Phthiraptera and Acari Collected from 13 Species of
Waterfowl from Alabama and Georgia
Valentina R. Garbarino, Joshua W. Campbell, Joseph O’Brien, Heather C. Proctor, and Bilal Dik
Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 12, Issue 2 (2013): 413–426
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2013 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 12(2):413–426
Phthiraptera and Acari Collected from 13 Species of
Waterfowl from Alabama and Georgia
Valentina R. Garbarino1,*, Joshua W. Campbell1, Joseph O’Brien2,
Heather C. Proctor3, and Bilal Dik4
Abstract - Waterfowl, including ducks, geese, rails and others, are host to a great diversity
of ectosymbiotic arthropods. In this study, we collected ectosymbionts from
waterfowl and analyzed taxon richness and total abundance to determine whether
there were differences in the mite and louse assemblages of waterfowl of different
species, genera, sexes, and feeding behaviors. Data were collected from 53 individual
birds from 13 waterfowl species and 5 waterfowl genera taken from Georgia and Alabama.
A total of 11 louse species and 7 feather and nasal mite species were collected
from the waterfowl samples. Fulica americana (American Coot) harbored the highest
louse abundance and taxon richness but had the lowest abundance of mites. Most
significant results were driven by the Fulica assemblage. Significant sex differences
were detected only between male and female anseriform birds, in which female hosts
demonstrated higher mean numbers of ischnoceran lice than male hosts. No significant
differences in mite abundance between waterfowl sex or genera were observed, but
more mite taxa were found on diving waterfowl than on dabbling species. These data
will help to provide a foundation for future research on the ecology of waterfowl ectosymbionts
in the southeastern United States.
Obligatory ectosymbionts are organisms that live on the surface of a host’s
body, which provides all of the necessities for the maintenance and proliferation
of all life stages (Boyd 1951). Birds host many ectosymbionts: some are
parasites, some are commensals, and some may be mutualists (Proctor 2003).
These include flies, lice, fleas, mites, and ticks (Proctor and Lynch 1993). Fossil
evidence has shown that lice (Wappler et al. 2004) and mites (Dalgleish et
al. 2006) associated with waterfowl were in existence as early as 44 million
years ago. These and other ectosymbionts coevolved with their hosts, specializing
for the specific micro-environments present on different host birds
(Wappler et al. 2004).
Within the Order Phthiraptera (lice), two suborders parasitize birds: Amblycera
and Ischnocera (Ash 1960). Amblyceran lice have shorter, thicker bodies
(Boyd 1951), live directly on the surface of the host’s skin, feed on fragments of
1High Point University, 833 Montlieu Avenue, High Point, NC 27262. 2USDA- Forest
Service, Forestry Sciences Laboratory, 320 Green Street, Athens, GA 30602-2044. 3University
of Alberta, CW405 Biological Sciences Building, 116 Street and 85th Avenue,
Edmonton, AB, Canada T6G 2E9. 4Selçuk Üniversitesi, Veteriner Fakültesi, Parazitoloji
Anabilim Dalı, Alaaddin Keykubat Kampüsü, 42250-Selçuklu, Konya, Turkey. *Corresponding
author - firstname.lastname@example.org.
414 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, No. 2
skin and secretions, and chew on emerging tips of new feathers to obtain blood
(Ash 1960). Ischnoceran lice vary in body shape but are often narrower than
Amblyceran lice (Boyd 1951), and tend to live and feed on the non-living parts
of the host’s feathers (Ash 1960). Both can be harmful to their individual host,
but Amblycera tend to cause more irritation to the host and can elicit an immune
response or cause infection when their excrement interacts directly with open
areas of the host’s skin (Møller and Rózsa 2005). Feeding damage caused by
Ischnocera can decrease the host’s attractiveness to mates by altering plumage
color, and negatively affects thermoregulatory and flying capabilities (Vas et al.
2011). Heavy louse loads may result in increased effort in preening, reducing
time available for obtaining food or mates (Brown et al.1995), and can increase
the chances of hosts being parasitized by endoparasites transmitted by louse vectors
(Bartlett 1993). Differences in ectosymbiont loads on birds exist based on
host behavior, sex, and relative size (Felso and Rózsa 2007, Galván et al. 2007,
Kleindorfer and Dudaniec 2009).
