Category Archives: Extinction

Green turtles mistake plastic debris for dead squids, eat them, and die

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Plastic pollution is a popular topic recently and it is not rare to find pictures of animals that died due to plastic ingestion or other complications, such as asphyxia, caused by plastic pieces. However, the cause of plastic ingestion by most species is yet unknown.

Albatross with its stomach filled with plastic pieces.

The leatherback turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, is often mentioned as a species that suffers from plastic ingestion due to its diet composed primarily by jellyfish, which floating plastic bags can be mistaken for. However, another widespread sea turtle, the green turtle, Chelonia mydas, is also a common victim of plastic ingestion and amounts as small as 1 g are enough to kill juvenile specimens by blocking their guts. The diet of juvenile and adult green turtles is composed mainly by seagrass and algae, so the ingestion of plastic must be the result of another cause and not its similarity to jellyfish.

A decaying plastic bag in the ocean looks like a jellyfish. Photo by Wikimedia user Seegraswiese.*

Despite being almost strictly herbivorous, green turtles ingest animal matter when they are very young and can eventually consume animals as adults too, probably as a strategy to survive when their main food source is scarce. The ingestion of animal matter is usually done by scavenging, and a common scavenged item in their diet are dead squids.

A green turtle surrounded by seagrass, its main food source. Photo by Wikimedia user Danjgi.**

A recent study has investigated the relationship between scavenging behavior and plastic consumption in the green turtle and found out that the amount of plastic ingested by individuals feeding on dead squids is much higher than that ingested by individuals that do not present a scavenging behavior. In Brazil, plastic ingestion accounts for about 10% of the deaths of green turtles but this number may be as high as 67% among green turtles that feed on squid carcasses.

The ingestion of dead animals used to be an efficient way for green turtles to gain high amounts of protein. However, the fact that, currently, most floating material in the ocean is plastic and not dead animals turned a successful strategy into a deadly trap. If humans do not start controlling plastic waste production there will be only two possible outcomes for the green turtles in face of this new selective pressure: adaptation or extinction.

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References:

Andrades R, Santos RA, Martins AS, Teles D, Santos RG (2019) Scavenging as a pathway for plastic ingestion by marine animals. Environmental Pollution 248: 159–165. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2019.02.010

Mrosovsky N, Ryan GD, James MC (2009) Leatherback turtles: the menace of plastic. Marine Pollution Bulletin 58(2): 287–289. doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2008.10.018

Santos RG, Andrades R, Boldrini MA, Martins AS (2015) Debris ingestion by juvenile marine turtles: an underestimated problem. Marine Pollution Bulletin 93(1–2): 37–43. doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2015.02.022

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Filed under Behavior, Conservation, Extinction, Pollution, Zoology

Think of the worms, not only of the whales, or: how a planarian saved an ecosystem

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Leia em português

Due to the massive interference of human practices on natural habitats during the past decades, ecosystem restoration has become a trend in order to try to save what is still savable. Unfortunately, the effort of ecologists and other experts alone is not enough to achieve that, and a larger section of the society needs to be engaged in helping reach the goals. In order to do so, it is common to appeal to the beauty and cuteness of endangered species, which usually include mammals and birds, since they are more likely to caught the public’s attention. However, most of the endangered species are invertebrates or other less charismatic beings, and they are often ignored even by biologists.

Hopefully, things are able to change on this matter. Recently the first ecosystem restoration directed to save an invertebrate was successful, and I am here to tell you about it.

The invertebrate in question is a freshwater planarian named Dendrocoelum italicum. It was discovered in 1936 in a cave in northern Italy named Bus del Budrio. Inside the cave, there was a small freshwater pool, about 5 × 5 m or little more, caused by a waterfall from a small stream coming through a narrow elevated corridor. The species is apparently found only in this pool and nowhere else.

