It is now official. The Cape Floristic Region's beloved Ericas' earliest ancestor originated from the Northern hemisphere and used Africa's highest mountain ranges as stepping stones to reach the Cape about 10 to 15 million years ago. Once this early ancestor arrived, it found the perfect climatic conditions and topography which allowed it to explode in evolutionary terms. Today there are 860 species worldwide, of which 690 are endemic to the Cape – making Ericas not only the most species rich fynbos family, but also the most successful coloniser of all South African plants. This is the findings from new research published this week in BMC Evolutionary Biology in an article titled, "The biodiversity hotspot as evolutionary hot-bed: spectacular radiation of Erica in the Cape Floristic Region". The research, conducted by a group of scientists from South Africa and Germany, is based on nuclear and chloroplast DNA sequencing of 606 accessions of 488 species from across the geographic range of the genus, as well as six outgroups. This represents 60% of all Erica species. Prof. Dirk Bellstedt, an evolutionary biologist in the Department of Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University (SU) and one of the co-authors, says the number of species outside the CFR are lower by an order of magnitude. "Our research shows conclusively that the diversity of Erica species in the CFR is the result of a single radiation within the last 15 million years. The rate of speciation accelerated across Africa and Madagascar, with a further burst of speciation when it reached the Cape. There are only 170 Erica species in the rest of the world, compared to 690 species endemic to the Cape." More at http://www.sun.ac.za/english/Lists/news/DispForm.aspx?ID=4378
New data has confirmed that the Earth has been experiencing the hottest temperatures on record. The latest findings from NASA’s top climate scientists now reveal the world is heating up at a rate that hasn’t occurred within the past 1,000 years.
According to NASA, the planet will continue to warm “at least” 20 times faster than the historical average over the next 100 years. Gavin Schmidt, director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that “in the last 30 years we’ve really moved into exceptional territory.” He added, “It’s unprecedented in 1,000 years. There’s no period that has the trend seen in the 20th century in terms of the inclination (of temperatures).”
July 2016 was the hottest month on record, and this year the average global temperature peaked at 1.38˚C above levels reported in the 19th century. That number is dangerously close to the 1.5C limit determined by the Paris Climate Agreement. Nasa warns that temperatures will only increase by leaps and bounds at the rate we are going.
If we have even the slimmest of hopes to combat this unprecedented rate of global warming, Schmidt says, “maintaining temperatures below the 1.5˚C guardrail requires significant and very rapid cuts in carbon dioxide emissions or co-ordinated geo-engineering. That is very unlikely. We are not even yet making emissions cuts commensurate with keeping warming below 2˚C.”
“It’s the long-term trend we have to worry about though and there’s no evidence it’s going away and lots of reasons to think it’s here to stay,” Schmidt said. “There’s no pause or hiatus in temperature increase. People who think this is over are viewing the world through rose-tinted spectacles. This is a chronic problem for society for the next 100 years.”
The white shark population around the South African coast line has such a low level of genetic diversity that it may seriously jeopardizes their capability to survive into the future.
This is one of the findings from a major research project on white sharks and their DNA along the South African coast line, conducted by researchers from the evolutionary genomics group in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University (SU).
Dr. Sara Andreotti, who collected genetic samples as part of her doctoral research at SU, had to rely on the expertise of well-known shark conservationist, Mike Rutzen, to track down white sharks along the South African coast line. The field work kept them busy for four years, sometimes for up to two months at a time. By the end of 2014 they collected over 302 genetic samples and 5000 photographs.
The results of the study have now been published in an article 'New insights into the evolutionary history of white sharks, Carcharodon carcharias' in the Journal of Biogeography.
Dr. Andreotti says the genetic diversity of the South African white shark population is the lowest of all white sharks in the world: "We found only four maternal genetic lineages in the South African population, with 89% of all the sharks sharing the exact same gene sequence. When compared with other marine species, it is even lower than that of the highly endangered bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates)."
Genetic diversity is generally regarded as an important indicator of the resilience of a population in the wild. The higher the diversity, the easier it is for a species to survive lethal diseases or unexpected changes in the environment. Among different individuals, there will always be some that are able to survive and breed to produce the next generation.
