COVID-19 is eroding scientific field work – and our knowledge of how the world is changing

Collecting data on invasive plants, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California. Connar L’Ecuyer/NPS

Richard B. Primack, Boston University and Casey Setash, Colorado State University

Editor’s note: Summer is prime time across much of North America for scientists to do field research outdoors. But this year the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many researchers to cancel or scale back their plans. We asked two scholars to explain the long-term effects of a missed or downscaled field research season.

Richard B. Primack, Boston University

Holes in the data

For the first time in 50 years, ornithologists at the Manomet nature observatory in Plymouth, Massachusetts are not opening their mist nets every weekday at dawn to catch, measure and band migrating songbirds. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the center has essentially canceled its spring field season and will be doing only very limited sampling. Going forward, its long-term banding data will contain only a fraction of the usual information on songbird migrations during the spring of 2020.

Across the world, field stations, nature centers and universities have shut down long-term research to protect scientists, staff, students and volunteers from COVID-19. There’s good reason for this step, but it comes at a cost.

Collecting data over many years allows scientists to detect gradual trends and short-term anomalies in the health of forests, bays and other ecosystems and biological communities. Long-term research has been crucial in detecting how climate change is affecting the abundance and distribution of species and the timing of spring events, such as bird migrations and plant flowering.

Marking snowmelt plots at the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research site in Colorado. E. Zambello/LTER Network

Multi-year data has been vital to understanding how ecosystems bounce back after major disturbances like hurricanes and wildfires. Long-term research has informed policies addressing air and water pollution and wildlife conservationin ways that would have been impossible through short-term studies alone.

Since 1980, the U.S. National Science Foundation has supported a network of Long Term Ecological Research sites that now spans 28 locations, from northern Alaska to Antarctica and across North America. These sites are leaders in detecting effects of air pollution, land use and urbanization on ecosystems. The data they produce is available to the public and the scientific community.

Sites in the U.S. Long-Term Ecological Research network, identified by their acronyms. LTER Network

Many long-term studies also take place in national parks, where researchers track subjects like water quality, wetland health and endangered species. In a normal year, armies of researchers and students would be at work in national parks and Long-Term Ecological Research sites. Now, however, just small groups are collecting data, aided by automated equipment.

Working solo

Some small-scale projects are managing to continue. Over the past 18 years, my students and I have recorded wildflower flowering and the first appearance of spring leaves in Concord, Massachusetts, repeating observations made by Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s.

We’re doing this to study the ecological effects of climate change. Our studies have shown that plants are flowering about 10 days earlier in the spring than they did in Thoreau’s time. We have also found that cold-loving northern wildflower species are becoming less abundant, and nonnative species are increasing.

Now I wear a mask, go out early in the mornings when few people are on the trails and work without students. None of this is how we typically work, but it allows me to continue this research and capture anomalies that might occur this year.

Richard Primack wears a face mask while repeating Henry David Thoreau’s spring flowering and leafing observations in Concord, Massachusetts. Richard Primack, CC BY-ND

But maintaining a few long-term studies won’t make up for irreplaceable losses to science that will occur this year, especially for two-year experimental studies that were supposed to start or end this year. My colleagues and I hope that this pandemic ends soon, so that scientists can get back to analyzing the long-term workings of ecosystems – and the ecological impacts of coronavirus.

Casey Setash, Colorado State University

Abundant uncertainty

Ecologists like me often measure a field season by the numbers: 40 birds captured, 85 nest plots searched, three times when the truck got stuck. This year we’re thinking about Colorado’s coronavirus case count.

My field site sits at an elevation of about 8,500 feet in northern Colorado’s Jackson County. The landscape and lifestyles here have remained largely unchanged over the last century. Jackson is also one of the few counties in Colorado without a positive case of COVID-19.

I’m conducting field work that will inform my dissertation on waterfowl breeding in flood-irrigated agricultural systems, as well as a long-term waterfowl monitoring project run by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Answering my proposed questions requires capturing 40 female mallards and gadwall, two common duck species. We mark them with GPS transmitters, conduct biweekly samples in the flooded fields for invertebrates – small crustaceans that ducks eat – and carry out daily nest searches within a 250-square-mile area.