There are no available photos of Dendrocoelum italicum, but it should look similar to the widespread Dendrocoelum lacteum seen here, but D. italicum lacks the eyes. Photo by Eduard Solà.*

During the 1980’s, a pipe was installed to divert the water from the stream to a nearby farm. The waterfall ceased to exist and the pool dried up permanently. The planarian survived in a very narrow rivulet that formed inside the cave and some small isolated ponds resulting from water drips. This critical condition of the population was discovered in 2016 by a research group from the University of Milan. They informed the administrators of the cave about the situation and, together, the team started to raise awareness about the situation of the cave among the citizens that benefitted from the reservoir formed by the diverted water, which made the farmer responsible for diverting the water agree to remove the artificial structure.

Image of the inside of the cave. Photo by Livio Mola. Extracted from https://www.naturamediterraneo.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=57050

The removal happened on December 3, 2016 after all the planarians occurring in the rivulet were collected and stored in plastic tanks inside the cave. When the waterfall was restored, it quickly started to fill the old pool again and, one day later, the planarians were released into the pool.

The ecosystem was monitored during the following two years until January 2018. The number of planarians varied greatly during the survey, but was not significantly larger after the restoration from what it was before. However, there was a significant increase in the population of a bivalve species, Pisidium personatum, and a small increase in the population of a crustaceon of the genus Niphargus. Additionally, annelids of the family Haplotaxidae, that were absent in the cave, appeared after restoration. Thus, it is clear that the ecosystem benefited from the reappearance of the pool.

Thanks to the efforts of those researchers, Dendrocoelum italicum now has a better chance to avoid extinction. However, this is not an isolated case. There are many cave-dwelling planarian species all around the world living under similar conditions, usually restricted to a single small pool inside a single cave. Many of those occur, or occurred, as D. italicum, in Italy, but the help came to late for some of them. For example, a closely related species, Dendrocoelum beauchampi, was discovered in 1950 in a cave in northwestern Italy named Grotta di Cavassola, but a recent survey found no planarians inside the cave, which seems to have suffered great alteration due to human activities. Similarly, the species Dendrocoelum benazzi was discovered in 1971 in central Italy in a cave named Grotta di Stiffe, but nowadays, with the cave open to turists and its water polluted, the planarians disappeared. It is very likely that both D. beauchampi and D. benazzi are now extinct. The situation is the same for other Italian species.

Out of Italy, a recently described species living a similar small environment is the Brazilian cave planarian Girardia multidiverticulata, which is known to occur in a small pool about 10 m² inside a cave named Buraco do Bicho in the Cerrado Biome.

Girardia multidiverticulata is a planarian species restricted a small 10 m² pool inside a cave in Brazilian cerrado. Credits to Souza et al. (2015)**

The case of Dendrocoelum italicum shows us it is possible to save small endemic populations of threatened habitats, but we need the help of the public. Let’s hope other ecosystems have a similar happy ending.

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References:

Manenti R, Barzaghi B, Lana E, Stocchino GA, Manconi R, & Lunghi E 2018. The stenoendemic cave-dwelling planarians (Platyhelminthes, Tricladida) of the Italian Alps and Apennines: conservation issues. Journal for Nature Conservation.

Manenti R, Barzaghi B, Tonni G, Ficetola GF, & Melotto A 2018. Even worms matter: cave habitat restoration for a planarian species increased environmental suitability but not abundance. Oryx: 1–6.

Souza ST, Morais ALN, Cordeiro LM, & Leal-Zanchet AM 2015. The first troglobitic species of freshwater flatworm of the suborder Continenticola (Platyhelminthes) from South America. Zookeys 470: 1–16.

Vialli PM 1937. Una nuova specie di Dendrocoelum delle Grotte Bresciane. Bollettino di zoologia 8: 179–187.

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An extinct frog that is still living

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Hybrids, as you probably know, are organisms that arise from the mating of two individuals of different species. A mule, for example, is a well known hybrid between a horse and a donkey. Hybrids are usually sterile, although not all of them are, and some of them have a very peculiar way to continue to exist by using a process called hybridogenesis.

