lizbrownlee – poet

Poems, animal info and Lola the labradoodle!

eXtra eXcellent Poet Gerard Benson

If you are looking for my actual A-Z post for ‘X’, please scroll down below this ‘Xtra’ post.

One year ago today, the wonderful Gerard Benson (poet, actor, raconteur, book reviewer, former Barrow Poet, and former teacher at the Central School of Speech and Drama) died.

I couldn’t let this day pass without reposting this reminder of what we have lost.

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And here, reading his children’s poem, The Cat and the Pig.

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Never forgotten.

 

X is for Xenarthra – Armadillos

Xenarthra is a superorder of animals, the word literally means ‘strange joints’ or joints that have unusual articulation, and animals this includes are Folivra (sloths etc.), Pilosa (anteaters etc.) and Angulata (armadillos etc.).

I’m going to do the pink fairy armadillo,  because someone asked me to, on one of my first posts, and the hairy, screaming armadillo, because I have one.

This photo montage of the pink, fairy armadillo is from Gafa Kassim on Flikr:

fairy armadillo

It is a very strange but rather cute little creature, and as you can see, not as big as a hand. It is the smallest of the armadillos, living underground in Argentina, where it digs through soil and backs up with its ‘butt plate’ armour to compact the earth behind. It’s thought it does this to keep its tunnels from caving in.

It has enormous claws for digging compared to its body size, usually making its burrows next to ant colonies, which is handy for when it wants a snack because ants are what it eats.

And under the soil is where it spends most of its time. It only comes to the surface if it meets rock, or for instance the substrate of a road, and can’t go any further, or if if the soil is waterlogged, as it may get cold and wet which could cause illness.

When it does come to the surface at a road and attempt to cross until it can find burrowing soil again, it is often run over, or picked up by humans.

In Science News in 2013 it was reported that Mariella Superina of the CONICET research centre in Mendoza, Argentina had been researching the rate of extinction of the 21 species of armadillos and their close relatives for 10 years, and had never seen pink fairy armadillo in the wild. She said that the natives could track and find anything except this little creature.

The ones that were picked up by humans usually died within about 8 days.

It is thought to be endangered.

The other armadillo, the hairy, screaming armadillo, is bigger, at about 14 inches long. It is also covered in a leathery, armoured shell.

One day last year we were wandering down a street in Bristol during  a festival, and on a stall selling bric a brac, I saw a hairy screaming armadillo. Not long before, I’d researched them and written a poem about them, so I was pretty sure it was one. Not alive of course – its shell, still complete with bristles.

The price was rather high. But I yearned. My dear husband went back and bartered them down – he presented it to me for our anniversary. So now the mortal remains of one poor, hairy, screaming armadillo sits beside my desk; a representation of man’s exploitation of creatures. He was killed to be a curio, a curious ornament. I will take him into schools and show children.

When I got home I compared the shell to pictures and descriptions and counted its segments and it is indeed a hairy, screaming armadillo.

This type of armadillo eats insects, small mammals like mice, frogs and also plants. It lives in hot, dry areas in burrows. They swallow so much sand when they eat, sometimes their stomachs are half full of it.

They have bristles poking out in between the plates of their shell.

If they are threatened, including if a human touches or picks one up, they emit a sharp, high, piercing shriek.

Here is this one’s poem:

 

Hairy Screaming Armadillo

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The screaming, hairy, armadillo –

a bony, bristly, thistly fellow,

with a loud and squeaky bellow,

if you kept one by your pillow,

you’d have a great alarmadillo!

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Poem © Liz Brownlee

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Here is a little video on YouTube of a hairy screaming armadillo – screaming. It’s quite a good non-aggressive defense mechanism:

 

All material © Liz Brownlee except where stated.

Facts from Wiki and Wired.

If you would like to blog-hop to the next A-Z Challenge blog, please click here.

If you’d like to read about or buy my book, Animal Magic, full of animal poems and fascinating facts, click here.

W is for Water Vole

There are 3 types of cute vole living in the UK and this is the biggest, at 4.5-9 inches – a water vole. This brilliant image has been taken by the prolific nature photographer, Peter Trimming, on Flikr.

SONY DSC

‘Ratty’ in The Wind in the Willows was not a rat at all, but a water vole.  Water voles are delightful creatures – in the UK they live by water, but in other countries they are not reliant on it.