Dawn at Casey Setash’s research site in northern Colorado. Casey Setash, CC BY-ND

The 2020 field season is the second of three field seasons that I will conduct for my Ph.D., and I had plans to hit the ground running. Instead, we have whittled our six-person crew down to three and are living in trailers without running water, rather than in U.S. Forest Service housing that normally would be available.

Our daily routine of cold mornings counting ducks, checking traps and searching for nests feels familiar and comforting. But every task is tinged with worry and guilt. What if we introduce COVID-19 to Jackson County? How are we going to attach GPS transmitters to ducks – a process that usually takes at least two people – while maintaining proper social distancing measures? Scientists are used to estimating uncertainty, but almost everything this year is a question mark.

Colorado Parks & Wildlife technician Ella Engelhard with a tagged gadwall. Casey Setash, CC BY-ND

Waterfowl ecologists were among the first scientists to initiate long-term ecological monitoring in the 1950s. Today, states still base decisions about hunting limits on annual surveys of ducks breeding throughout the Prairie Pothole Region of the northern Great Plains, also known as the duck factory of North America.

Long-term projects like these often are replacement data sources when studies like mine go awry. But this year, for the first time since 1955, neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor the Canadian Wildlife Service will carry out their Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey.

While safety precautions are changing everything, from the amount of data we can collect to the social structure of our field crew, I am one of the lucky few who get to keep working. My field site lies in a sweet spot, between “too far from a hospital” and “too many people.” And it is comforting to be outside with some semblance of normalcy, rather than sitting indoors wondering what the ducks are up to.

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Richard B. Primack, Professor of Biology, Boston University and Casey Setash, PhD student in Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, Colorado State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

56 thoughts on “COVID-19 is eroding scientific field work – and our knowledge of how the world is changing

  1. Of course plants are flowering 10 days earlier than in Thoreau’s time. He was recording flowering dates when it was still the Little Ice Age.

  2. Working outside alone or in pairs, with separation, is safer than sheltering at home. Wearing masks alone in the forest will help keep your nose warm (so not totally worthless).

    • Actually, wearing a mask when not necessary allows for the build up of toxins in the mask, which you then breathe in

      Only a complete brain-washed nutcase would wear a mask out in the wilderness and actually think it served any purpose !

      • Plus they decrease O2 and increase CO2 blood levels, which impairs immunity and creates a lower pH that the coronavirus needs to infect a cell, respectively.

        Wearing a mask has become the new virtue signaling.

        • Ivisil
          Your comment is nteresting about a body with lower pH being more prone to infection.
          I have a Kangen water machine and drink water at 9.5ph, don’t consume acidic food or drinks where possible.
          The modern diet for the majority of people is highly acidic, and low on nutrition.
          Regards

        • “Wearing a mask has become the new virtue signaling.”

          And wearing a mask has become a “Dog Whistle” for the Right. If you wear a mask, you are a slave, or a dupe, or easily influenced. I’m on the Right, but I don’t listen to Dog Whistles/kneejerk reactions because I think for myself.

          I went to the store yesterday wearing my mask, as I am considerate of other human beings for the most part, and about half the people I saw were doing the same, and about half were not.

          We have enough “rebels” that we will soon find out whether their bravado was justified or not. Those who don’t take all the precautions they can are just rolling the dice for themselves and their loved ones. They should think about that.

          We’ll see. The experiment is taking place.

          • Now young Tom, when you say ‘mask’ do you mean a closely fitting face covering capable of forcing all air coming into the lungs to pass through a series of filtering devices, or do you mean a personal sneeze guard?

            If we take Richard in the photo above (I am assuming he is the one on the right of the photo), he is wearing a sneeze guard. Take note of the loose fit and the clear gaps between face and mask around his nose. In practical terms he is doing little to filter the air flow coming in even if the material of his mask was N95 rated.

            Wuhan Virus is, I have been lead to believe, an airborne fun factory and not an aerosol. The active components (particles? not sure the correct term here) are smaller than the weave of non N95 masks and pass through most masks in use like rice through a tennis racket.

            What you are doing wearing them is basically restricting the aerosols coming out. Basically, as mentioned, it is a sneeze guard.

