Shopping Center Acres

by Carl Strang

As the Mayslake Forest Preserve’s friary was demolished, the adjacent savanna could be imagined anticipating an expansion opportunity.

The project has reached the point where the final concrete is being removed.

Soil is being spread as the rubble is hauled away.

Thinking about the removal of a human structure and the return of its space to a wild state, I was reminded of a one-man performance I used to offer. Called A Day in the Forest, it consisted of my making quick costume changes and becoming different forest animals and plants, each telling a little story and singing a song. Though the costumes were simple, some time was needed to change and so I wrote little interludes between character appearances. One was a broadcast from an imaginary forest animals’ radio station, including the following commercial break:

“Shopping Center Acres is a new forest development your family is sure to love. That’s right! Your friends at Wildwood Developers are tearing down yet another useless shopping mall and planting a brand NEW forest. The new forest should be ready for wild animals to occupy in another 50 years, so make your reservations now. These choice burrows, tree cavities and nesting branches are sure to go fast! That’s Shopping Center Acres, the newest creation by Wildwood Developers, providing homes for the future.”

This view from the north edge of Mayslake’s north savanna is what I envision happening in a few years at the south edge of the south savanna as the trees spread onto the former friary site.

And now I am taking a holiday break. See you in the New Year!

Christmas Bird Count 2010

by Carl Strang

Saturday was the DuPage Birding Club’s Christmas Bird Count, which centers on Fermilab, the famous physics research facility that straddles western DuPage and eastern Kane Counties. Here my group pauses attentively as yet-to-be identified birds call and flutter in the brush.

Group leader Urs Geiser, far right, is very good at pishing, a method for calling in small birds.

For a group portrait go here to the account of the 2008 outing. The weather has been very cold, most bodies of water are frozen, and for the most part the count was unremarkable. One exception for our group was this purple finch that Linda Padera spotted just before our lunch break.

The heavy facial stripes distinguish the female-plumage purple finch.

In the afternoon we stopped at West Branch Forest Preserve, home to one of the county’s major Canada goose roosts until it freezes over. Some birds had kept a hole open in the ice.

Most of the birds around the hole are Canada geese.

While we watched, the main swimming activity keeping the hole open was provided by 14 common goldeneye ducks and a coot.

Here, 8 of the goldeneyes rest on the surface between foraging dives.

On the ice fringing the nearby West Branch of the DuPage River, we noticed these remarkable traces in the snow.

What do you think would make marks like this?

A close look revealed distinctive footprints of a great horned owl close to the bank. It looks like the bird came in for a landing at speed, with most of the lines drawn by the bird’s tail feathers as it put on the brakes. Undulations suggest the owl made two strong backsweeps with its wings as its tail feathers dragged. It stood for a moment before springing back into the air.

Mayslake Mink

by Carl Strang

Last week at Mayslake Forest Preserve I was happy to find the first mink tracks of the season.

The size and arrangement, as well as the location of these tracks, point to mink. The ice had melted and refrozen so as to distort the individual footprints.

Last winter I saw signs of that species only once or twice, a big letdown because two winters ago there were indications that two individuals were hunting the preserve regularly. I first saw the string of tracks pointed north as the animal ran along the east edge of May’s Lake.

Here the spacing, size and pattern of the mink’s trail are clear. No other species would fit.

As I was on my lunch break walk I couldn’t take the time to follow the mink’s entire route. Later I intercepted it again where it was following the little stream (May’s Lake’s outlet) near the bridge.

Here the tracks are on the slope above the west bank of the stream. As you can see, even at mid-day they are not being hit very hard by the sun. Therefore, despite being only a few hours at most older than the above tracks, they are less distorted by melting.

Given the animal’s trajectory, I decided to see if it checked out the parking lot marsh. Sure enough, it had weaseled its way through the cattails.

Here the mink is moving toward our point of view.

I estimated that these tracks were made the third night previous to my finding them, given the weather conditions during that time period and the deterioration of the footprints. There was nothing fresher, and I suspect that this mink made a single south to north passage through the preserve and exited. Time will tell if this animal is a regular visitor.