Hybrids that rely on hybridogenesis function in the following way: there are two original species, let’s call them A and B. When they copulate with each other, they produce a hybrid offspring, AB, which has half of the genes from one parent and half from the other. In “normal” hybrids, such creatures are completely sterile, unable to produce viable gametes, or can give rise to a new hybrid species by producing mixed gametes. However, in this peculiar kind of hybrids, called kleptons, things work differently.

800px-rana_ridibunda_ii

Pelophylax kl. hispanicus, the holder of a treasure. Photo by Andreas Thomsen.*

When kleptons are producing gametes, they never recombine the genomes of the two parents, but rather exclude the genome of one of them and produce gametes that contain the genome of the other parent. For example, the hybrid AB produces only A gametes, while the B genome is excluded. This means that if AB mates with a partner of the species A, the offspring will be formed by pure A individuals. If mating with B, the offspring will contain only new AB hybrids.

hybridogenesis_in_water_frogs

The edible frog Pelophylax kl. esculentus is a klepton formed by breeding P. lessonae and P. ridibundus. The klepton only produces gametes of P. ridibundus, eliminating the genome of P. lessonae during meiosis. (Photo by Wikimedia user Darekk2).**

This mode of reproduction is very common in frogs of the genus Pelophylax, as the example seen in the picture above. Another interesting point about kleptons is that they are usually unable to mate with another klepton. They rely on one the parent species to reproduce, therefore “parasitizing” them.

A recently published paper on Pelophylax frogs reports a peculiar case in which one of the parent species is extinct. The klepton, known as Pelophylax kl. hispanicus, is the result of P. bergeri crossing with a now extinct species of Pelophylax. The case is that the gametes that P. kl. hispanicus produce are of the extinct species, but they can only fertilize gametes of P. bergeri. In other words, we could say that the extinct species is still alive inside the klepton, relying on P. bergeri to pass to the next generations.

41598_2017_12942_fig1_html

Pelophylax kl. hispanicus is a klepton that maintains the genome of an extinct species alive. Image extracted from Dubey & Dufresnes (2017).**

The authors suggest that perhaps we could find a way to bring the extinct species back, separated from P. bergeri. Although the result of crossing two P. kl. hispanicus is an sterile offspring, they think that continuous trials may end up revealing an eventual fertile offspring. Is it worth trying? Perhaps. But anyway, this is one more astonishing feature of nature, don’t you agree?

How many more extinct species may be living in a similar way, trapped in a hybrid?

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References:

Wikipedia. Hybridogenesis in water frogs. Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybridogenesis_in_water_frogs&gt;. Access on October 12, 2017.

Dubey, S.; Dufresnes, C. (2017) An extinct vertebrate preserved by its living hybridogenetic descendant. Scientific Reports 7: 12768. https://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-12942-y

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Darwin’s Planaria elegans: hidden, extinct or misidentified?

by Piter Kehoma Boll

During his epic voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin visited Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and collected some amazing land planarians, a group that until then was very little known. One of the species he found was Geoplana vaginuloides, the type-species of the genus Geoplana, at that time named Planaria vaginuloides.

f6387-vaginuloides-pedrabranca40

Geoplana vaginuloides (Darwin, 1844), the first Brazilian land planarian species to be described. Photo by Fernando Carbayo.*

The second species described by Darwin was named Planaria elegans. Darwin’s description is as it follows:

“Position of the orifices as in P. vaginuloides. Anterior part of the body little elongated. Ocelli absent on the anterior extremity, and only a few round the margin of the foot. Colours beautiful; back snow-white, with two approximate lines of reddish brown; near the sides with several very fine parallel lines of the same tint; foot white, exteriorly clouded, together with the margin of the body, with pale blackish purple: body crossed by three colourless rings, in the two posterior of which the orifices are situated. Length 1 inch; breadth more uniform, and greater in proportion to length of the body, than in last species.
Hab. Same as in P. vaginuloides. [Rio de Janeiro]”

