacred or special to someone or something, or was at some point. Treat it all with respect and your spirit will be in tune with nature and the creator, and you won’t be going against spiritual law. If you are going against it, nature will let you know.” View the full article
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