            So if you are sick then a mask of this kind is probably a good idea. No one really wants gobs of ick floating around on the immediate breeze so you can catch them all on your sneeze guard and dispose of it hygienically later.

            You are disposing of your masks, right? Otherwise you are carrying little bacteria factories around millimetres from your nose and mouth and I will want to see some pretty high level research studies before you convince me that that is a good idea.

            On that topic, Ella in the nice multi colour neck wrap thing. Not a Mask. Yes she has covered her face and is probably nice and warm in the chill Spring air, but again that is not a N95 rated device. Considering she is unlikely to dispose of that item, and, being out in the field also unlikely to wash it regularly I would hate to think what sort of muck is living in the weave of that at the end of the week.

            (I really honestly hate to think… I work in Engineering because steel doesn’t bleed. A lot of that biology stuff freaks me.)

            So yes, Tom. There is more to ‘masks’ than just wearing one. Understanding what they can and cannot do is worth your while so you can make an informed choice.

            Or… you can listen to the dog whistles and kneejerks and Orange Man Bad he-doesn’t-wear-one-so-we-are-going-to-constantly and virtual signal your compliance.

            Remember, unless you are wearing N95 rated that fits correctly you are wearing a sneeze guard, and, more to the point, probably putting other people at risks as you mingle in public with your false sense of protection.

          • “Remember, unless you are wearing N95 rated that fits correctly you are wearing a sneeze guard, and, more to the point, probably putting other people at risks as you mingle in public with your false sense of protection.”

            I do wear an N95 mask. I bought them several years ago to use when I mow my lawn. But they work just fine for pandemics, too.

            You say the sneeze guard is “probably” putting others at risk? So you are just guessing then. Is a sneeze guard less safe than no mask?

            You notice all the doctors and nurses in the Wuhan virus section wear masks. You should assume they do so for a good reason.

            As for masks being Dog Whistles for the Right: The Rightwing talkshow hosts are turning the mask into a symbol of oppression. They are descending into paranoia, and conspiracy theories over a mask and a pandemic. I thought these guys and girl were able to think critically, and they do with most subjects, but the pandemic has discombobulated their thinking. They still incorrectly claim the virus computer models are junk.

            They don’t like the economic shutdown, so they try to undermine everything about it, and go over to the “Dark Side” in their efforts with distortions of reality worthy of the Leftwing mob.

            My rational rightwing talkshow hosts have gone off the deepend over the pandemic and their rhetoric is not helping the situation at all. Especially the rhetoric that is factually incorrect and they are putting out a lot of it. I’ve been changing the channel on them a lot here lately when they go too far overboard.

            Maybe they will get back to normal in a few months when they finally realize the economy is still alive and kicking. Right now it’s all gloom and doom from them.

      • Talking of wearing faces masks, and they may become mandatory here in the UK as part of the plan to let us out again, won’t they interfere with the ability of facial recognition surveillance cameras to recognise us?

        • yes it would;-)
          even funnier
          its now the bank Staff who wear masks while the customers need go without for facial recog cctv etc
          amusingly twisted isnt it?

      • I’ve seen a lot of bicyclists and runners wearing masks outdoors in the sunshine on generally uncrowded trails. I would guess that these are fearful, perhaps brainwashed people.

        • I watched a mask-wearing bicyclist pedal right through a red light. I guess some risks are worth taking and others are not. 😉

    • I have not seen anybody wearing masks outside of hospitals here in this country with the striped curtains.

      However, the wild moose have been ordered to wear masks as a protection from human scientists./SARC

      You may have three guesses what country it is.

    • Forest bathing.
      Inhaling the complex oils emitted by trees eventually get broken down to form building blocks for the creation of T cells.
      ( don’t get me to explain it )
      A two hour walk in city environment is not as beneficial as a two hour walk in forest.

  3. As I read along in this tale, I was thinking what a lot of crying over studies that have morphed into climate change misadventures, and then I saw the photo of Ella Engelhard and I thought I wonder what that duck would taste like in a crockpot with some vegetables and a nice wine? Actually I do not see any reason select teams of scientists cannot carry out field work, in the security of extremely low probability of contact with infected persons. Ten days “climate change” in 160 years? Forget about it.

    • Ten days… after several hundred years of recovery from the Little Ice Age ANOMALY.