Prehistoric Life 6

by Carl Strang

This year’s winter series is a review of the prehistoric life and geologic history of northeast Illinois. Each chapter will summarize current understanding, gleaned from the literature, of what was going on with life on Earth in a particular span of time, what we know about the local landscape, and what we can say about local life. I include some references, particularly to papers published in the journal Science which commonly is available at public libraries. Contact me if you need sources for other items. The Earth is so old that every imaginable environment was here at some point, from ocean depths to mountaintops, from equatorial tropics to tundra, and from wetlands to desert.

Silurian Period (438-408 million years ago)

The Silurian Period was named for the Silures (1835), another ancient Welsh tribe. Its fossils were recognized as distinct from those of the preceding Ordovician and following Devonian periods. Its beginning formally is defined by the first appearance of the graptolite species Akidograptus ascensus.

Life on Earth. During the Silurian, the Earth generally showed a warming trend after the ice age that ended the Ordovician. The Silurian reefs, which continued to be based mainly on stromatoporoids and tabulates, were huge. Brachiopods and bryozoans (including a number of colonial, massive stony or sea-fan-like forms) dominated the species count, but corals and echinoderms increased in importance. Nautiloid cephalopods and graptolites largely disappeared by the beginning of the Silurian. Eurypterids (sea scorpions, a group of chelicerate arthropods) appeared in the Silurian, some reaching 10 feet long. Jawless, armored fishes (Agnatha) became more diverse.

A significant step was the appearance of the first vertebrate jaw by the late Silurian, developed from gill arches in the first placoderm fishes and early sharks.  Diversifying early land plants were joined by the first fungi. The first terrestrial chelicerate arthropods (scorpions and eurypterids) had appeared by the end of the Silurian. These were very similar to marine forms of both groups. For instance, Brontoscorpio was an earlier Silurian marine scorpion, very similar to the familiar scorpion shape, which reached 3 feet in length. Genetic studies tie insect origins to crustaceans like today’s fairy shrimp and water fleas, the split occurring near the end of the Silurian. Also, millipedes and centipedes (which evolved in the Devonian) appear to be connected to chelicerate arthropods.

One place where the Niagaran formation is at the surface is at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula in southern Lake Huron.

Local landscape. Our area was a shallow, clear, saltwater sea with abundant dome-shaped reefs. The reefs were part of a barrier reef system surrounding the Michigan Basin. The rock is composed of dolomite, which is a limestone (calcium carbonate) in which magnesium replaces part of the calcium, the replacement possibly having occurred after the limestone was deposited. DuPage County’s bedrock thus is a part of the Silurian layer called the Niagaran formation, which forms a bedrock ring including the western shore of Lake Michigan, the Door peninsula, the southern shore of the U.P., the islands dividing Lake Huron from Georgian Bay, and a zone connecting to Niagara Falls, with large areas curving through Indiana and parts of Ohio. Outliers can be found in eastern Iowa. Our area probably was between the equator and 20° south latitude. The big Thornton Quarry on either side of Interstate 80-294 is mining one of the larger known reefs in this formation.

This structure, referred to as a “flowerpot,” is an isolated pillar of the Niagaran dolomite. It is on an island just off the tip of the Bruce Peninsula.

Local life. Fossils of the Niagaran formation found locally include reef-forming corals (including antler forms and large lumps such as Cladopora reticulata, Halysites catenularia and Favosites niagarensis). Other attached forms include rugose (horn) corals (Asthenophyllum racinensis, Dalmanophyllum wisconsinensis, Pycnostylus guelphensis); bryozoans (Fenestrellina spp., Hallopora ellengantula, Pachydicta crassa); calcareous algae (e.g., the plum-shaped green lump Calathium egerodae); and stromatoporids. Chert nodules are thought to have been derived from the hard parts of sponges (great for arrowheads, lousy for stone crushing machines), but at least one identifiable fossil sponge is known, Calathium sp. The diverse brachiopods include Eospirifer(Spirifer) radiatus, Apopentamerus racinensis, Leptotaena (Leptaena)  rhomboidelis, Rhynchotreta cuneata, Atrypa reticularis niagarensis, Schucheretella subplana, Uncinulus stricklandi, Meristina maria, Conchidium laqueatum, Kikidium, and Wilsonella. There also are several species of crinoids (Crotalocrinites cora, Lampterocrinus infatus, Marsupiocrinus chicagoensis, Siphanocrinus nobilus, Eucalyptocrinus crassus, Periechocrinus infelix), and crinoid-like cystoid echinoderms (Caryocrinites ornatus, Holocystites alternatus)

This diorama is part of the Evolving Planet exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. It portrays a Silurian reef.