UK water voles dig burrows in the banks of rivers; some holes are below water to allow for quick, secret escape. They are much faster in the water than on land, and kick up mud with their feet to confuse predators.

But they are not true water animals, as they don’t have webbed feet and can only swim for about 15 minutes before their coat gets waterlogged. So vegetation and their burrows are vital for hiding from predators.

They live along slow moving rivers with plenty of cover and no or restricted sheep and cattle access – cows trample their burrows.

Water voles do not damage riverways, they are part of the natural food chain, eating grasses, sedges, rushes, berries, occasionally buds and roots.

New research has shown that they store food in separate larders for different types of food, sleep together in a chamber which has an en-suite latrine, and that they control the temperature of their burrows by blocking and unblocking tunnel entrances.

At the time that Wind in the Willow was written, there were 8 million water voles in Britain.

But then, in the 1920s, mink coats came into fashion. Thousands of mink were imported and bred on on 800 or so mink ranches here in the UK. Some escaped.

Some were let free by animal rights activists. I agree that creatures should never be kept and used for fashion.

But those mink have made their home here, spread across the country, and have decimated our indigenous water vole. 90% of their population, gone. And more going.

They also have to cope with the loss of habitat, badly maintained waterways, overgrazing down to the water’s edge by sheep, and normal predation by fox, owl etc.

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen water voles as a child and once as an adult, and they are very appealing. A tell-tale sign they are around is a distinctive ‘plop’ as they dive in the water.

On the way to school once my children and I saw a related species, the bank vole – it was snowing, the snow lay on the ground, and there was a bank vole hole in a bank of grass in the churchyard we passed through.

On this day a little bank vole head appeared from the hole. We stopped still to watch. It came out, seemingly oblivious to us, and I can only describe its behaviour in this way, it danced in the snow. It looked for the world like a child revelling in the wonder of whiteness and slow snowflakes falling. On its back feet, front legs stretched to the sky. Magical.

Even voles feel joy in life and the changing seasons.

This is a water vole poem written for young children:

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Water Vole

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Under the willow is a water vole,

in the green riverbank down a long dark hole,

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he’s safe in his hole, but he loves to swim,

so he wakes in the morning and ‘plop!’ dives in,

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goes pitter-patter paddle with his fingers and toes,

his furry tail trailing his whiskers and nose,

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which twitches when he finds tasty river bank roots,

fallen juicy fruit or weeping willow shoots,

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he gnaws and he nibbles using mouth and paws

and takes tasty treats home to keep in his stores,

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he pitter-patter paddles in a vole-like way,

twitches nose and nibbles the whole light day,

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then scurries down his burrow, dark and deep

to cuddle his vole family and go to sleep.

 

Poem © Liz Brownlee

 

Here is rather a lovely water vole eating a bulrush leaf on a video by avonbirding on YouTube:

Cute, isn’t he?

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Information from ARKive.

If you would like to blog-hop to the next A-Z Challenge blog, please click here.

If you’d like to read about or buy my book, Animal Magic, full of animal poems and fascinating facts, click here.

V is for Venezuelan Pebble Toad

Oréophrynella nigra

This is rather an endearing little toad, photographed by Gérard Vigo – one of the differences between frogs and toads is that toads do not have such long, strong, back legs as frogs, and move by small hops or walking.

This little toad has found a way to escape from its predators (mainly the toad-eating tarantula) without having the ability to jump clear.

Here is my poem, which explains:

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Pebble Toad

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To the Venezuelan

pebble toad,

climbing on

its stony road,

the fierce tarantula

(toad-eating),

would not make a

happy meeting,

so it tucks its limbs

to pebble shape

and jumps off cliffs

for quick escape –

it is so tiny,

weighs not much,

every knock

is but a touch,

despite its bumpy

downward fall,

it bounces back

like a rubber ball!

 

The toad also clenches its muscles so that it is more likely to protect them.

Amazing.

This film appears on the BBC website.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Oreophrynella_nigra#p004rqt3

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All material © Liz Brownlee except where stated.

Poem © Liz Brownlee

Information from Wiki.

If you would like to blog-hop to the next A-Z Challenge blog, please click here.

If you’d like to read about or buy my book, Animal Magic, full of animal poems and fascinating facts, click here.