    • Since the duck appears to be rather docile I suspect it’s also well fed, juicy and tender. But I would skip the crockpot and go straight for a pan fry, some wild rice on the side, and a decent Pinot Noir

    • Having spent 7 summers doing geological field work in Jackson County, Colorado, I can attest to its extreme scenic beauty, low human population, and high population of waterfowl, raptors, moose, deer, elk, beaver, coyote, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and all other manner of wildlife (in addition to thousands of cattle, horses, buffalo, and a few sheep). Almost the entire county is above 8,000 ft elevation

      Anyone who wants to know about waterfowl just hangs out at the Conoco or the Shell station over a cup of coffee. The fishermen at North Park Anglers can tell you many useful things about critters in the waterways that feed the fish and birds. And if you’ve got research grant money, then stay in one of the motels in town rather than a cold-water trailer, fercryinoutloud. That’s what the grant money is for, not those fancy Carhartt waders.

      A little missing data here and there never stopped the historical climatology folks from extrapolating or in-filling or homogenizing as needed to get the “right” anomaly trends.

  4. What does having 2 boxes strapped to a godwall’s back do to the chances of it’s succesful mating?

  5. Probably a blessed relief for all the poor critters, not being stressed by capture/measure/observation and close exposure to human diseases.

  6. There were a time when foresters took care of the forests and the wild life.

  7. I do research in a university institute. I’ve observed that during this shutdown, a high number of Chinese researchers have made their way into the lab facilities. More recently, the ratio has dropped as access is opened. Keep in mind that foreign students are money makers for universities and most are Chinese.

    • “Keep in mind that foreign students are money makers for universities and most are Chinese.”

      Yes, they are money makers for the universities, but money and national security loses for the victimized nations.

      It’s time to shut down China’s university espionage racket.

      The Chinese are putting their people into these institutions as a method of stealing us blind. And they are doing a good job of it so far. It’s time to put a stop to it.

      rump is starting to arrest people in U.S. universities who are taking money from China and supposedly doing illegal things as a result. The Justice Department has arrested four or five individuals over the last few months with connections to China.

      • “It’s time to shut down China’s university espionage racket”

        From Trump’s latest announcement about an hour ago, it looks like he is going to do something about the university espionage racket now.

        He also said he was not going to give any money to the WHO.

        And Hong Kong has lost its special status as a trading partner and will be treated like China is treated with many more restrictions.

        Trump is going to have another news conference here in a little while. No doubt, more interesting things will be said.

        It is time for us to recognize our enemies and right at the top of that list is the Chinese Communist Party. We should treat them like the predators they are. They are worse than terrorists.

  8. same as others here I see No reason at all for non ability to do the annoying things to birds or other wildlife.
    if you work in a group then all get 2 covid tests done a week prior then stay isolated til you go bush.
    sure not going to be an issue out in the wilds, chances of a covid infected human giving it to a wildcat?
    zillions to none

  9. From the article’s title: “. . . and our knowledge of how the world is changing.”

    Since when has that not been the case . . . maybe before proto-homo sapiens were able to communicate?

  10. Oh please! At this point, wild life biology is all about finding an excuse to have an adventure on someone else’s dime (and i’m envious). Taking a break from darting, netting, banding and generally harassing wildlife is probably a good thing for the eco-system at this point. The animals don’t understand the concepts of patting oneself on the back and resume building, which is what wildlife biology and science in general is all about these days in my opinion.

    • “…wild life biology is all about finding an excuse to have an adventure on someone else’s dime…”

      Well speaking from personal experience… YUP, and, it was awesome.

      Back about 12 years ago the company I was working for used to sponsor selected employees to go off and be field research assistants as part of the company’s corporate public image. For the cost of one week of my annual leave and the purchase of new personal kit I got to spend two weeks in the Queensland rainforest helping PhD students count lizards, measure leaf litter decay rates and drown ants in medical alcohol.

      Come to think of it some of the other corporate volunteers were from Shell. Got to love those Big Oil dollars helping out scientific research. 😀

  11. That’s OK.
    With all the time off, scientists can go read my blog to learn how the world works.

    They can stop following an early 19th century mathmatician geothermal denier.