A completely different scenario emerges when all the individuals share the same genetic information. If genetic diversity is needed to survive, and does not exist, it can quickly lead to extinction.
Dr Andreotti says their research is ongoing: "The poor genepool could be the result of a severe bottleneck or historical local extinction and re-colonization processes. But our main and immediate concern now is to understand the potential negative effects the low levels of genetic diversity can have on South Africa's white shark population."
Global connections of white shark populations
The DNA of the South African white sharks was also compared with the DNA of 58 white sharks analysed in previous studies conducted elsewhere in the world. Surprisingly, the results revealed that a unique lineage exists along the South African coast line that does not connect closely to any other known lineage elsewhere in the world.
Dr Andreotti explains: "It appears from this study that all white sharks originated from one common ancestral group in the Indo-Pacific Ocean around 14 million years ago. Based on the data we could predict a west to east migration pattern and an ancestral link between the white sharks of South Africa and Florida. But we also found a unique South African female lineage that does not connect to any other lineage in the world.
"This means that it is either a very old lineage that formed in South Africa millions of years ago, or it might be linked with a white shark population that has not been sampled yet."
While the sharks from the common and newly-found lineage are interbreeding, the researchers still don't know whether sharks from this lineage carry some morphological or physiological characteristics that differentiate them from the common group.
The findings have serious implication for the future management of the white shark population along the South African coastline: "It is obvious that current conservation measures should take the low levels of genetic diversity into account, otherwise one of these days we will not have any white sharks left to worry about," she warns.
Patrols of ants on cashew nut trees can roughly double the yield of the crop, according to researchers in Benin.
The researchers say that African weaver ants (Oecophylla longinoda) are an effective natural way to reduce considerable losses of cashew nuts from insect pests, such as fruit flies, and improve cashew quality, on farms in many African countries.
Cashew is a highly valued commodity in Benin, where the nuts have overtaken cotton to become the top export. It is also important elsewhere in Africa. But pests can destroy up to 80 per cent of the crop.
The researchers compared three methods of ant-based pest control on trees with existing ant populations. On the first set, the ants were left as they were. On the second, they were fed sugar solution. A third set were sprayed with an organic pesticide that kills fruit flies. Finally, as a control, some trees had sticky bands placed around their main stem so no ants could reach them.
The research, published on 16 February in Agricultural and Forest Entomology, found that all treatments involving ants increased the cashew nut yield (see chart).
WWF’s Living Forests Report is part of an ongoing conversation with partners, policymakers, and business about how to protect, conserve, sustainably use, and govern the world’s forests in the 21st century.
The series explains the reasons for, and implications of an ambitious forest conservation target: Zero Net Deforestation and Forest Degradation (ZNDD) by 2020.
The latest chapter in the series, Saving Forests at Risk, identifies where most deforestation is likely between 2010 and 2030: these are the deforestation fronts where efforts to halt deforestation must be concentrated. The chapter also provides compelling examples of solutions for reversing the projected trends in these deforestation fronts.
Stellenbosch University, Faculty of Science's insight:
New report from the WWF warns that 230 million hectares of forest will disappear by 2050 if no action is taken.
When Maties doctoral student Chris Broeckhoven heard he has to build a shelter out on the West Coast to observe the lizards he is so passionate about, he thought no way was he going to sit in the blazing heat of the African sun for 365 days.
"I'm very technologically-orientated, so I thought it makes sense to make use of what is already out there. The Cape Leopard Trust has shown that infrared cameras are effective in recording animals' behaviour. But lizards are cold-blooded, so I had to find a supersensitive alternative," Chris explains.
It took some persuasion, however, to convince his study leader, Prof Le Fras Mouton from the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University, that his techno-contraption was going to work.
Chris sourced ten cameras with a very long battery life which could also handle extreme summer heat from the United States. On a private farm on the West Coast, he positioned five of the cameras to face the rocks where a group of armadillo lizards (Ouroborus cataphractus) lived. The other five cameras were randomly placed at the field site to find out which predators are present and when they are mostly active.
"The cameras facing the rocks had two tasks," Chris explains, "the important one was to take images at fixed intervals of five minutes for 13 hours a day for 365 days. The second was to take pictures of everything moving in front of the lens, as I did not want to miss out on predators, lizards fighting, mating and eating."