U is for Underwater

Sapphirina_fl1

This photo was taken by the fabulously talented Stefan Siebert, who has kindly given me permission to show it here. It is an extraordinarily beautiful creature, a tiny (about 5mm) underwater crustacean. It is a species of Sapphirina copepod – in the same family as woodlice and crabs.

They are usually invisible. Until that is, they catch the light, when they burst into visibility like a flash of prismatic wonder and as quickly disappear again.

Describing them is almost an exercise in futility – so with his permission I am linking you to a film of them on Vimeo, taken by another incredible photographer, Kaj Maney, who runs a diving school in Indonesia, so that you can watch in awe.

Like all crustaceans they have an exoskeleton, but theirs is transparent and has crystalline elements – when the light strikes them at the right angle, the exoskeleton acts like prism and it appears in a blaze of glory.

There are many types of tiny crustacean, with other tiny animals and fish, eggs etc. drifting in the currents, they help form the zooplankton that sustains many creatures, big and small; seahorses, jellyfish, even some types of whale.

These particular crustaceans, copepods, are tiny creatures which aren’t usually very attractive, each sporting one eye, long antennae and segmented bodies (rather like woodlice).

The sapphirina copepods are a stunningly beautiful exception.

The gemstone sapphire can be found in many colours and so can copepods, golds, greens and purples as well as blue.

Sometimes they come to the surface and shimmer in the light – Japanese fishermen called this phenomenon ‘Tamamizu’ which means jewelled water, or water bead.

Unless you are a diver, you will probably never see one!

 

My copepod poem:

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Sapphirina Copepods

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They make up

‘Tamamizu’

jewelled water,

these sea sapphires

teasing sight,

transparent

and invisible,

until they

catch the light,

part it in their

prisms that

splay colours,

crystal bright,

to blaze alive

like sapphires

in the under-

water night.

 

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Poem © Liz Brownlee

Photo © Dr Stefan Siebert (Please note there is no creative commons license for this image, I have permission to show it.)

Film © Kaj Maney (Please note there is no creative commons license to show this film, I have permission to show it.)

Information from Wiki, Deep Sea News, Phys.org.

If you would like to blog-hop to the next A-Z Challenge blog, please click here.

If you’d like to read about or buy my book, Animal Magic, full of animal poems and fascinating facts, click here.

T is for Tarsier

Today it’s T for tarsier – a heart-meltingly cute little creature – this one is from the Philippines, an image by Yeowatzup on Flikr.

Tarsier yeowatzup

The Philippine tarsier is only 3-6 inches in length (not including its surprisingly long tail) which makes it hard to spot – it’s one of the smallest primates.

Tarsiers live on a few islands in Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. There are many subspecies of three groups of tarsier, Western, Eastern and Philippine, but scientists keep reclassifying them so it’s hard to be sure of this!

Tarsiers have remarkably long hind legs, the result of the elongation of their tarsal (ankle) bone – they are the only mammal to have this adaptation and it enables them to jump 40 times their own body length.

Their eyes are enormous and relative to their size the largest of any mammal – each of their eyes is larger than their brain! They are nocturnal hunters and their huge eyes mean they can use all the available light.

They eat insects and hunting with those searchlight eyes is greatly helped by the fact they can rotate their heads nearly 360 degrees.

When they’ve spotted some prey, they carefully position themselves and leap, catching it in their hands and biting off its head.

Their ears are large and membranous, and can hear up to 91 kilohertz, compared to our hearing which can only hear up to 20 kilohertz. It was thought that they were silent – but in fact they’d been crying out all the time in the frequency of a bat, far higher than any other mammal known.

I can’t stop looking at them, so here’s another image by Roberto Verzo on Flikr:

Verzo tarsier bohol

Oh, my.

They use those long fingers to stretch and catch their prey as they leap. They have flat ends and fingernails.

Of course, they are classified Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List, due to loss of habitat.

Both of the above tarsiers have been photographed in a sanctuary in Bohol.

Here is my tarsier poem:

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Tarsier

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The tarsier

is all surprise,

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has ears like wings

of butterflies,

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is elongated

digit-wise,

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eats lizards, insects,

all that flies,

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is of the very

smallest size,

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except its eyes, its eyes

its mesmer-eyes!

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Poem © Liz Brownlee

Photos © Yeowatzup and Roberto Verzo

Information from Livescience, ARKive, BBC, A-Z Animals.

If you would like to blog-hop to the next A-Z Challenge blog, please click here.