And this is all we know about this species. Darwin did not provide any drawing and later researchers did not report this species again, except when mentioning Darwin’s publication. As you can see by the description, it is not very accurate. He does not say what is the breadth of each line or band, neither how many of the “several fine parallel lines of the same tint” there are. Here is a quick drawing I did of how I imagine the creature would be:

image description

My idea of what Darwin’s Planaria elegans may have looked like. Head to the left. Credits to myself, Piter Kehoma Boll.**

In 1938, Albert Riester described a land planarian from Barreira, a district in the city of Teresópolis, Rio de Janeiro, naming it Geoplana barreirana. He described it as it follows (translated from the original in German):

“Land planarian found on a leaf after a rain; greatest lenght ca. 20 mm. Middle of the back white with two fine purple-red (atropurpureus light) parallel stripes. Outside of the white also limitted by pale red, then follows (on both sides) a black band and laterally a black-brown marmorate pattern over brown background. The middle stripe ends at the rear [end]. Head spotted, marked with transversal spotted bands (regenerate?). Underside gray, bordered by black-brown. Anterior end is arched backwards.”

Fortunately, Riester provided a drawing, which you can see below:

Barreirana_barreirana_Riester

Geoplana barreirana drawn by Riester (1938).

They look a bit alike, right? Fortunately Geoplana barreirana (currently named Barreirana barreirana) was found by later researchers and we have photographs! See one specimen below:

f6284_barreiranatijuca3

A specimen of Barreirana barreirana found in the Tijuca National Park, Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Fernando Carbayo.*

Riester did not describe any transversal marks on his specimens, but he may have mistaken them for color loss in preserved specimens or something like that. Otherwise the specimen looks very similar to Riester’s drawing, and the internal anatomy, which Riester provided as well, is also compatible.

Now let’s try to fit Darwin’s description of Planaria elegans in this photograph. White background, two reddish brown stripes and several fine parallel stripes of the same tint. He likely described the animals from preserved specimens, even though he have seen them alive and collected them. Perhaps the colors had already faded a little and the black stripes, which internally touch two of the reddish stripes, may have been considered a single purple-red stripe? It is not clear, in his description, whether there is white between the “reddish brown” stripes and the “pale blackish-purple” sides, as I did in my drawing, or not, as in Barreirana barreiranabut certainly the dark gray sides of B. barreirana could be the same as the pale blackish purple sides of Planaria elegans, don’t you think? And B. barreirana HAS three white “rings” crossing the body. You can see the first and the second very clearly on the specimen above. The third one is not very well marked, but you can see a third white mark interrupting the gray sides. And the second and almost third marks seem to be quite where one would expect the two orifices (mouth and gonopore) of the planarian to be!

And what about the ventral side? Darwin described P. elegan‘s as being white with a pale blackish purple border as the sides of the dorsum. Riester described G. barreirana‘s as being gray bordered by black-brown. Here is Barreirana barreirana‘s ventral side:

Barreirana barreirana from below

Ventral side of Barreirana barreirana from the Tijuca National Park, Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Fernando Carbayo.*

It is white, or pale gray perhaps, and the borders are of the same color as the sides of the dorsum!

I think it is very, very likely that Darwin’s Planaria elegans and Riester’s Geoplana barreirana are the same species. The fact that no one but Darwin has ever seen a specimen of Planaria elegans makes it even more likely.

What do you think?

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See also:

How are little flatworms colored? A Geoplana vaginuloides analysis.

The fabulous taxonomic adventure of the genus Geoplana.

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References:

Darwin, C. (1844) Brief Description of several Terrestrial Planariae, and of some remarkable Marine Species, with an Account of their Habits. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 14, 241–251.