Most feather mites (Acari: Astigmata—Analgoidea and Pterolichoidea) feed
on uropygial oils and adherent debris such as fungal spores, rather than feeding
directly on feather material itself (Proctor 2003). In studies of wild birds,
there is little evidence of negative effects of feather mites (Proctor 2003). In
fact, correlational studies frequently show a positive relationship between high
mite loads and health conditions when the host is not intensely infested (Blanco
et al. 1997). It is plausible that mites, instead of being parasites, may actually
be mutualists that function in removing excess body oils or potentially harmful
organisms from their host’s body (Dowling et al. 2001). However, the very
large correlational study of Galván et al. (2012) found only a slight positive relationship
between host condition and mite load, suggesting that, in most cases,
feather mites are commensals.
Most recent multi-host surveys of avian ectosymbionts have focused on
hosts in the Order Passeriformes, and have demonstrated correlations between
ectosymbiont load and host social behavior and mass (Kleindorfer and Dudaniec
2009), size of uropygial gland and mite abundance (Galván et al. 2007), and host
sex (Clayton et al. 1992). Areas that have been studied include ectosymbiont
abundance (Sychra et al. 2008) and host physical and behavioral adaptations to
combat ectosymbiont loads (Bush et al. 2011). Although a few studies have attempted
to identify all ectosymbionts associated with certain waterfowl species
(e.g., McDaniel et al. 1966, Mourik and Norman 1985), there is a lack of information
on taxon richness and total ectosymbiont abundance for waterfowl in the
southeastern United States.
In this study, we gathered 53 hunter-killed birds from 13 species, 5 genera,
and two orders of aquatic birds (Anseriformes and Gruiformes) and removed all
ectosymbionts. The purpose of this study was to examine ectosymbiotic abundance
and taxon richness on several genera of waterfowl in the southeastern
United States, and determine whether ectosymbiont load and diversity varied
across waterfowl genus, sex, or feeding behavior.
2013 V.R. Garbarino, J.W. Campbell, J. O’Brien, H.C. Proctor, and B. Dik 415
Materials and Methods
Fifty-three hunter-killed waterfowl from thirteen waterfowl species were
examined for ectosymbiont abundance and taxon richness. These included
one species from the Order Gruiformes: Fulica americana Howard (American
Coot) (n = 7), and twelve species from the Order Anseriformes: Aix sponsa
L. (Wood Duck) (n = 10), Anas acuta L. (Northern Pintail) (n = 1), Anas
americana Gmelin (American Wigeon) (n = 1), Anas clypeata L. (Northern
Shoveler) (n = 2), Anas crecca L. (Green-winged Teal) (n = 5), Anas platyrhynchos
L. (Mallard) (n = 4), Anas rubripes Brewster (American Black Duck)
(n = 1), Anas strepera L. (Gadwall) (n = 15), Aythya americana Eyton (Redhead)
(n = 1), Aythya collaris Donovan (Ring-necked Duck) (n = 1), Aythya
marila L. (Greater Scaup) (n = 3), and Bucephala albeola L. (Bufflehead)
(n = 2). Waterfowl were legally harvested between November and December
2008–2011 from Cherokee and Morgan counties in Alabama and Floyd and
McIntosh counties in Georgia. Harvested waterfowl were immediately retrieved
after being shot, and placed individually into air-tight zip-lock bags.
All birds appeared healthy and had no noticeable physical abnormalities, nor
did they appear emaciated. Bagged waterfowl were frozen until they could be
washed and examined. All waterfowl were sexed by plumage characteristics,
except for American Coots, as these birds are not sexually dimorphic.
Waterfowl were placed into a sealed bucket of soapy water and manually
agitated for approximately 5 minutes. The water was decanted and filtered
through a 53-μm sieve. This agitation process was done twice for each bird.
After two soap washes, each bird was thoroughly rinsed, and the rinse water
was also filtered through the 53-μm sieve. The material accumulated in the
sieve was transferred to 70% ethanol and examined. All ectosymbionts were
counted and initially sorted into morphotaxa using a dissecting microscope.