If you’d like to read about or buy my book, Animal Magic, full of animal poems and fascinating facts, click here.

S is for Squirrel

This squirrel image was taken by Tim Green on Flikr:

Squirrel Tim Green

People are divided in opinion about squirrels, particularly grey squirrels.

They are curious, friendly, extremely intelligent, entertaining, and can live in towns and cities and woodlands with equal ease.

They climb. This means there is a downside, sometimes – they can be destructive and chew through things like cables. They need to gnaw to keep their teeth in check, as they grow continuously.

But in the best of circumstances, where there is enough space and food, they are a welcome visitor to the garden for many people.

Some facts about squirrels:

They do eat buds and young leaves of trees – however many trees have defences against squirrels and they seldom actually harm trees in natural surroundings.

In fact, they perform a wonderful service in that they ‘scatter’ hoard – leave nuts buried and hidden all over the forest, so many that they can’t possibly recall where they all are.

In this way they help trees procreate some distance further away than just where the nuts have dropped underneath the parent.

In the US, there are two types of oak tree, red oaks and white oaks.

Richard W. Thorington, Curator of Mammals at Smithsonian University, has studied squirrels. In his books, Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide, and Squirrels of the World, he states some fascinating facts.

He says that because white oak acorns sprout easily and early as soon as they are buried, squirrels have learned to either eat them first and just bury the red nuts, or, and this is really clever, bite through the embryo of the white oak acorns, meaning they can’t sprout. Then they bury them.

Other facts:

They can run as fast as 20mph.

They stop quite still to assess danger before leaping away and off – this means that they often get run over on roads.

Their name comes from a Greek word, skiouros, meaning ‘shadow tail’.

When they live in groups squirrel will warn the others of a perceived danger – they have quite a harsh warning cry that sounds almost like a bird. The one that warns stays until all the others have got to safety.

American grey squirrels were introduced into the UK. Unfortunately they are hardier and more able to withstand periods of food shortage than the indigenous UK red squirrel, and carry a disease that they have some immunity to, but which kills red squirrels almost immediately when they catch it.

Now red squirrels are only present in a few small areas of the UK, Brownsea Island off of Poole in the south, a few small areas of Wales, and a contracting population in Scotland.

Here is a red squirrel taken by Paul Buxton on Flikr – they are ridiculously cute!

Red squirrel paul buxton

There are only 140,000 red squirrels left, compared to an estimated 2.4 million greys.

They live on mainly seeds, from pine cones and things like that, and also fungi – they ‘dry’ fungi by hanging it out over branches to store and eat during the winter.

Here is my squirrel poem:

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Squirrels

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Let’s celebrate the squirrels

that perform the twig trapeze,

their tightrope walking artistry,

their acrobatic ease,

fuelled by the forest’s music

of buds and nuts and leaves,

they plant the future woodland –

they are spirits of the trees.

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Poem © Liz Brownlee

Photos © Tim Green and Paul Buxton.

Information from Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide by Richard W Thorington, Forestry Commision, About Squirrels.com.

If you would like to blog-hop to the next A-Z Challenge blog, please click here.

If you’d like to read about or buy my book, Animal Magic, full of animal poems and fascinating facts, click here.

R is for Robin

This beautiful image of a UK robin redbreast was taken by Ross Elliott on Flikr.

Robin, Ross Elliott

The robin is my favourite British bird. They are so round and cheerful, with such a wonderfully jaunty carriage as they hop and bounce around the garden.

They tilt their heads and look straight at you with their bright, black, round eyes and you can sense their intelligence.

Robins came to be associated with Christmas in the UK because our postmen used to deliver cards dressed in cheery red, and were nicknamed ‘robins’. I wonder if blue-tits will now become the bird of choice, now our posties are in blue?

Robins are also special to us because they are known as the gardener’s friend – they will sit in company of someone digging the soil, waiting to take advantage of the disturbed worms.

They also have a beautiful, liquid song – they have been mistaken for nightingales when singing at night, kept awake by the street lights. And they even sing during the winter.

Although friendly birds and easily tameable here, in Europe they are much shyer as there they are caught in nets, or shot and eaten, or even shot for sport.

Chris Packham, the nature journalist (@ChrisGPackham) has campaigned against such practises as those in Malta, where there is an annual mass slaughter of more than 24 species of protected, migrating songbirds from 30 European countries.