    Imagine that: In the 21st century, people still believe in magic warming gases, rather than the hot plate they’re standing on.

    Fourier never saw a borehole temperature measurement in his whole life – that’s the guy to follow! lol

        • Neil Ferguson’s covid model forcasts of mass deaths should cause governments to question models.
          You would think so, but that requires independent thinking, and that ain’t gonna happen.

    • Imagine that: In the 21st century doctors have abandoned Koch’s postulates to believe in magical infectious goblins; and the terrified town folk wear diaper-mask talismans to ward them off while they await the coming of VAXX with his Holy Jab to save them.

  12. COVID-19 virus forms a 0.3 micron airborne particle.

    Researchers pictured above are not wearing any sort of protection against viruses.
    The lady wearing the neck gaiter is wearing less airborne virus protection than the character above wearing a cheap surgery mask.

    “Colorado Parks & Wildlife technician Ella Engelhard with a tagged gadwall. Casey Setash, CC BY-ND”

    • What percentage of the duck’s weight is that tag!?
    • whether that huge block of architecture hampers or prevents mating?
    • Do the researchers take into account how that extra weight and air resistance change flight patterns?
    • Her neck gaiter is great for neck warming and preventing sunburn; useless for filtering out sub micron viruses.

    Just more sub PM2.5 particle fantasy.

  13. To not go into the field to conduct outdoor research over a fear of a virus that has shown, so far, NOT TO KILL 99.97% of otherwise healthy people who contract it?

    What is worse is such a small mortality is actually inflated for propaganda purposes. This is a death rate which we know to be inflated, taking bureaucratic priority in the classification of COD due to a need for the world governments and media to cover their back sides to the point of paying extortion money for COVID ventilator and death. Think back to the flatten the curve and Ventilator shortage scares. When the death rate according to the CDC was an inflated 39K CNN was reporting in excess of nearly 80K deaths. If you are blind to the manipulation and madness of this massive government hoax, I question human intelligence and our ability to overcome irrational fear.

    There must exist different markers in the human genome that determine an individuals ability to think rationally. When flipped off it places their amygdala into hyper drive which shuts down the logic center of the brain.

  14. The birds that come visit me in the warm weather are doing fine. New babies flying around right now.

    I don’t think this pandemic should hamper people who go out in the wilderness to do their scientific work, especially now that everything is starting to open back up. Go get that data, boys and girls! Wear that mask when the circumstances call for it.

  15. This is a nice post, it’s easy to forget that all of the research information is collected by dedicated people with good intentions.
    They work in the political climate, we live in it and comment about it, and it is easy to forget the difficulties they must endure.
    Regards

  16. Mist netting birds is one of the cruelest, most destructive, least “scientific” practices ever perpetrated on wildlife. Zero knowledge is gained from snagging creatures, man-handling them, and scaring them to death. Indeed, a high percentage of mist netted birds die while being extracted from the nets. Their little necks get broken. Another large percentage die shortly thereafter.

    Even worse is the common practice of nest robbing: ladders are used to gain access to nests, baby birds are grabbed and carried down to be “measured”, and then carried back to be placed in the nest again. Over 99% of the baby birds die from this exercise, which is applied in the main to listed endangered species.

    Wildlife biologists think they are Dr. Dolittles who can talk to the animals and calm them. It’s pure narcissistic insanity.

    Grizzly bears have been shot with tranquilizers and radio collared. The deadly predators awaken and k*ll passing hikers. The “researchers” claim no responsibility even though their collars are on the necks of the beasts.

    Endangered spotted owls have also been radio collared only to die within hours and the radios never recovered. The insipid dolts responsible are never punished because they work for the government and have full immunity against all laws.

    The netting, drugging, tagging and release of sea lions off the Oregon coast is one of the bloodiest, carnage wreaking practices imaginable and defies description.

    The junk science deferred by the Commie Virus should never have been funded or allowed in the first place. Innocent students who want to aid wildlife are taught the most wrong-headed and often slaughter-inducing fake science methods by university dilettantes and lechers.

    I could tell you a thousand stories that would turn you purple with outrage. Hooray for the Commie Virus! May it infect all the charlatans and bogus “field workers” of wildlife biology.

