By Rebecca Greenberg, ’18

July 20th, 2015, 1:45 PM.

I lay belly to the ground on a wiry bed of bilberry and dwarf birch, arms aching from lifting the binoculars in my hands because I hadn’t set up the scope. A head crowned with velveteen antlers paused its browse. Well-insulated ears flicked forward to frame a long, umber face. The eyes locked upon me. He deliberated for a few moments, mandible working steadily back and forth. Then he swung to his flank, scratched his left haunch with a swipe of his crown tines[1], and set off down the hill with a few cows. The others lifted their heads and followed, breaking into an easy trot whose fluidity belied the rounded backs of hummocks[2] that populated the treeless land. I relax my grip and note the time in my journal.

Earlier, they had trickled down to browse from the escarpment that rose before me. Now, through a signal just as obscure as that of their arrival, the variegated mass floated to the west, where the vastness stretched unchanged toward the blue crags of the Kölen Mountains[3]. As the herd passed, the brown, dun and dusky white sharpened into forms thin and ragged in their molting coats. The last cow passed, head dipping to the ground as she picked her way across the sod, her calf like a dollop of whipped cream against the leafless shrubs and crackling yellow grass revealed by melting snow banks.

The keening of a passing jaeger tore through the air. In return: the gaze of the open hills. From the obstinate deafness of the scenery, the cry may have never been received, hitting the hummocks unheard, still in its package like an untouched snicker bar. In the tundra, sound is not consumed.

Yet at this particular instance the silence was what I had been waiting for. The reindeer’s attraction to the mountainside was also mine: a knoll that sat bright green against the solemn hills. In the fjäll[4], such markers are unmistakable for Vulpes lagopus, the Arctic fox, whose scat make lawns out of tundra-mound. I grab the binoculars and do another sweep of the entrances, lingering on the holes with loose earth piled before them like a welcome mat. Present at many holes, and coupled with a strong musk, plentiful scat, and a couple hints of recent prey – like ptarmigan feathers or a reindeer thigh – these signs of recent inhabitance could also mean kits. Which was after all the real reason I was sent here. Kits! I dared not think of the word. I had lain for an hour and a half now, and at this point I had lowered my ambitions to a pair of ears. A bark, even, I muttered inwardly. The confirmed presence of an adult was enough – I just did not want to come from my first scouting journey empty-handed. Mentally, I flipped back to the high slope I had unnecessarily climbed, having taken the GPS too literally. I imagined camp, across the mountain, where Emma and Linus sat watching the den with eight-and-counting pups, probably right now tagging the last of the furballs like there was no tomorrow. In frustration, I grab into my bag and tear off some sausage, squirt onto my knäckebröd a generous ooze of Renost. A white cream speckled with tiny chunks of reindeer meat curls onto the thin crust. An extra squirt in my mouth, just for luxury’s sake, before I capped it. What the cereal aisle is to American supermarkets, the tube cheeses are to the Swedes. With the rate at which I consumed mine, there was no doubt I was going to run out of cheese before the first quarter of this ten-day stint. I sat back against my knoll licking my fingers, resolving the absence would be worth those cheesy lunches. I gazed again before me. Nope. All quiet on the emerald front.

That the den was inhabited was a fact. Coming over, I was almost certain I had seen what I believed must have been the mother: white, tail twitching, gazing testily at me before disappearing into the nearest entrance with a reproachful, muffled bark. But now, as the sun pounded down without mercy, I began to have doubts if I had seen anything in the first place. I remembered again what Linus had told me, just come with a confirmation. No I don’t knows. Something. My arms lapsed into a stronger ache. I should have set up the scope, but the idea that the vixen would pop in right as I unpacked the gear (only to disappear again) was unbearable. Too bad. I would stay with the binoculars and not miss a thing. I sighed again and lay down against the ground, resting my chin on my hands. It was just a matter of time.

Right?