Mobile life forms include trilobites (Bumastus niagarensis, B. harrisi, B. insignis, Calymene celebra, C. niagarensis, Arctinurus chicagoensis, Dalmanites sp., [=?] Dalmanella platycordata), and mollusks (snails Euomphalopterus halei, Tremanotus alphaeus, T. chicagoensis, Straparollus magnus, Lophospira rotunda, Phanerotrema occidens; pelecypods Mytilarca denticostia, Matheria recta; straight-shelled cephalopods Amphicyrtoceras orcas, Dawsonoceras bridgeportensis, Kionoceras orus, K. cancellatum; and at least one coil-shelled species, Discoceras marshi).

This fossil trilobite is in one of the Silurian dolomite flagstones at Fullersburg Woods, mined from the Lemont Quarry and used by the Civilian Conservation Corps in its construction projects at that forest preserve.

The earlier Alexandrian series, also dolomite, has the brachiopods Platymerella manniensis, Microcardinalia pyriformis, and Pentamerus oblongus.

Vertebrates, i.e., fishes, continued to be relatively uncommon through at least most of the Silurian, and apparently fossils of them have not been found locally.

Block Counts

by Carl Strang

One easy data set to collect in my singing insects study is simply to walk around my neighborhood block (usually when going to my mailbox) and count the insects I hear. For this year I have comparisons between years, a comparison to my new count at my parents’ home in Culver, Indiana, and a consideration of species counts with respect to the time of sunset. Today I’ll focus on this year’s results in my neighborhood.

This photo of my yard is not representative of the neighborhood, in that most of my neighbors are lawn lovers who have very limited shrub and herbaceous plantings.

The overall count in my Warrenville, Illinois, block was 15 species in 2010 (for the complete list go here). No new species were added. Again in 2010 the only species abundant enough for comparisons between years were striped and Carolina ground crickets, and greater anglewing katydids.

Striped ground crickets are named for stripes on the top of the head.

Though striped ground crickets occur in prairies, they really hit their stride in mowed lawns. Not only are they the most abundant singing insect in my neighborhood, their numbers have been very consistent over the years with median counts of 13, 12, 12 and 14.5 in the respective years of 2007 to 2010. None of these differences are statistically significant.

The ticking song of the greater anglewing is a distinctive summer evening sound wherever this katydid occurs.

Carolina ground crickets, which hang out in denser plantings, and tree-dwelling greater anglewings likewise showed no changes between 2009 and 2010 (this year’s median counts 4 and 1, respectively).

Chipmunk Puzzler

by Carl Strang

Not far from the coyote den at Mayslake Forest Preserve is a smaller hole. Recently I saw that it had been entered and dug at, but I couldn’t tell by what. Then, after last week’s second snow I saw the following.

The diameter of this burrow entrance is in the 4-6-inch range, typical of skunks’ dens in our area.

The animal which left these tracks was a rodent, larger than a mouse but smaller than a tree squirrel. I followed its trail, which extended from the elevated vicinity of the (now former) friary nearly all the way down to May’s Lake. My immediate thought was chipmunk, and that was an oddity because one seldom sees them out between November and March.

As I followed the tracks it occurred to me that flying squirrels are the same size, and I have seen them at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve not too far away to the east. However, this animal never left any sign of side flanges of skin connecting the feet, and it clearly was focused on the ground. Though it went to the bases of trees a few times it never climbed them.

So, while I feel secure in my species ID, I still am left with the question, why did this chipmunk come out at this time of year, and why did it cover so much snow-covered ground? I hope its food cache was not destroyed by the friary demolition. This seems unlikely, but remains an open possiblility.

Coyote Tracking

by Carl Strang

Even modest tracking ability allows you to monitor wildlife activity on your favorite site. Today we look at an example in the coyotes at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Here is a set of fresh tracks from last week.

This coyote was traveling along the sidewalk between the parking lot and the Parking Lot Marsh.

The gait is a diagonal trot (for an earlier primer on the trot gait go here).  But which way is the coyote facing? A closer look reveals that the coyote was coming toward where we stand, so its body was angled toward the marsh.