Representatives of each morphospecies were prepared and identified to the
lowest taxonomic level possible. Lice were cleared in 10% KOH for 24 hours,
washed in distilled water for one day, and then in consecutive solutions of
70, 80, 90, and 99% alcohol for 24 hours each before mounting. Lice samples
were mounted on slides using Canadian balsam under an Olympus SZ60
microscope, and identified using a Leica DM 750 microscope. Lice were
identified using Castro and Cicchino (1983), Cicchino and Emerson (1983),
Clay (1935, 1953), Clay and Hopkins (1954, 1960), Eichler (1976), Eichler
et al. (1980, 1981), Emerson (1955), Keler (1960), Kellogg (1896), Nelson
and Price (1965), and Price (1971, 1974). Mites were cleared overnight in
80% lactic acid, mounted in PVA medium (catalogue number 6371A, BioQuip
Products, Rancho Dominguez, CA), and cured on a slide-warmer at 45 °C for
four days prior to being examined using a DIC illuminated compound microscope.
Feather mites were identified to genus using Gaud and Atyeo (1996),
and to finer levels using more specific taxonomic literature. Rhinonyssid (nasal)
mites were identified using Knee and Proctor (2010). Voucher specimens
416 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, No. 2
of lice have been stored in the louse collection of the Parasitology Department
of the veterinary facility of Selcuk University in Konya, Turkey, and
representative samples of mites have been stored in the Auburn University
Ectosymbiont abundance and taxon richness data were analyzed with
GLM (Statistix 9 program, Analytical Software, Tallahassee, FL) to conduct
one-way ANOVAs with common (n ≥ 4) waterfowl species, feeding behavior
(dabbling vs. diving), genus, and sex as the independent variables and
ectosymbiont abundance and taxon richness as dependent variables. Tukey’s
multiple comparison procedure in the same program was used to determine
differences in relative abundances and taxon richness. Buffleheads (n = 2),
Northern Pintail (n = 1), American Wigeon (n = 1), Northern Shoveler (n =
2), and American Black Duck (n = 1) were excluded for some tests due to low
sample size of these waterfowl species.
To examine ectosymbiont assemblage structure, we used non-metric multidimensional
scaling analysis (NMDS) of trends in abundance of ectoparasites
in the waterfowl samples. We chose NMDS because this method is more robust
to variability in underlying distribution patterns in species responses than are
eigenvalue-based ordination techniques (Clarke 1993, Gaiser et al. 1998). We
also performed Multi-response permutation procedures (MRPP) on the ectosymbiont
data to test for differences in assemblages among waterfowl genera
and sex. MRPP is a nonparametric test of differences in taxon composition/relative
abundance between two or more groups. For both the NMDS and MRPP,
we used Bray-Curtis/Sørensen distance measures, as these reduce the effect of
outliers on the analysis (McCune and Grace 2002). American Coots were not
separated or analyzed by sex, because they cannot be accurately sexed by traditional
methods (Shizuka and Lyon 2008) as their plumage was not sexually
dimorphic and internal characteristics were underdeveloped and ambiguous
during our sampling period.
A total of 2094 avian lice and 24,892 bird-associated mites were collected
from the 53 waterfowl individuals. Twenty-nine percent of the lice
collected were Amblycera, and 71% were Ischnocera. Eleven louse (Table 1)
and seven mite species (Table 2) were identified from the waterfowl samples.
Five additional louse morphotaxa were collected as immatures that could not
be positively identified. Total ectosymbiont abundance did not differ among
waterfowl genera (P = 0.69) or between the two categories of feeding behavior
(dabbling or diving; P = 0.31).
Overall, lice were found in significantly higher abundances (P = 0.001) on
Fulica compared to other waterfowl genera, a pattern holding true for both
2013 V.R. Garbarino, J.W. Campbell, J. O’Brien, H.C. Proctor, and B. Dik 417
Table 1. List of louse species/taxa found on waterfowl species. Numbers in table indicate the total number of lice of that taxon collected. Number in parentheses
is the number of waterfowl hosts they were collected from. Louse species identified only to genus could not be identified to species because samples
were from nymphal stages.