***

IT WAS EVENING ON SEPTEMBER 26, 2014. Freshman year classes were picking up, and to procrastinate on revising my essay I began to look at pictures on National Geographic. I came upon a photograph[5] of three Arctic fox kits, sitting against the tall grass I would later discover as the anomalous lushness of a fox den in the tundra. The photograph illustrated the work of Dr. Anders Angerbjörn, Professor of Zoology at the University of Stockholm, and his PhD student, Rasmus Erlandsson. Dr. Angerbjörn had been offered National Geographic’s Global Exploration fund to monitor populations of endangered Arctic foxes in two regions of northern Sweden during the winters of 2012 and 2013. When I saw their methods included directly tagging Arctic fox kits, I decided to send an email to Dr. Angerbjörn inquiring about whether I could join any ongoing research efforts.

I was far from expecting a response. Sending the email had been a whim. At the core of this impulse lay a buried melancholy: my old dream of going out to study wild animals in their native habitats, back in the day when homework was done in a few workbook pages and I spent the rest of my time poring over my Encyclopedia of Animals, learning the difference between horn and antler and why rabbits were not rodents, and spending hours methodically sketching, outlining and coloring compositions of the creatures that caught my eye. I placed their Latin names in a corner of the page, for reference – if I chose to do a realistic setting, that is. Fantastical-looking species like civets also nicely accompanied dragons.

So sure, going off to study wildlife was something that people did – I knew this to be true from the National Geographic articles that highlighted scientists studying remote species like the Amazon river dolphin. But “those people” were no more than dim, opaque forms. I had not met these explorers, had no idea how one would “start out” as such a person and as far as I knew there was no way a student out of high school could get a taste of this profession. You didn’t just become Jane Goodall. Certainly not if you were a Harvard student and there were so many important things you were supposed to be doing. Concrete things that built towards a goal, like massaging a GPA, shaking new hands, crafting a resume. Exploring lacked tangibility, and in late September 2014, it was merely a whisper I could not quite ignore.

Four days later I received a response. The winter was dangerous and during this time Dr. Angerbjörn did not accept anyone outside his research group. “But in the summer,” he had written, “it would be possible.” I was stunned. The realm of shadows dissipated in a single email to reveal ….me, a girl of eighteen, who, just fresh out of high school, had the opportunity to research an endangered species in the middle of the tundra.

November, December and January saw the exchange of more emails, and eventually, phone calls, during which I overcame my terror of the international phone card and my nervousness of first speaking to Dr. Angerbjörn.

That winter break, I applied to the Weissman Grant for Summer Internship and opportunities, but was expecting nothing due to the strangeness of my proposal and my status as a freshman. To my amazement I received notification of the award in March. Announcing my plan to the other grantees in the room, “I am going to the tundra to study the Arctic fox,” I still slid into a private smile of disbelief.

But soon I was high above the white sheet that was Greenland, leaning somewhat impolitely over my seat-mate to absorb the tangerine-and-gold pouring from the porthole that was my first midnight sunset.

I MET ANDERS ANGERBJÖRN AND EMMA in a two-roomed ranger’s cabin at the edge of the Helags[6] trailheads, along with that summer’s ten other volunteers. It was July 1st, the fox fieldwork season began the next day, which meant that in a few hours (if I was lucky) I would get to see and maybe touch an Arctic fox. When I came in, sweaty from the hike down from the nearby Helags lodge, he had stood up from the table– a tall, smirking, ice-eyed man in his seventies – and exchanged my handshake for an all-out American hug. His PhD student, a scruffy ginger with a ready laugh, was happy to warmly shake my hand. The cabin could accommodate two people comfortably, maybe three counting the sofa, and besides Anders and a few others, we all slept there that night, the eve of my first ten-day journey in the bush. I remember finishing someone’s takeout rice (it had meat, which I knew I would not see again for ten days), the maps and GPS strewn on the table, pell-mell with bags of ear tags, vials and instruments, batteries. The bags and bags of tube cheese, sausage, knäckebröd, dried soups and rice that took up all possible floor space, the bargaining in Swedish about the best sequence for hitting the dens that had been predicted to have kits that summer, the little black Xs and den numbers scrawled on the maps. The fox-wrangling stories and the betting about who would see a wolverine. Den Harrow’s “Catch the Fox” blasting all the while on Rasmus’s ipod. And at night, when all possible floor space was taken, Rasmus’s best friend, Dick setting his sleeping back beneath the kitchen table.

The next morning, after distance swallowed the motor of the car, we stood slightly stooping forwards with our fifty-pound packs, facing the open tundra.