Robin males are attentive partners, and will feed the female while she is sitting in the nest assiduously.

They are feisty little birds and will fight another robin to the end if it strays into their territory, causing many robin casualties – however the main reason for robin deaths are cats.

The RSPB suggests keeping cats indoors with a litter tray at night from 8pm until 8am the next morning – for the sake of all birds, at all times, but particularly in the breeding season.

Here is my robin poem:

 

Robins

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Of all the birds,

robins are best,

with bright, round eyes

and long, slim legs,

melodious songs

and sweet moss nests;

and proving they’re

the friendliest,

they both wear red

hearts on their breast.

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Poem © Liz Brownlee

Photo © Ross Elliott.

Information from RSPB, Onekind, ARKive.

If you would like to blog-hop to the next A-Z Challenge blog, please click here.

If you’d like to read about or buy my book, Animal Magic, full of animal poems and fascinating facts, click here.

Q is for Quoll

This image of a sleeping quoll was taken by Lizardstomp, in Trowunna Wildlife Park, Australia, and is on Flikr.

quoll by lizardstomp

There are several types of quoll, they are Australian marsupials, although only one type has a true pouch – the rest form a fold when breeding to tuck their babies into and their young hang from the nipples.

They are very endearing, and also rather cat-like in their appearance and habits.

All have coats in varying shades of brown with wonderful white spots, pink noses and long snouts.

Sadly they are suffering from declining numbers; they are at risk from the cane toad, a non-endemic animal that was introduced to Australia, which is poisonous.

They are also eaten by various predators including foxes and cats; suffer from increasing urbanisation; loss of habitat from other causes, and, because they are carnivores and also scavenge, eating poisoned meat left out for rats.

Added to a very short life span (the lowest estimate is two years), the future does not seem too rosy for this endearing little creature.

Here is a poem about it:

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The Quoll

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Mourn for the small

Australian quoll,

it doesn’t have much

life at all,

cute as a cat

with spots upon,

so much peril,

and they don’t live long.

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Poem © Liz Brownlee

Photo © Lizardstomp

Information from Wiki.

If you would like to blog-hop to the next A-Z Challenge blog, please click here.

If you’d like to read about or buy my book, Animal Magic, full of animal poems and fascinating facts, click here.

P is for Platypus!

DSC_0932

The platypus, picture above by Klaus on Flikr, is one of the most amazing animals on earth. It is a leftover from the Miocene period… when creatures had not split into reptiles, birds and mammals as entirely as they have today.

Consequently it has attributes of all three types of species.

It looks very much like a beaver, and has a very beaver-like tail. Its fur is waterproof and extremely dense, and when they were hunted, the fur could not easily be sewn into clothes, so was usually made into rugs.

It also has an unusual, soft, beak, shaped like a duck’s. This beak is very sensitive to vibration and electrical activity – when the platypus is underwater, hunting, it shuts down its senses of smell, hearing and sight and uses just the beak to sense the electric impulses in the muscles of its prey.

One of the most interesting things about them is that they lay eggs – the only mammal apart from an echidna (a hedgehog-like animal) that does.

Their babies hatch from eggs – but the female platypus feeds them milk. Only she does not have nipples – the milk is secreted through pores in her skin, and the baby platypuses (the word is derived from Greek, not Latin, so the plural should be platypodes, but that sounds silly, so everyone calls plural platypuses, platypuses!) lick the milk from her fur.

The male platypus has a spur, like a little tooth, behind each back foot. It is venomous – it squirts poison and can kill quite large animals, including dogs. It is used during the mating season, when the males become quite aggressive. Humans who have been caught by the spurs report that the pain is intense.

This is a (very) quick poem on platypuses:

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Platypus

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If you like unique,

then you are in luck,

this creature’s part beaver

plus bits from a duck –

a beaver-y tail

with webs on its legs,

milk for its babies

which hatch out of eggs.

Electro-receptors

in its duck-like bill

detect activity

so it finds its kill.

Most amazing of all,

though till now unseen –

it has mammal and bird

and reptilian genes!*

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Poem © Liz Brownlee

*Information from LiveScience

Species Information from PlatypusFacts.

If you would like to blog-hop to the next A-Z Challenge blog, please click here.

If you’d like to read about or buy my book, Animal Magic, full of animal poems and fascinating facts, click here.

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