More than 580 000 pictures later, he identified 220 000 images that he could use for analysing lizard activity. The other pictures were of sheep, grass moving in the wind, and some more sheep.
With all this photographic data, Chris has overturned a few deep rooted assumptions in herpetology about lizard behaviour: "In many studies researchers assume that temperature has the biggest effect on all lizards' behaviour. I have managed to show that, in the case of the armadillo lizard, lifestyle issues such as competition for food and avoiding predators also play a decisive role in their behaviour."
Prof Mouton, who has over 20 years of experience studying lizards, says Chris succeeded in fitting the last outstanding pieces to the puzzle: "We know that the armadillo lizards have a unique social system. Unlike other lizards, which are mostly fast-moving and solitary, big groups of armadillo lizards live in the same rock crevice for many years. Chris has shown that a big group has the advantage of spotting a predator sooner, but it also increases competition for food," he explains.
The study found that the armadillo lizard's behaviour is largely selective and not only dependent on temperature: "Armadillo lizards feed on insects during spring because, as they are so heavily armoured and slow, the denser vegetation protects them from birds of prey. However, during summer when other lizards are most active, the armadillo lizards are inactive."
Prof Mouton says this behaviour must have developed over thousands of years as a survival strategy: "We observed that a group of armadillo lizards will even ignore insects during the dry season. It is simply not worth their while to fight over scarce food sources. However, during the dry season the lizards do occasionally leave their rocks to visit the foraging nests of harvester termites. Although it is a risky business, by doing so, they can lower the competition for food and live indefinitely in groups."
Chris, who will graduate with a PhD in March 2015, was awarded the prize for the best presentation by a doctoral student during the 12th Conference of the Herpetological Association of Africa held at the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in Namibia recently. The title of his talk was 'Effects of predation risk, competition and climatic factors on the activity patterns of Ouroborus cataphractus and Karusasaurus polyzonus (Squamata: Cordylidae). His research was partially funded by a National Geographic Young Explorers grant.
Photo: The armadillo lizard's signature move is its unique ability to bite its own tail and roll up into an impregnable ball of thorny prickles. While their armour protects them against small predators like meerkats and mongooses, it slows them down considerably, which makes them more vulnerable for attacks by birds of prey. Photo: le Fras Mouton
Prof le Fras Mouton
Tel: 021 808-3227
Mr Chris Broeckhoven
Tel: 021 808 2726
Issued by Wiida Fourie-Basson, Media: Faculty of Science, Stellenbosch University, 021 808 2684, firstname.lastname@example.org
Stellenbosch University, Faculty of Science's insight:
First known study to use high tech cameras to observe lizard behaviour - more than 580 000 pics over one year analised.
Lignocellulosic biomass is an abundant, renewable feedstock for the production of fuels and chemicals, if an efficient and affordable conversion technology can be established to overcome its recalcitrance. Consolidated bioprocessing (CBP) featuring enzyme production, substrate hydrolysis and fermentation in a single step is a biologically mediated conversion approach with outstanding potential if a fit-for-purpose microorganism(s) can be developed. Progress in developing CBP-enabling microorganisms is ongoing by engineering (i) naturally cellulolytic microorganisms for improved product-related properties or (ii) non-cellulolytic organisms exhibiting high product yields to heterologously produce different combinations of cellulase enzymes. We discuss progress on developing yeast and bacteria for the latter strategy and consider further challenges that require attention to bring this technology to market.
IN TABLE Bay, 7km west of Cape Town, lies Robben Island, famous as the site where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 of the 27 years he spent behind bars. It is now a museum, visited by up to half a million tourists each year.
But it is the island’s African penguins that are the new news story among SA’s marine science community. At stake is the fate of the species, which was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature last year; and a model for managing conflict between predators and fisheries in similar marine ecosystems globally.
With a single prick and a single drop of blood, a San Diego company claims they can now detect if a patient has Ebola in less than 10 minutes. The breakthrough technology is called “Ebola Plus,” a tool that can be used to detect Ebola on anyone, anywhere in the world.