Our mission was simple: to tag as many kits as we could and record all inhabited den activity for the one or two nights we spent at each den.

The purpose and goals of such monitoring of Arctic fox populations has a history that goes back to the beginning of the century and to the efforts of Dr. Anders Angerbjörn, one of the world’s leading researchers on Arctic foxes.

Arctic foxes are small canids about the size of a large domestic cat. They occupy the northernmost tundra regions of all countries including North America, Europe and Asia (Angerbjörn & Tannerfeldt, 2014). The foxes can be divided into two groups that differ in morphology according to a given environment[7]. The more common ecotype, the lemming fox, lives in the tundra regions of Scandinavia, North America and northeast Greenland and relies primarily on lemming and other small rodents as prey. Lemming numbers in the tundra are typically cyclical, with a boom occurring every three to four years (lemming years). This variability in prey is also reflected in the lemming fox population: a female can give birth to up to 20 kits in a lemming year, but in the bust years a female may give birth to few or no offspring. Of the few offspring that are born during bust years, only ten percent may survive their first year. The second fox ecotype is found in the coastal regions of Iceland, Svalbard and Greenland and feeds on marine prey, including sea birds, seal carcasses and fish. The stability of this food source allow the coastal fox to reproduce every year, females giving birth to six to eight kits every spring (Angerbjörn et al., 2008).

Our story begins in around 1850, with the lemming fox population in the mountain tundra regions of Fennoscandia[8]. In the mid-ninteenth century, overharvesting of the valuable fox pelt caused a drastic decline in the population. Despite numerous protection laws throughout the 20th century, the Fennoscandian Arctic fox population has remained endangered for almost ninety years (Angerbjörn et al., 2008).

The major factor for the fox’s inability to recover was the population’s natural yet vulnerable dependency on the lemming population. Between 1930 and 1950, the lemming cycle did not complete its reliable four-year cycling, a lack of food security which further decreased the existing Arctic fox population. Though the population began to recover starting in 1950, the disappearance of the lemming cycle 1980-2000 caused another decline (Angerbjörn et al., 2008).

Another culprit is climate change. The warmer temperatures have increased the range of the red fox, such that the species now encroaches upon Arctic fox historical range.  Twice the size of the Arctic fox, the red fox is capable of both driving away and killing Arctic foxes (Elmagen et al., 2002).

Finally the population’s small size after the fur hunting has made it more difficult for foxes to find unrelated partners, keeping the population vulnerable to inbreeding. The resulting decrease in genetic diversity has impaired the population’s ability to adapt to changing conditions, such as the effect of climate change. A lower fitness in the individual foxes in the population keeps reproductive rates low and maintains the small size of the population (Dalén et al., 2005).

On a global scale, the foxes are a commonly occurring species, their stable number of 10,000 individuals listed as of least concern on the IUCN red list (Angerbjörn & Tannerfeldt, 2014). However, in Fennoscandia, the Arctic fox numbers at around 150 individuals, still below the 500 adults necessary for the population to be considered stable (Angerbjörn et al., 2012). Yet even these numbers are a recent marked improvement in the fox’s population. In 1998, with the Arctic fox extinct in Finland and only forty Arctic fox individuals remaining in Sweden (Angerbjörn et al., 2002), the population was on the brink of extinction.

That year, Dr. Angerbjörn founded the project “Save the Endangered Fennoscandian Alopex[9]” (SEFALO). A collaboration with Finland, the four-year project mainly addressed the reasons for the fox’s decline: small population size and competition with the red fox. SEFALO provided supplementary feeding at den sites, which proved effective, as all cases of reproduction during this time occurred at those areas. It also included culling of the red fox through shooting by volunteers, and later, local rangers.

The second phase of the project, SEFALO+ (2003-2008), also included Norway. In addition to targeting a wider portion of the concerned population, SEFALO+ increased biological research and education to the public around the tundra and protected Arctic foxes from hunting dogs during ptarmigan open season. By the project’s end there were around 200 individuals in Fennoscandia, the population having more than doubled since 2003 (Angerbjörn et al., 2008).