Hs1 Hc1 Hl1 Pp1 Ts1 Tq1 Ls2 As3 Ac3 Am3 Ad3 Ai3 Fs3 Fl3 It3 Ra3
Aix sponsa (Wood Duck) 7 (3) 8 (5) 56 (6) 54 (7) 69 (9)
Anas acuta (Northern Pintail) 4 (1) 5 (1) 1 (1)
Anas americana (American Wigeon) 5 (1)
Anas crecca (Green-winged Teal) 3 (3) 8 (2) 4 (2)
Anas clypeata (Northern Shoveler) 6 (1) 8 (2) 11 (2)
Anas platyrhynchos (Mallard) 2 (1) 5 (2) 23 (4) 115 (4)
Anas rubripes (American Black Duck) 12 (1) 1 (1)
Anas strepera (Gadwall) 8 (2) 39 (12) 95 (11) 199 (15) 400 (10)
Aythya americana (Redhead) 9 (1) 22 (1) 4 (1) 48 (1)
Aythya collaris (Ring-necked Duck) 12 (1) 4 (1) 2 (1) 4 (1)
Aythya marila (Greater Scaup) 1 (1) 5 (2) 12 (2)
Bucephala albeola (Bufflehead) 1 (1) 2 (1)
Fulica americana (American Coot) 521 (7) 1 (1) 155 (7) 119 (6) 184 (7) 650 (6)
1Menoponidae: Hs = Holomenopon sp., Hc = Holomenopon clauseni Price, Hl = Holomenopon leucoxanthum Burmeister, Pp = Pseudomenopon pilosum
Scopoli, Ts = Trinoton sp., Tq = Trinoton querquedulae L.
2Laemobothriidae: Ls = Laemobothrion sp.
3Philopteridae: As = Anaticola sp., Ac = Anaticola crassicornis Scopoli, Am = Anaticola mergiserrati De Geer, Ad = Anatoecus dentatus Scopoli, Ai = Anatoecus
icterodes Nitzsch, Fs = Fulicoffula sp., Fl = Fulicoffula longipila Kellogg, It = Incidifrons transpositus Kellogg, Ra = Rallicola advenus Kellogg.
418 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, No. 2
Table 2. List of mite species/taxa found on waterfowl species. All are feather mites except for Rhinonyssidae, which are nasal mites. Numbers in table indicate
the total number of mites of that taxon collected. Number in parentheses is the number of waterfowl hosts they were collected from. Species names in
parentheses are the most likely species due to adult stages being unavailable.
Alloptidae Avenzoariidae Freyanidae Pterolichidae Analgidae Rhinonyssidae
Bdellorhynchus Freyana Grallobia sp. Grallolichus Megniniella sp. Rhinonyssus
Brephosceles polymorphus anatina (G. fulicae proctogamus (M. gallinulae rhinolethrum
sp. Trouessart Koch Trouessart) Trouessart Buchholz) Trouessart
Aix sponsa (Wood Duck) 1259 (9) 51 (2) 2924 (10) 1 (1)
Anas acuta (Northern Pintail) 176 (1) 41 (1)
Anas americana (American Wigeon) 53 (1) 383 (1)
Anas crecca (Green-winged Teal) 113 (4) 1069 (5)
Anas clypeata (Northern Shoveler) 34 (2) 56 (2) 302 (2)
Anas platyrhynchos (Mallard) 7 (1) 152 (2) 1473 (4)
Anas rubripes (American Black Duck) 33 (1) 776 (1)
Anas strepera (Gadwall) 1184 (15) 11,092 (15)
Aythya americana (Redhead) 16 (10) 49 (1) 287 (1)
Aythya collaris (Ring-necked Duck) 31 (1) 119 (1) 196 (1)
Aythya marila (Greater Scaup) 387 (3) 192 (3) 705 (3)
Bucephala albeola (Bufflehead) 3 (1) 18 (1) 57 (2)
Fulica americana (American Coot) 581 (6) 393 (4) 326 (5) 97 (4) 256 (6)
2013 V.R. Garbarino, J.W. Campbell, J. O’Brien, H.C. Proctor, and B. Dik 419
Amblycera (P < 0.0001) and Ischnocera (P = 0.005) when examined separately
(Fig.1). Louse taxon richness was also significantly (P < 0.001) higher on Fulica
compared to other waterfowl genera. Anaticola was the only louse genus found
on all species of Anseriformes (Table 1). Female Anseriformes hosted significantly
more ischnoceran lice than did male Anseriformes (P = 0.046).