The heel is away from us, the toes toward us, so this coyote was traveling toward where we stand.

It was more concerned about finding food than worrying about people who might be in the parking lot, which suggests this was a nighttime passage (an expert tracker would be able to age the tracks more precisely than I can and so determine this more directly).

Some of the recent sets of coyote tracks at Mayslake have been made by single animals, others have been of 2 or perhaps 3 animals hunting together. I didn’t take a photo to illustrate this; it’s a matter of noting sets of tracks of the same age either close together or one following the other and, mostly, stepping in its companion’s footprints.

It turns out I was in error when I reported earlier that the coyotes’ den would be destroyed by the demolition of the friary. The den entrance is outside the fence that defines the demolition area. It was hidden by large burdock leaves which recently have withered. Though the den is not currently in use by the coyotes, they check it out from time to time.

Though the tracks were filled in by the previous night’s added snow, they clearly were a coyote’s, made by an animal that came right to the den entrance and sniffed at it but did not, as far as I can tell, enter.

In previous years I have not been able to monitor the coyote den in the breeding season because of the density of surrounding vegetation, which now has been cleared away. If the den continues to survive the demolition, and if the coyotes use it again despite its exposure, I can look forward to checking it out from a distance in the coming season.

Digging Squirrels

by Carl Strang

Tracking is a valuable way to learn about wildlife. So is familiarity with the scientific literature. Today we combine the two, benefiting from both. The recent first snowfalls of the season have made clear the extent to which tree squirrels are digging up their buried food. In northeastern Illinois we are talking about both fox squirrels

Fox squirrel. Note the red belly and tail color.

and gray squirrels.

Gray squirrel. Here the tail is edged in white; the belly likewise is pale.

In my walks around Mayslake Forest Preserve over the past couple of weeks it is clear that squirrels have been digging like crazy, excavating previously buried acorns and nuts.

Squirrel excavation site. Note how the squirrel sniffed around for a while to the right before zeroing in on the buried food. An earlier study, the reference to which I am too lazy to dig out at the moment, found that squirrels remember only the general areas in which they have buried food. They find the precise spot with their sensitive noses.

Doesn’t it seem awfully soon to be digging out food that was buried only a few weeks ago? This is where the literature familiarity helps. Last year I described a study of the discriminatory behavior of tree squirrels.

It turns out that these squirrel guys and gals are fattening in the fall on the lower quality acorns and nuts. They bury the better ones. By now these foods have all been eaten, stored, or have germinated and thus rendered unavailable as food. So it makes sense immediately to return to the stores and begin exploiting them.

Prehistoric Life 5

by Carl Strang

This year’s winter series is a review of the prehistoric life and geologic history of northeast Illinois. Each chapter will summarize current understanding, gleaned from the literature, of what was going on with life on Earth in a particular span of time, what we know about the local landscape, and what we can say about local life. I include some references, particularly to papers published in the journal Science which commonly is available at public libraries. Contact me if you need sources for other items. The Earth is so old that every imaginable environment was here at some point, from ocean depths to mountaintops, from equatorial tropics to tundra, and from wetlands to desert.

Ordovician Period (505-438 million years ago)

The Ordovician Period was first created (1879) to resolve an overlap between the upper Cambrian and lower Silurian as these two were first being explored and defined. It is named for an ancient Welsh tribe, the Ordovices. Its beginning and ending are marked by major extinctions, the latter perhaps the result of an ice age.

Life on Earth. Trilobites became much less dominant in the world, and brachiopods more abundant and diverse. Mollusks, including bivalves, diversified, and among their innovations were the nautiloid cephalopods (cephalopods are the squids, octopi and relatives). Some of these exceeded 6 meters in length and thus were the first large animals on Earth. Some new phyla also appeared, including the bryozoa (moss animals), which became codominants with brachiopods. The first corals, both solitary (rugose, or horn corals) and colonial (tabulate corals) also appeared in the Ordovician. These extinct groups are called corals, and are regarded as cnidarians [coelenterates] with similar supportive structures, but they are not direct ancestors of present-day corals. Ordovician reefs were formed mainly by bryozoans early in the period, with a transition to dominance by stromatoporoids (recently determined to be a form of sponge) and tabulate corals. Graptolites were another new group, widely distributed, probably planktonic, and colonial. Long mysterious, they now are regarded as allied to the chordates. The first jawless fishes, i.e., the first vertebrates, evolved from earlier chordates.