After the SEFALO projects, monitoring of the foxes continued in conjunction with the supplementary feeding and culling of the red fox. My main role during the summer of 2015 was to observe fox den activity and help tag that summer’s new litters. In addition to contributing to the conservation records, I was also gathering data for two of Angerbjörn’s master’s students on Arctic fox behavior. Emma, from England, was studying Arctic fox kits to determine whether fox kits have detectable differences in personality, and whether certain personality traits better correlate with survival. Océane was trying to determine how group living (the coexistence of multiple adults on a den besides a breeding pair) affected kit survival. We would hike from fox den to fox den (which could vary from 2 to 20 km apart), set up tents and a trap on the den. For the next 12 to 24 hours, one person would sit at the scope and write updates on any den activity, which were made every five minutes (the five-minute scan). We would usually switch off every three hours. When a kit was caught, however, everyone was woken up. We would observe the kit’s behavior in the trap for three minutes (to gather Emma’s data) before we would set off to measure the kit and insert ear tags and microchips in its neck. The ear tags varied in color – the left outer-left inner-right outer-right inner ear pattern served to identify individual foxes during our five-minute scans and could serve to track an individual’s history throughout its life. The microchip conveyed the same information but in electronic rather than visual records, and two were inserted through the skin of each kit’s neck – one for Sweden, one for Norway as the foxes often crossed the border. In dens with a particularly large amount of untagged kits, our team would stay two nights. During the second day, I was often sent scouting the next scheduled den to see if kits were present, which helped us determine where we would camp next as the rest of team continued tagging and conducting the five minute scans. The logic behind the scouting journeys was that there was no point in wasting energy to go to a den if it did not have kits. However, I was also personally grateful for such opportunities. Scouting gave me a great excuse to kill my restlessness from sitting in camp, and the chance to explore the tundra alone.

***

Kiiiiiii-iii! The eye of the sun winks once as the jaeger sweeps past. I lift a cheek caked in dried grit. A dull pulse in my temple greets me. Water. I sit up to take my Nalgene, then freeze. I gawk in disbelief. About 200 feet before me, splotches of color clamber around the entrances. Kits! A dark black form crouching at the edge of the den – the father? – and at the top, her. Cryptic as ever, her face pale parchment, the edge of her ears contoured with ink.

The blood roars in my temples. I grab my pen and check the den to make the count. Four blues and three – wait four? – no three ….whites[10]. I bite my lip – why, O, how I had I missed their entrance? Sure, I was exempt of five- minute scans for scouting journeys, but in my impromptu nap I had missed the piece of information of who had come first, the kits or the parents. Had the kits emerged under adult supervision? Sorry Océane. I don’t have data for you.

Near one of the entrances, two kits were wrestling. White on blue, blue on white, they tumbled to the bottom. At the edge of the den a lone white kit gazed at me, small face exquisitely carved. He suddenly sprang to his feet, bolting forward in consecutive leaps to stop about twenty feet from me, leaning forwards as he sniffed. In a flash, he was back at the den. I smiled and bent down to my journal, but before my pen reached the page, he ran up again and leapt: his back legs pushed off in a burst that propelled his entire body off the ground; in mid-air, he readjusted his body to fall head-first, full force directed to his front paws. I gasped. I had only seen vole jumps[11] from the scope. And now, right before me, air calligraphy. An animal with the body of a chinese paintbrush.

From my wrist: the gaze of my watch, unmoved. I sighed. Soon to be three hours. With no communication here, I could not come back too late. Besides, my job was done. There were kits and none of them were tagged. Boy, what a jackpot.

I tore my gaze from the den and closed my journal, stuffed the sausage. I scrabbled to my feet and turned on my GPS. The arrow pointed again across the mountains, but this time I would take the low route. Swampy, but no crossing white ice-frost snow banks at a forty-five degree angle or crossing the slippery rocks of ice-choked streams. I grabbed my pack and pulled on one strap, jumping to lodge it on my back before grabbing the second. Seven kits, two whites, four blues. Click, Hip strap, click, sternum. Good to go.

I looked toward the solemn crag of the mountain, and mused with satisfaction that Emma and Linus would only experience this fox family from what I would report. It was unlikely the foxes would be as exuberant when camp was set up here. To my eyes alone, these points of color that existed in the void. As for Linus and Emma? There was no text message to share the news, no star on the horizon. Only legpower, and those legs were mine.