Riester, A. (1938) Beiträge zur Geoplaniden-Fauna Brasiliens. Abhandlungen der senkenbergischen naturforschenden Gesellschaft 441, 1–88.

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Going a long way with your mouth open to new tastes

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Everybody knows that human activities have driven our environment toward an unfortunate situation. The most popular forms of human impact include pollution, deforestation and overexploitation of natural resources, but certainly an important factor in remodeling ecosystems is the invasion of species.

While humans move around the world, they carry many species with them, either intentionally or not, an some of them establish successfully in the new environment, while others do not. But what makes some species become successful invaders while other are unable to do so?

It is clear for some time that having a broad niche, i.e., a broad tolerance in environmental conditions and a broad use of resources is very important to succeed in invading a new habitat. Food niche breadth, i.e., the amount of different food types one can ingest, is among the most important dimensions of the niche influencing the spread of a species.

I myself studied the food niche breadth of six Neotropical land planarians in my master’s thesis (see references below) and it was clear that the species with the broader niche are more likely to become invasive. Actually, the one with the broadest food niche, Obama nungara, is already an invader in Europe, as I already discussed here.

obama_marmorata_7

A specimen of Obama nungara from Southern Brazil that I used in my research. Photo by myself, Piter Kehoma Boll.*

But O. nungara has a broad food niche in its native range, which includes southern Brazil, and likely reflected this breadth in Europe. But could a species that has a narrow food niche in its native range broaden it in a new environment?

A recent study by Courant et al. (see references) investigated the diet of the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, that is an invasive species in many parts of the world. They compared its diet in its native range in South Africa whith that in several populations in other countries (United States, Wales, Chile, Portugal and France).

Xenopus_laevis

The African clawed frog Xenopus laevis. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.**

The results indicated that X. laevis has a considerable broad niche in both its native and non-native ranges, but the diet in Portugal showed a greater shift compared to that in other areas, which indicates a great ability to adapt to new situations. In fact, the population from Portugal lives in running water, while in all other places this species prefers still water.

We can conclude that part of the success of the African clawed frog when invading new habitats is linked to its ability to try new tastes, broadening its food niche beyond that from its original populations. The situation in Portugal, including a different environment and a different diet, may also be the result of an increased selective pressure and perhaps the chances are that this population will change into a new species sooner than the others.

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References:
Boll PK & Leal-Zanchet AM (2016). Preference for different prey allows the coexistence of several land planarians in areas of the Atlantic Forest. Zoology 119: 162–168.

Courant J, Vogt S, Marques R, Measey J, Secondi J, Rebelo R, Villiers AD, Ihlow F, Busschere CD, Backeljau T, Rödder D, & Herrel A (2017). Are invasive populations characterized by a broader diet than native populations? PeerJ 5: e3250.

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Land snails on islands: fascinating diversity, worrying vulnerability

by Piter Kehoma Boll

The class Gastropoda, which includes snails and slugs, is only beaten by the insects in number of species worldwide, having currently about 80 thousand described species. Among those, about 24 thousand live on land, where they are a very successful group, especially on oceanic islands.

The Hawaiian Islands alone, for example, have more than 750 snail species and there are more than 100 endemic species in the small island of Rapa in the South Pacific. This diversity is much higher than that in any continental place, but the reason for that is not completely understood.

Mandarina

A land snail of the genus Mandarina, endemic to the Ogasawara Islands, Japan. Photo by flickr user kmkmks (Kumiko).*

One of the most likely explanations for this huge diversity on islands is related to the lack of predators. The most common predators of snails include birds, mammals, snakes, beetles, flatworms and other snails. Most of those are not present in small and isolated islands, which allows an increase in land snail populations in such places. Without too much dangers to worry about, the community of land snails n islands can explore a greater range of niches, eventually leading to speciation.