“We can do that for a large number of tests simultaneously with just one drop of blood,” said Dr. Cary Gunn, Ph.D. and CEO and Genalyte. Once blood is drawn, a silicon chip is used to detect the virus as blood flows over it.
Researchers at Genalyte have been working on the diagnostic tool for seven years, using it to test for various diseases, and only recently discovered it could also work to spot Ebola. “It allows you to screen more patients more rapidly. The biggest question right now is the debate about quarantine.
Instead of asking people to take their fever once or twice a day, they can just take a prick of blood,” said Dr. Gunn. It can analyze up to 100 samples per hour, and be administered anywhere including, hospitals, airports, and even remote areas in West Africa where the disease is spreading rapidly. “Right now, most people in Liberia aren’t even being tested. People who have suspicion of having Ebola are being checked into wards. The ability to take a prick of blood and do the test would be a game changer in that environment,” said Gunn.
Developing the platform for the test cost Genalyte around $100,000, but each chip that will be used during the tests costs $10 each – making early detection cheaper and easier for caretakers. Currently, the FDA has only approved for P-C-R that can take two hours for results, compared to the Ebola Plus that can provide results in ten minutes.
A 35-mile rift in the desert of Ethiopia will likely become a new ocean eventually, researchers now confirm.
The crack, 20 feet wide in spots, opened in 2005 and some geologists believed then that it would spawn a new ocean. But that view was controversial, and the rift had not been well studied.
A new study involving an international team of scientists and reported in the journal Geophysical Research Letters finds the processes creating the rift are nearly identical to what goes on at the bottom of oceans, further indication a sea is in the region's future.
The same rift activity is slowly parting the Red Sea, too. Using newly gathered seismic data from 2005, researchers reconstructed the event to show the rift tore open along its entire 35-mile length in just days. Dabbahu, a volcano at the northern end of the rift, erupted first, then magma pushed up through the middle of the rift area and began "unzipping" the rift in both directions, the researchers explained in a statement today.
"We know that seafloor ridges are created by a similar intrusion of magma into a rift, but we never knew that a huge length of the ridge could break open at once like this," said Cindy Ebinger, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester and co-author of the study.
The result shows that highly active volcanic boundaries along the edges of tectonic ocean plates may suddenly break apart in large sections, instead of in bits, as the leading theory held. And such sudden large-scale events on land pose a much more serious hazard to populations living near the rift than would several smaller events, Ebinger said.
"The whole point of this study is to learn whether what is happening in Ethiopia is like what is happening at the bottom of the ocean where it's almost impossible for us to go," says Ebinger. "We knew that if we could establish that, then Ethiopia would essentially be a unique and superb ocean-ridge laboratory for us. Because of the unprecedented cross-border collaboration behind this research, we now know that the answer is yes, it is analogous."
A landmark report about the challenges facing the Cape Floral Region (CFR) over the next century was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa this week.
The 95-page report, compiled by a group of leading experts from South African universities and conservation organisations, follows 70 years after the publication of the Wicht Commission's report on the preservation of the vegetation of the south western Cape in 1945.
Prof. Brian van Wilgen, an internationally-recognised specialist in conservation ecology at the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology (C·I·B) at Stellenbosch University (SU) and lead-author, says the research programme constitutes "the longest history of concerted scientific endeavour aimed at the conservation of an entire region and its constituent vegetation and animals anywhere in the world".
When looking back, he says there are certainly achievements worth celebrating: "Good news is that over the past 70 years we have substantially increased our levels of understanding, vastly expanded our protected area networks, obtained World Heritage Site status for some areas, raised awareness among the public and maintained a vibrant conservation community.
Major palaeo-environmental changes over the past five million years may explain the surprising genetic differences between Africa's wetland and savanna lions.
Recent genetic studies on the continent's dwindling lion populations have revealed a remarkable distinctiveness between regional lion populations, and particularly between wetland and savanna lions. But there exists very little understanding of why or how this happened.
A recent article in the advance access version of the Journal of Heredity, entitled 'Commentary on the genetic variation of Africa's lions (Panthera leo)' invokes geological and palaeoclimatic evidence to account for this unexpected distinctiveness.