Mean louse abundance was significantly (P < 0.001) higher on diving waterfowl
than on dabbling birds. Amblyceran abundance was marginally greater on
divers than dabblers (P = 0.09), while ischnoceran abundance was significantly
greater (P = 0.027) on divers compared to dabblers. Diving birds also exhibited
higher lice taxon richness (P = 0.01) compared to dabblers; however, this trend
was probably driven by Fulica.
The most abundant species of feather mite collected was Freyana anatina
Koch, comprising 79% of the collected mites. Only two taxa of feather mites
were found on all species of waterfowl: Freyana anatina and members of the
genus Brephosceles (Table 2). The mite taxa Grallobia sp., Grallolichus proctogamus
Trouessart, and Megniniella sp. were found only on F. americana. A
single specimen of nasal mite (Mesostigmata: Rhinonyssidae), Rhinonyssus rhinolethrum
Trouessart, was found on Aix sponsa (Table 2).
Mite abundance showed no significant differences among waterfowl genera
(P = 0.27; Fig. 2). However, several individual mite taxa were found in significantly
higher abundances on certain waterfowl genera. For example, genus
Aythya had significantly more Bdellorhynchus compared to all other Anseriformes
and Grallolichus proctogamus was found only on Fulica. Overall, Fulica
Figure 1. Mean number (± SE) of Ischnocera and Amblycera lice per individual waterfowl
of the four most abundant host genera. Within Amblycera and Ischnocera, columns with
the same letter(s) are not significantly different at P > 0.05 according to Tukey’s multiple
420 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, No. 2
Figure 2. Mean number (± SE) of total feather mites per individual waterfowl of the four
most abundant host genera.
Figure 3. NMDS ordination of ectosymbiont community assemblages on individual waterfowl
samples. Letters mark individual sample scores in ordination space and represent
variation in ectosymbiont communities among the individual birds analyzed. Letters indicate
the waterfowl genera of the samples: A = Anas, B-Bucephala, F = Fulica, X = Aix,
Y = Aythya. The ordination shows that Axis 1 variation was driven mainly by the different
ectosymbiont communities found on the Anatids versus Fulica, while Axis 2 variation
was driven mainly by variation in the ectosymbiont communities within the Anatidae.
2013 V.R. Garbarino, J.W. Campbell, J. O’Brien, H.C. Proctor, and B. Dik 421
also harbored significantly higher mean taxon richness of feather mites (P =
0.001) compared to other host genera except Aythya. No significant difference
was detected between mite abundance or richness relative to waterfowl sex.
The taxon richness of feather mites was significantly higher on divers than on
dabblers (P < 0.001). Total mite abundance was greater on dabblers than divers,
though not to a statistically significant degree ( P = 0.07).
Ectosymbiont assemblage structure
In order to test the optimal dimensionality of the NMS ordination, we used a
Monte Carlo test—a randomization procedure where the data matrix is shuffled
and the ordination rerun. The original assemblage is compared to the set of randomly
constructed assemblages to determine the optimal dimensionality of the
NMDS. In our case, the results indicated a two-dimensional solution was optimal
(final stress = 9.85, P = 0.04). The first two axes of the NMDS ordination
explained 86.0% of the original variance, with axis 1 explaining 46% and axis 2
explaining an additional 37%. Apparently, ectoparasite assemblages were at least
partially structured by waterfowl genus along Axis 1 (Figs. 3, 4). This finding
is consistent with the MRPP, which indicated that there were significant differences
in the ectosymbiont assemblages among waterfowl genera (A = 0.138,
Figure 4. NMDS species scores for ectosymbionts. Labels indicate the first letter of the
genus and species, or the first two letters of the genus where labels would be duplicated.
As in Figure 3, variation in Axis 1 scores were driven by the different ectosymbiont taxa
associated with the coots (cluster in the lower right of ordination), while variation in Axis
2 scores were driven by variation in taxa associated with the Anatidae (cluster in upper
left of ordination).
422 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, No. 2
P < 0.0001). The ectosymbiont assemblage on Fulica differed from all other
genera, and the assemblages on Aythya and Bucephala differed significantly,
but no other genera were significantly different (P = 0.05). A test for differences
(excluding Fulica) indicated that there were no differences in assemblages found
on males versus females (A = 0.003, P = 0.30).