Unfortunately, as always, the lack of danger leads to recklessness. Without predators to worry about, insular land snails tend to lay fewer eggs than their mainland relatives. If there is no danger of having most of your children eaten, why would you have that many? It is better to lay larger eggs, putting more resources on fewer babies, and so assure that they will be strong enough to fight against other snail species. Afterall, the large number of species in such a small place as an island likely leads to an increased amount of competition between species.

But why is this recklessness? Well, because you never known when a predator will arrive. And they already arrived… due to our fault.

The diversity of insular land nails was certainly affected by habitat loss promoted by humans, but also by predators that we carried with us to the islands, whether intentionally or not. These predators include rats, the predatory snail Euglandina rosea and the land flatworm Platydemus manokwari, the latter being most likely the worst of all.

800px-platydemus_manokwari

The flatworm Platydemus manokwari in the Ogasawara Islands. Photo by Shinji Sugiura.

This flatworm arrived at the Chichijima Island, part of the Ogasawara Islands in the Pacific Ocean, in the early 1990s and in about two decades it led most land snail species on the island to extinction and many more are about to face the same fate on this island and on others. Not being prepared for predators, these poor snails cannot reproduce fast enough to replace all individuals eaten by the flatworm.

We have to act quickly if we want to save those that are still left.

See also: The New Guinea flatworm visits France – a menace.

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ResearchBlogging.orgReferences and further reading:

Chiba, S., & Cowie, R. (2016). Evolution and Extinction of Land Snails on Oceanic Islands. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 47 (1), 123-141 DOI: 10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-112414-054331

Sugiura, S., Okochi, I., & Tamada, H. (2006). High Predation Pressure by an Introduced Flatworm on Land Snails on the Oceanic Ogasawara Islands. Biotropica, 38 (5), 700-703 DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2006.00196.x

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Friday Fellow: Amphibian chytrid fungus

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Today I’m bringing you a species that is probably one of the most terrible ones to exist today, the amphibian chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, also known simply as Bd.

batrachochytrium_dendrobatidis

Several sporangia of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (spherical structures) growing on a freshwater arthropod. Photo by AJ Cann.*

The amphibian chytrid fungus, as its name says, is a chytrid, a fungus of the division Chytridiomycota, which include microscopic species that usually feed by degrading chitin, keratin in other such materials. In the case of the amphibian chytrid fungus, it infects the skin of amphibians and feeds on it. It grows through the skin forming a network of rhizoids that originate spherical sporangia that contains spores.

The infection caused by the amphibian chytrid fungus is called chytridiomycosis. It causes a series of symptoms, including reddening of the skin, lethargy, convlusions, anorexia and excessive thickening and shedding of the skin. This thickening of the skin leads to problems in taking in nutrients, releasing toxins and even breathing, eventually leading to death.

chytridiomycosis

An individual of the species Atelopus limosus infected by the amphibian chytrid fungus. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.**

Since its discovery and naming in 1998, the amphibian chytrid fungus has devastated the populations of many amphibian species throughout the world. Some species, such as the golden toad and the Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog, were recently extinct by this terrible fungus. This whole drastic scenario is already considered one of the most severe examples of Holocene extinction. The reason for such a sudden increase in the infections is unknown, but it may be related to human impact on the environment.

We can only hope to find a way to reduce the spread of this nightmare to biodiversity.

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ResearchBlogging.org
References:

Fisher, M., Garner, T., & Walker, S. (2009). Global Emergence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis and Amphibian Chytridiomycosis in Space, Time, and Host Annual Review of Microbiology, 63 (1), 291-310 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.micro.091208.073435

Wikipedia. Batrachochytridium dendrobatidis. Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batrachochytrium_dendrobatidis&gt;. Access on March 4, 2017.

Wikipedia. Chytridiomycosis. Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chytridiomycosis&gt;. Access on March 4, 2017.

Wikipedia. Decline in amphibian populations. Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decline_in_amphibian_populations&gt;. Access on March 4, 2017.

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