The earliest land plants are evidenced by mid-Ordovician spores, the worldwide distribution of which suggests a cosmopolitan distribution. These would have been similar to algae and mosses. Late Ordovician spores indicate that the first vascular plants had evolved by then (Science 324:353). A major ice age occurred toward the end of the Ordovician, and is a likely cause of the major extinctions that mark the end of the period.

This is the Caesar Creek spillway in Ohio. It is a publicly accessible Ordovician site where you can get a permit to collect fossils.

Local landscape. Sand continued to be deposited here in the early Ordovician, producing the St. Peter formation of sandstone (at the surface in Starved Rock State Park). The nearest land became farther away, perhaps because all the land to the North had become covered by the sea, until by the late Ordovician shales were formed here. Ordovician deposits are on top of Cambrian ones, which in turn are on top of the Precambrian granite (the nearest Ordovician bedrock is in Kane County; most of that county’s bedrock is  Ordovician). Our location continued to be just south of the equator. At this time the collision of continents east of us began to form the first incarnation of the Appalachians (Taconic orogeny), so that area became the closest significant land. Later episodes of that collision would lift our area out of the sea for good.

Here is an example of the fossil material at Caesar Creek. These are brachiopod shells.

Local life. Sponges are abundant in Middle Ordovician deposits in Kentucky and Tennessee. In the Middle to Late Ordovician, the sponge-like Receptaculites (it may in fact have been a calcareous alga) was in northern Illinois. Horn corals were found in eastern North America in the Middle Ordovician, as were tabulate corals. Fossil bryozoa from the Ordovician are diverse in Ohio. Various brachiopods are found on all sides of us in the middle to late Ordovician. Ordovician crinoids are known in Ohio shales, and late Ordovician starfish also have been found in Ohio and Minnesota. Though jawless Ordovician fishes are known from North America, their fossils are rare and they apparently were unimportant ecologically. 

Local Ordovician fossils according to Illinois Geological Survey monographs include Receptaculites, the horn coral Streptelasma, the snails Maclurites, Trochonema, and Hormotoma, the trilobite Isotelus, and brachiopods Refinesquina, Dalmanella, Platystrophia, Sowerbyella, Rhynchotrema, Paucicrura, Hesperorthis, Pionodema, Lepidocyclus, Hebertella, and Strophomena. Note that this should not be taken to mean that all these species occurred together: Isotelus occurs in the Scales shale, while Receptaculites and Hormotoma are in the earlier Wise Lake dolomite.

Golden-crowned Kinglet Dossier

by Carl Strang

Here is my dossier for another northern species which often winters in northeastern Illinois in small numbers.

Kinglet, Golden-crowned

Migrant in northern Illinois, northern Indiana. Flight has the quality of falling snowflakes. Two foraging together at Willowbrook in early 1986 gave a contact call whenever flying between trees in which they were foraging. Song jumbling, chattering in high-pitched, thin tinkling voice.

1AP87. First of year seen.

3AP87. Willowbrook. The kinglets are as acrobatic as chickadees, but less assertive and so less noticed. A male fed at edge of the stream, hopping on mud, rocks, sticks, picking at ground, snapping at air, picking tiny things from water. Crest center yellow, but parts or all became red for split-second periods, either from change in bird’s orientation to light, or from minute elevations and depressions of feathers.

10AP87. A kinglet approached within 3 feet of me, hopping on sticks low to the ground.

11AP87. Maple Grove Forest Preserve, IL: Kinglets in trees, 10-40 feet up.

15AP87. Golden-crowneds done passing through.

4NO87. A Missouri state park south of St. Louis. Golden-crowned kinglets behaving much as I have seen them in spring migrations.

16AP88. Morton Arboretum. Flock feeding in forest treetops.

29AP88. Golden-crowned kinglets still present.

15OC88. First fall migrants, Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve.

18OC88. Foraging with yellow-rumped warblers.

31MR89. First of year seen, Willowbrook Back 40.