  17. This morning, I will be inspecting two of my five current road construction projects.
    I will be scoping others in the afternoon.
    The more environmentalists that have to stay home the better.

    • Ok
      Today i:
      Inspected 3 active construction projects
      Inspected 8 prospective projects
      Drove 85km
      Walked 3.5km
      Had 2 face to face conversation
      Had 5 just say “g’day”
      Did not meet a single environmentalist ( aka roadblocks).

      #1 why can’t they do field work?
      #2 but who will miss them?

  18. You mean to say, these educated people can’t go out into the wilderness and do their jobs? That’s ludicrous on the face of it. Do they do their research at Starbucks, instead of a remote lake, or forest? If 20 people pass you all day, so what? They’ll keep their distance, and a mask outdoors just seems silly.

  19. I apologize and walk back my comment regarding wildlifers getting infected by the Commie Virus. That was over the top. I hope everyone remains healthy.

    That being said, the damage inflicted by bad wildlife biology also deserves some mea culpas. Case in point: the Northern Spotted Owl. Wildlife biologists forced the shut down of Federal forests in the PNW to “save” the endangered owl some 25 years ago. That shutdown continues today.

    More than 150,000 jobs were lost. The region suffered the worst economy, leading the nation in unemployment, bankruptcies, and hunger. It has cost us $10 billion per year in lost production — that’s $250 billion to date. Our forests have become powder kegs with over 5 million acres of owl habitat destroyed. Some former owl forests have burned 2 or 3 times.

    Meanwhile the owl population has plummeted from ~20,000 in 1995 to less than 4,000 today — an 80% decline.

    Wildlife biologists were wrong, catastrophically wrong, and the pain and suffering they caused has never been apologized for, or corrected, or even admitted.

    The mistakes made regarding the Canadian wolf, the sage grouse, the desert tortoise, the palila, the marbled murrelet, the snowy plover, the polar bear, and dozens of other wildlife species have had horrendous consequences to the animals and society.

    The posting above demonstrates that wildlife biology research is prejudiced and unscientific. The prejudices expressed regarding climate change and its alleged effects on wildlife are a form of confirmation bias, tainted with pre-formed opinions that skew findings. Such biases are required in grant applications before the research is even funded.

    The large wildlife NGOs wield tremendous political power with lobbyists and sue-happy lawyers. They influence elections with overt and subversive means, and they manipulate government agencies. They censor, sue, and ruin careers of those who oppose their manipulations.

    Wildlife biologist are not happy campers traipsing through the forest talking to the animals. They are subversives with political agendas, they lack scientific integrity, and they often lack basic ethics about the humane treatment of wildlife.

  20. ”Colorado Parks & Wildlife technician Ella Engelhard with a tagged gadwall. Casey Setash, CC BY-ND”

    Molesting wildlife again?

    • Yes. Exactly. Let’s get real about it.

      That poor duck has been given a handicap. It’s not easy being a duck. Many predators can and will eat you. It’s touch and go in the battle of nature. That duck is slower now and probably won’t survive long, will not breed, will not maintain the species.

      The information gained is some sort of flight log for the poor duck. It’s not an experiment. There are no controls, no placebo group, no double blind longitudinal data that can be statistically analyzed. Nothing new will be learned about ducks.

      It’s “normal science” which is not science at all. Some techie dreamed up a radio pack for ducks, some pea-brained professor tried it out and wrote a paper, and now everybody just has to copy it. It’s kabuki theater science. Going through the motions.

      And it costs a fortune to radio track a handicapped duck. You Mr. Taxpayer pay for it. You get nothing in return.

      You might say it keeps the youngsters off the streets, gives them something to do besides robbing liquor stores and burning cities down. Well okay but really is torturing ducks the best available option?

      There is nothing wrong with studying ducks. Many people do it for free, especially duck hunters. But they eat what they shoot and pass along their knowledge gained to other novice duck hunters. The radio duck crowd learn nothing and pass nothing along. They also spout climate alarmist nonsense because that’s part of the kabuki play.

      Too much fraud and fake science is done to wildlife. It’s perverse, it’s weird, it’s cruel, it’s expensive and it’s stupid. At some point the kind-hearted and rational people must put a stop to it.

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