Dr Woody Cotterill, evolutionary biologist and geobiologist at Stellenbosch University and one of five co-authors of the article, says genetically the Etosha and Okavango populations stand apart from their closest neighbours in the more arid habitats of Hwange-Chobe and the Kaladgadi.
"Repeated swings between wet and arid climatic conditions over the past five million years can explain a long-term absence of inter-breeding between lions occupying these contrasting habitats," he explains.
But they are still unsure of how or when the wetland and savanna lion populations became genetically isolated.
"We hypothesise that Africa's ancestral lion populations started out in the inland wetlands of south-central Africa. We argue the key to the puzzle lies in isolation of these wetlands through geological history."
For example, consider Botswana's Okavango Delta, Namibia's Etosha Basin, and the Bangweulu Basin in north-west Zambia. These are the modern representatives of a mosaic or archipelago of wetlands which has evolved in space and time in south-central Africa for at least the past 5 million years.
Depending on the climatic conditions at the time, these wetlands became isolated islands whenever vast desert conditions dominated the high plateau. Several desert expansions have occurred repeatedly over the past three million years. At its largest, a Mega-Kalahari desert extended from the southern Congo basin to the Orange River.
During these arid periods, they argue, ancestral population of lions which became isolated from the wetlands were forced to adapt in order to survive on the open grasslands.
However, during wetter climatic periods Africa's grasslands and moister woodlands expanded at the expense of deserts and stimulated the rapid population expansion and diversification of savanna lions. The result was the evolution of a different suite of behavioural and ecological adaptations to become savanna specialists. This in turn acted to genetically isolate them from the original wetland populations
According to Dr Cotterill, their finding holds important implications for lion conservation efforts.
In 2015 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature placed Africa's lions on the Red List of Endangered Species.
The other researchers are Dr Andy Moore (Department of Geology, Rhodes University), Christian Winterbach and Hanlie Winterbach (Centre for Wildlife Management, University of Pretoria); Dr Agostinho Antunes (University do Porto, Portugal) and Dr Stephen J. O'Brien (Theodosius Dobzhansky Center for Genome Bioinformatics, St Petersburg State University, Russia).
Photo 1: Lioness with swimming cubs from the Okavango seasonal wetland. Picture courtesy of Matthew Copham, Safari Footprints, Maun, Botswana
Photo 2: Aquatic lions from the Okavango Delta. Photo courtesy of Andy Moore
The South African bee industry is facing an outbreak of the devastating American foul breed disease (AFB) and need to get the structures in place to deal with this impending epidemic.
This is the view of Prof Theresa Wossler, a behavioural ecologists specialising in bees, wasps and ants from Stellenbosch University. Recent reports indicate that close to 40% of all commercially kept bee colonies in the Western Cape are infected, with little to no information about what is happening in the rest of the country.
"The South African bee industry and government have been fortunate over the years not to have to deal with disease outbreaks and thus do not have the structures in place to cope with an impending epidemic, so it is a race against time to get the structures in place," she says.
AFB is one of the most widespread and destructive bee brood diseases in the world. The first Cape honey bee (Apis mellifera capensis) colonies with clinical symptoms of AFB were confirmed in the Western Cape in 2009.
The disease is caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus larvae which enters the digestive tract of the larva with food. The spores germinate in the midgut finally penetrating the gut wall killing the larva which then emits a rotten smell. The bacteria sporulate in the dead larva releasing up to 2500 million spores.
Eventually the entire colony becomes weakened with other colonies becoming contaminated within the apiary through the transmission of spores, starting a new cycle of infection.
It is exceptionally difficult to kill the spores: "The spores can exist in the environment for up to 40 years and are extremely resistant to any chemical treatments. The only effective solution is to burn all the affected colonies and the equipment."
Prof Wossler reckons we will have a better idea of how to combat the disease if we know what strain of AFB is affecting the bees: "There are four genotypes of AFB that we know of with different levels of virulence. Two of the genotypes have not been isolated from AFB diseased colonies in recent years. In other words, until we know what we are dealing with, any efforts to combat the disease are in vain."