I took off down and up the hummocks, singing at the top of my lungs, skirting marshes of cottongrass, punching virgin snow banks with a smattering of footprints. I loved it, I loved it: all this purpose, condensed in my moving self:

In the gyrfalcon’s eye the chaos was all around and this form was running atop it, its deliberateness incongruent in the endless uniformity. Unbeknown to the bird was the furnace of the figure: internal and unseen, the message of fox kits, blazing.

***

IN THE END, MY WORK did pan out to something. It was strange and exciting, the distillation of fox-handling, scouting, and tent-carrying into statistics, conclusions, and potential new knowledge on the species.

Emma first sent me a copy of her findings in September. She found a significant positive correlation between fearfulness and kit size, and between fearfulness and litter size. Kits were also found to be less fearful when adult foxes were present on the den during data collection. No statistically significant relationship was found between fearfulness and survival rates, although this was likely due to the small sample size of the tested kits (Grocutt 2015). Since a kit’s main predators are quick and airborne, it is likely that the kits surviving are those who were less bold, and were less likely to be taken, which may explain the correlation between larger kits and fearfulness (Grocutt 2015). As for the correlation between litter size and fearfulness, it may result from the fact that litters with more fearful kits than other litters are likely to suffer lower predation rates (Grocutt 2015). A potential future route she proposed to follow was to investigate whether certain conditions such as rodent abundance may favor a certain trait (e.g. boldness over fearfulness) in the Arctic fox[12].

As for Océane, she found that group living favored kit survival. Large multi-adult fox groups tended to form as a response to both plentiful resources (as in a lemming year) and presence of predators. The larger size of the group increased kit care: parents were able to relay the kit-sitting task to other foxes while they went out to hunt, meaning they could do so more often and bring back more food. In addition, the total time the kits spent on the den unattended was not surprisingly much lower at dens with more adults than the breeding pair (Bartholomée, 2016).

A possible future direction for research Océane proposed was to determine whether the mere presence of non-parent adults on the den helps the kits survive (as in, for instance, discouraging predation due to higher groups size) or whether they are in fact providing actual parental care to the kits (Bartholomée 2016).

Reading the papers sparked in me the desire to no longer just be part of the acknowledgements, but helping to write those conclusions myself. The last few days of spring break, I was honored to receive notification of a second grant from Mr. and Mrs. Weissman to continue pursuing my interest in canids. I will be in Argentina this summer investigating the behavioral ecology of the maned wolf, a shy, long-legged creature living in the Gran Chaco dry grasslands of South America. I look forward to interpreting myself the data I will have collected, practicing my Spanish with a local research team, and also perhaps learning tango when I won’t be working in the labs of a local university. But I am still most excited for those first four weeks of fieldwork. I would like to be a small point in an alien landscape again and get to know its inhabitants. If I am particularly lucky,[13] I will cross the gaze of the creature whose elusive existence we will be trying to understand.

 

References

Angerbjörn, A., Meijer, T., Eide, Nina E., Hentonen, H., Norén, K. (2008). Saving the

Endangered Fennoscandian Alopex lagopus. Layman’s Report, European

Commission.http://ec.europa.eu/environment/life/project/Projects/index.cfm?fusea   

ction=home.showFile&rep=file&fil=LIFE03_NAT_S_000073_LAYMAN.pdf.

Angerbjörn, A., Berteaux, D., Ims, R. (2012). Arctic Fox (Vulpes Lagopus). Arctic

Report Card: 2012 Update. (2012).

http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/report12/arctic_fox.html.

Angerbjörn, A. & Tannerfeldt, M. (2014). Vulpes lagopus. The IUCN Red List of

Threatened Species. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/899/0.

 Angerbjörn, A., Tannerfeldt, M., Henttonen, H., Elmhagen, B., Dalén, L. (2002).

SEFALO: Final Report. Stockholm University & Finnish Forest Research

Institute.http://www.zoologi.su.se/research/alopex/publications/SEFALO_report_1998-2002.pdf.

Bartholomée, Océane. (Submitted for review 2016). Does size matter? Or the advantages

of group living
in a Fennoscandian Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) population. Uppsala University.15.