22AP89. Both kinglet species at Willowbrook. Both using a mix of hover-gleaning and even more pursuit.

24AP89. Still there. May only use movement-contact call when scattered out. Those on 22nd, foraging in easy view of one another, weren’t using it while today they are.

17AP90. Observed at Willowbrook.

31MR99. Many kinglets foraging along stream, Willowbrook.

12AP99. Willowbrook. Golden-crowned kinglets nearly gone (saw only 1), but ruby-crowneds have arrived. Last G-crowned in spring seen on 14AP.

5OC99. First migrant of fall noted at Willowbrook. Last seen 21OC.

11MR00. First kinglet of year at Willowbrook, only 1 seen. 3-syllable high-pitched contact call distinctive [for some reason it took me this long to learn to recognize this common call].

One reason I mentioned foraging technique so often is that, according to the literature, golden-crowned kinglets reach for food from perches more, while ruby-crowneds hover-glean and use flush-and-pursuit more. These behavioral differences are consistent with slight proportional differences in wing and foot length.

26MR00. West DuPage Woods. Today they are foraging high (20+ feet up), in canopies of white oak and other forest trees. One moving steadily, with hops of 1-3 inches mainly, occasionally larger jumps between major branches and trees, both reaching and hover gleaning. Hover-gleaning pursuits of 1-2 feet. In mixed flock with creepers and 2 white-breasted nuthatches. Another kinglet moved 6″-2′ between perches, remaining 2-3 seconds per perch with head constantly turning.

27MR00. Willowbrook. A number of golden‑crowned kinglets and 3 brown creepers observed. Kinglet contact notes usually more emphatic, in groups of 3 or 4. Creeper notes similar in pitch and tone, but a little fainter, more drawn out, and single notes evenly spaced as the bird flies between trees (spacing a little greater than the notes of the kinglets).

31MR00. Waterfall Glen, beside Sawmill Creek, several golden-crowned kinglets in apparent mixed flock with brown creepers and a couple white-breasted nuthatches. One moving 4″-2′ between perches, most often around 1 foot, with occasional flycatching move but most often flying to a perch and immediately reaching for something. The reach was done with no searching after landing, and so the bird had spotted the prey and flown to it. Later, I encountered another group of kinglets with chickadees nearby. One made shorter, 1-2″ hops with much looking around, 8-10 feet up in tree. I saw no foraging moves.

1AP00. Heritage Trail, Morton Arboretum. Several in mixed flock with chickadees and a white-breasted nuthatch. High, 40-50 feet in crowns of white oaks. Kinglets moving more constantly than chickadees, with smaller hops, doing a lot of reaching for prey.

13AP00. Willowbrook. Golden-crowned kinglets and ruby-crowneds both have been at Willowbrook all week.

22AP00. Morton Arboretum. Both kinglets still present.

2AP01. First golden-crown of the year at Willowbrook.

29-31AU01. Algonquin Park, Ontario. Small groups of golden-crowned kinglets frequently encountered, one of the more commonly observed birds, easily located by their contact calls. Almost always in association with black-capped chickadees. Once or twice, perhaps, not with other birds I could see. Usually seemed to be 3-5 individuals in a group, and almost always if not always in conifers. Note: the branches are fairly dense in these forests, promoting a reaching foraging style. Are forests more open farther north, where ruby-crowneds live, so that a hover-gleaning style is favored?

1FE02. One or two feeding with chickadees at Waterfall Glen, just east of Poverty Savanna area.

18AU04. Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Ontario. A golden-crowned kinglet showed very unusual behavior as it foraged among balsam fir branches hanging out on the trail. It did a lot of hovering just beyond the branch tips, visually scanning as it did so. Perhaps it’s a young bird that will learn to abandon this energy-wasting behavior.

9OC05. West DuPage Woods. Golden-crowned kinglets foraging in crowns of trees while ruby-crowneds are mainly within 4 feet of ground in herbs and shrubs beneath, only occasionally and briefly venturing into the lower canopies. Ruby-crowneds have a quick, chattering-quality “checkit” call. Hover-gleaning their most common foraging method today.

5-11NO05. During my southern vacation, I found golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

16AP09. Golden-crowned kinglet, late in migration and apparently alone, uttering a different call. Same pitch as usual, but a longer burred call much like the rougher waxwing call.

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