Another option is to identify colonies that show tolerance to the disease: "Africanised bees have shown more resistance to diseases, supposedly because of their hygienic behaviour. They will, for example, take out the sick larvae quicker than other honeybee subspecies. If we can identify those colonies of honeybees with increased resistance, bee keepers can introduce breeding programmes to increase the resistance levels of the honeybee population to AFB," she explains.
The Western Cape deciduous fruit industry, which is worth R9800 million per year, is heavily reliant on pollination services from managed honeybees.
Prof Theresa Wossler
Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University
We aimed to produce the first complete pollination network for Africa to test (1) whether South African plants are unusually specialized in their interactions with pollinators, and (2) whether the South African data conform with global patterns of specialization.
Results: In a global context, the South African plant species had an unusually high number of interaction partners (mean = 6.32) while the animal species had unusually few (mean = 1.81). Animal diversity was high relative to plant diversity (network asymmetry = 0.56). Nevertheless, the South African plants, pollinators and network overall were more specialized than any previously studied community (weighted mean d′ plants = 0.824 and animals = 0.807, community ΔH2′ = 0.834), suggesting functional specialization. Overall, specialization was found to increase sharply with latitude in the Southern Hemisphere, whereas no relationship was found in the Northern Hemisphere.
Agribusiness and farmers should take more care with the development and planting of new pasture species or pay later for cleaning up when these species invade the natural environment.
According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA this week (Monday 3 November 2014), livestock production is already the largest user of land on earth. Growing demand means that production must rise more than 50% by 2050 as global human population and per capita consumption increase.
In response to this demand, agribusiness is developing new pasture plants to increase productivity, grow faster, produce more seeds and tolerate environmental extremes. But most of these pasture plants pose a substantial weed risk to the natural environment.
"In making these pasture varieties more robust, they are more prone to becoming a problem for the environment," warns Prof Don Driscoll from the Australian National University in Canberra. He is the lead author of the article, 'New pasture plants intensify invasive species risk'.
In Australia, for example, gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus) was introduced from Africa in the 1980s as it could support 40 times more cattle than native species. Today the rate of spread of gamba grass in Australia is among the highest of any invasive plant in the world. Growing up to four metres tall, this aggressive invader has increased the cost of fire management from less than AUD$2 000 for each fire to as much as AUD$43 000 per fire.
Prof Dave Richardson, Director of the Centre for Invasion Biology (CIB) at Stellenbosch University and one of the co-authors of the study, says that South Africa's legislation regulating invasive species is among the best in the world: "To a large extent we have foreseen this problem, but our laws are by no means perfect. For example, there is no legislation regulating the development or importation of new varieties of pasture species that already occur in South Africa."
In South Africa, 22 pasture species are prohibited. Legislation also provides for weed risk assessment as a cost-effective biosecurity measure.
According to Prof Richardson the research serves as a wake-up call to fine-tune existing legislation and to ensure enforcement of existing laws.
Most Africa countries, however, face a major problem as there is little or no legislation regulating the import or development of new plants for agriculture: "Aid agencies are trying to increase agricultural productivity in Africa, but with no regulations some of them are introducing well-known invaders. In East Africa, for example, an invasive tree such as Prosopis is promoted for agroforestry. But in 2004 Prosopis was listed among the world's worst 100 invasive species," says Prof Richardson.
Initially planted to provide fuel wood, Prosopis forms dense, impenetrable thickets and has invaded millions of hectares of rangeland in countries like Sudan.
The authors of the PNAS paper recommend four approaches that governments could consider to limit the risk of new invasions and to call the agricultural sector to account:
Develop a national list of pasture species and varieties that are prohibited based on the risks they pose to the environment;Formal weed risk assessment for all new pasture species, including new varieties of species already present in a country;A program to rapidly detect and control new taxa that invade natural areas; andThe implementation of a polluter-pays principle, so that if a newly-introduced pasture plant becomes an environmental weed, industry pays for its management.
The paper was published in the November edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Professor Driscoll has created a video explaining the plan available here - http://youtu.be/lMz1PXtmo1c
Prof Dave Richardson Director: Centre for Invasion Biology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa T: +27 021 808-3711 E: email@example.com
Associate Professor Don Driscoll Australian National University Fenner School of Environment and Society T: 02 6125 8130 M: 0488 657 888 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
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