Červený, J., Koubek, P., Nováková, Burda, H. (2011) “Directional preference may

enhance hunting accuracy in foraging foxes.” Biology Letters. http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/7/3/355

Dalén, L., Fuglei, E., Herrsteinsson, P., Kapel, C., Roth, J., M.O., Samelius, G.,

Tannerfeldt, M., Angerbjörn, A. (2005). Population history and genetic structure

of a circumpolar species: the arctic fox. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 84: 79–89.

Elmhagen, B., Tannerfeldt, M., And Angerbjörn, A. (2002). Food-niche overlap between

arctic and red foxes. Canadian Journal of Zoology 80:1274 – 1285.

Foy, S. & Oxford Scientific Films. (1982). The Grand Design: Form and Colour in Animals. N.J: Englewood Cliffs.

Grocutt, Emma Liana. Personality in arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) kits: kit size and litter

size predict fearfulness (Submitted for review 2015). Anglia Ruskin University, in

collaboration with Stockholm University. Vii, 33-35.

Kleiman, D. G.. (1972). Social Behavior of the Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus)

and Bush Dog (Speothos venaticus): A Study in Contrast. Journal of

Mammalogy53(4), 791–806. http://doi.org/10.2307/1379214.

Pielou, E.C. (1994). A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic. Chicago: University of Chicago

Press. 47.

Roots, Clive. (2006). Hibernation. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. 510-511.

Wozencraft, W.C. (2005). Order Carnivora. In Wilson, D.E. & Reeder, D.M.

(eds.) Mammal Species of the World, Third Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. 532-628.

[1] The topmost prongs (tines) in a deer’s antler.

[2] These hummocks, in this case known as palsas, are mounds made of peat commonly found in alpine tundra. In the cold climate, plant matter does not decay readily, instead aggregating in masses. Water caught in the mosses expand as they freeze, causing the masses to swell. The anoxygenic decay of organic matter inside the mounds releases gas, allowing further growth of the palsas until they reach their distinct domelike shape (Pielou, 1994).

[3] The Kölen Mountain range delineates Sweden’s Western border with Norway. My team and I were located around the southernmost peaks of the range, among which lies Helagsfjället, the tallest mountain in Sweden south of the Arctic circle.

[4]Translating to mountain or high, fjäll (in Norway, fjell) is used locally to characterize the alpine tundra biome of the Scandinavian highlands. In addition to being a location, it is a common add-on for local attributes, as in Helagsfjället  (literally, Helags mountain) and the Swedish word for the Arctic fox, fjällräv (mountain fox).

[5] Photographed by Thomas Meijer, 2013

[6] The region in the Köln Mountains around Helagsfjället.

[7] See 10 for details.

[8] Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Kola Peninsula in Northeastern Russia.

[9] The Arctic fox is now commonly referred to as Vulpes lagopus rather than Alopex lagopus. Recent genetic analyses have placed the species in the same genus as most other foxes (Vulpes) rather than its own (Wozencraft 2005).

[10] Arctic foxes occur in either of the white or blue morph. In the white morph, the fox is white during the winter and streaked with grey on its face, back and legs during the summer months. The blue morph is chocolate brown during the summer, and dark blue during the summer. Coat color does not appear to impact mate choice, and mixed color families such as this one can sometimes occur. However, skews in colors tends to correspond to the two fox ecotypes. Lemming foxes are typically white like their snowy tundra environment while coastal foxes are predominantly blue, which is thought to allow them camouflage with dark seaside rocks (Angerbjörn et al., 2008).

[11] Vole jumps are a hunting strategy used by foxes to dive with precision for a rodent through the snow. Kits can often be found practicing such a skill, even when they are not yet able to hunt for themselves. Come winter, they will have to feed themselves independently (Angerbjorn & Tannerfeldt 2014). Underlying the play is thus crucial practice for successful adulthood. The accuracy of such jumps are believed to be achieved using the Earth’s magnetic field (Červený et al., 2011).

[12] Such a study would of course require the as of now statistically inconclusive answer on whether fearfulness actually improves survival.

 

[13] Unlike the Arctic fox, maned wolves are solitary hunters and foragers and occur at low densities (Kleiman, 1972). Much of the data we will collect will be from indirect evidence such as prints, scat and interviews of local inhabitants.

 

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