Overall, American Coots (genus Fulica) hosted more lice than other genera
of waterfowl, but fewer mites (excluding Buffleheads, genus Bucephala).
The high louse load and low mite load on American Coots could be due to
the competitive superiority of lice for the microenvironment of the host, or
predation by lice on mites; lice can feed on smaller ectosymbionts or their
eggs (Nelson and Murray 1971). American Coots also had the greatest taxon
richness for lice and mites, probably contributing to the significantly greater
taxon richness found in diving genera (Aythya, Bucephala, and Fulica) compared
to dabbling genera (Aix and Anas). This contrasts with the work of
Felso and Rózsa (2006), who found that louse taxon richness was significantly
lower in clades of diving birds than non-diving birds. This discrepancy
may be a function of the particular genera we included in this study and the
smaller number of taxa included in our study.
Møller and Rózsa (2005) found higher abundances of amblyceran lice compared
to ischnoceran lice on avian hosts. However, in our study, ischnoceran
species tended to have higher abundances than amblyceran species. Out of the 53
avian hosts sampled, only 6 (11%) had slightly higher abundances of Amblycera
than Ischnocera. Ischnoceran lice are presumably less irritating to waterfowl than
amblyceran lice (Møller and Rózsa 2005). Therefore, they might not be removed
by active preening and thus accumulate to greater population sizes. In particular,
Anaticola spp. were found on every Anseriformes species surveyed. This finding
suggests that this genus may be tolerated more than other lice, may be more difficult
to remove, or may have greater dispersal abilities.
There was a significant difference between the waterfowl sexes of Anseriformes
birds in ischnoceran lice loads: females had more lice than males. In other
bird species, females prefer males with lower ectoparasite loads, whereas males
selected mates independent of mate ectoparasite load (Clayton 1990). Preening
plays a major role in host defense against lice (Møller and Rózsa 2005), and some
studies suggest that males spend more time preening than females (Cotgreave
and Clayton 1994), perhaps because of the greater selective value of healthy
plumage. While this pattern has not been demonstrated in waterfowl, waterfowl
with impaired preening ability do suffer from increased ectoparasite loads and
reduced overall fitness (Cotgreave and Clayton 1994). So, perhaps the reduced
lice load in males is a consequence of similar patterns of inter-sexual selection,
where females select males with lower ectoparasite loads, healthier plumage, and
increased overall fitness.
2013 V.R. Garbarino, J.W. Campbell, J. O’Brien, H.C. Proctor, and B. Dik 423
There is a competing hypothesis, however, for the difference in louse load
between the waterfowl sexes. In the northern hemisphere, male waterfowl in the
family Anatidae do not participate in parental care and have little to no direct
contact with their young (Batt et al. 1992). Therefore, because lice are more
dependent on vertical (parent-offspring) transmission than other ectoparasites
(Bush and Clayton 2006), selection would favor lice that prefer females, or
migrate from males to females during copulation. This theory could explain the
greater lice load in females. Indeed, there is some evidence that lice can determine
the sex of their host through hormonal cues (Foster 1968).
No significant difference was detected between feather mite abundance and
waterfowl species or sex. Because of their small size, method of feeding, or the
possible advantages associated with having higher mite loads, the mites might
not be actively preened off by the host animal.
In conclusion, our study confirmed that there are differences in ectoparasite
communities on different waterfowl genera and differences in ectoparasite
abundance between sexes. Other patterns conflicted with previous studies, but
were probably affected by unequal representation of waterfowl species across
categories. Little information exists about the ecology of most of the lice and
mite species that were collected. Further collection of ectosymbionts from
waterfowl during different seasons and areas would undoubtedly increase
knowledge about the natural histories of feather mite and lice species and
their host associations.
We thank Victor Abercrombie, Keith Miller, Mac Callaham, Will Campbell, Clayton
Wilcox, and Ben Hornsby for supplying many of our bird samples, and Bayley the Boykin
Spaniel for retrieving them. We appreciate the lab work of Myra Compton who washed
many of the ectoparasites from birds. We also gratefully acknowledge Wade Worthen and
two anonymous reviewers for their edits and help in structuring our paper.
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