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Fish Assemblages in Talladega National Forest’s Choccolocco, Shoal, and Scarbrough Creeks
Mark Meade, Jeffrey O’Kelley, Greg Scull, and Josh Turner

Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 8, Number 4 (2009): 677–686

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2009 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 8(4):677–686 Fish Assemblages in Talladega National Forest’s Choccolocco, Shoal, and Scarbrough Creeks Mark Meade1,*, Jeffrey O’Kelley1, Greg Scull1, and Josh Turner1 Abstract - Fish assemblages within Choccolocco, Shoal, and Scarbrough creeks (Shoal Creek District, Talladega National Forest, AL) were surveyed each July from 2003–2007. Mean species diversity (Shannon Index) was 2.3 or higher for all sites except Scarbrough Creek (headwater site). Calculated IBI’s for all sites scored were “good” with the exception of Scarbrough Creek which scored “poor.” At all sites except Scarbrough creek, fish communities were dominated by Cyprinella trichroistia (Tricolor Shiner), Semotilus atromaculatus (Creek Chub), Hypentelium etowanum (Alabama Hogsucker), Campostoma oligolepis (Largescale Stoneroller), and Notropis xaenocephalus (Coosa Shiner). At one site near a large lake (Shoal Creek), sunfish were also predominant. Limited numbers of the state-listed Etheostoma brevirostrum (Holiday Darter) were also observed in Shoal Creek. The Creek Chub was the only fish species observed in Scarbrough Creek at its headwaters. Although species diversity may be reduced relative to historical data, those fish populations observed in the streams currently appear stable. Introduction The freshwater fauna of Alabama is diverse and includes at least 38% of all freshwater species found in the United States (Lydeard and Mayden 1995). Alabama’s fish fauna can be attributed to its diversity of habitats, climate, and hydrology. The Shoal Creek District of Talladega National Forest occurs in the Northeastern portion of the state. Specifically, the district lies within the Alabama Valley and Ridge physiographic region (Boschung and Mayden 2004). The majority of the waterways in this region are tributaries of the Coosa River. Regions around the Shoal Creek District of the Talladega National Forest were primarily used for farming and logging before being bought by the federal government in the 1930s. Since that time, the mountainous regions of the forest have remained relatively un-impacted by human activities other than the construction of several impoundments during the 1960s and 70s. The region is known for its steep hills and rugged terrain and today provides a welcome challenge to many outdoor enthusiasts. Choccolocco, Scarbrough, and Shoal creeks are three streams in the district that have headwaters located near Rattlesnake Mountain. Scarbrough and Shoal creeks are tributaries of Choccolocco Creek. Choccolocco Creek drains directly into the Coosa River. Fish assemblages within the Talladega National Forest are diverse, and this region of the southeast includes some of the largest assemblages of minnow and darter species in North America (Mettee et al. 1996). Several regions in and around the forest are considered prime habitat for many threatened and endangered species, including Etheostoma brevirostrum 1Biology Department, Martin Hall, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, AL 36265. *Corresponding author - mmeade@jsu.edu. 678 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 8, No. 4 Suttkus and Etnier (Holiday Darter), Etheostoma ditrema Ramsey and Suttkus (Coldwater Darter), and Cyprinella caerulea (Jordan) (Blue Shiner) (Boschung and Mayden 2004). Information on fish assemblages in the forest have been collected by various statewide groups since the 1950s (i.e., US Fish and Wildlife Service, Auburn University, etc.); however, few reports on this region can be found in the primary literature. Because the forest is relatively unimpacted by urbanization, information on fish assemblages in the forest can be used as reference data for other studies examining fish assemblages in similar habitats that are impacted by human activities. Furthermore, information on fish habitats and populations in the region are needed to develop management strategies that might help maintain threatened fish species (Mirarchi et al. 2004). Field Site Description The Talladega National Forest lies inside the Alabama Valley and Ridge geographic region occurring between the Cumberland Plateau (to the north) and the Piedmont Uplands (to the south) (Boschung and Mayden 2004). The Coosa Valley is a distinctive feature of this region, which consists of valleys and ridges throughout a 7-county region. The Weisner Ridge district is a small area within the northeastern corner of the Valley and Ridge containing many headwater and higher-order streams. The Shoal Creek District of the Talladega National Forest occurs within the Weisner Ridges. Three of the primary creeks that drain this region are Choccolocco, Shoal, and Scarbrough (Fig. 1). Five sites on the creeks were surveyed each July over a 5-year period from 2003 to 2007 (Fig. 1, circles). Most of the sites are accessible from Forest Service roads (FSR). Shoal Creek was surveyed at three sites. Shoal Creek at Pine Glen campground, a traditionally surveyed site, is easily accessible (site #1, 3rd-order stream) with a semi-open canopy and a sandy/cobble substratum. North of this site, Shoal Creek crosses FSR 553 (site #2, 2nd-order stream). This site too is easily accessible with a semi-open canopy and a sandy/cobble substratum. Also north of Pine Glenn, Shoal Creek is relatively accessible at the northern tip of Sweetwater Lake (near FSR 549; site #3). Here, the canopy is semi-open and the substratum changes from large boulders to cobble and sand as it nears the entry to the lake (Shoal joins Pendergrass Creek at this point to become a 3rd-order stream before entering Sweetwater Lake). Scarbrough Creek is less accessible than Shoal Creek, but can be reached from FSR 532 (site #4). Scarbrough Creek has a dense canopy and cobble substratum (1st-order headwater region). Choccolocco Creek is a major stream fl owing through the district. Choccolocco Creek is easily accessible where it is crossed by FSR 540 (site #5). Here the creek has a semi-open canopy and a cobblestone substratum (3rd-order stream at this site). Methods Prior to surveying, water temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, ammonianitrogen, nitrite-nitrogen, and conductivity were measured and recorded at each starting point. Surveys for fish were then conducted by a team of two to 2009 M. Meade, J. O’Kelley, G. Scull, and J. Turner 679 three individuals to maximize catch per unit effort. Surveying was performed approximately 100 m upstream and downstream and included at least one riffl e, run, and pool per site (the FSR was often used as a point of reference for the 200-m section surveyed). While surveying in a stream, sediments are often disturbed; hence, each 100-m section was surveyed while moving upstream along the reach. The data from the adjacent upstream and downstream sites were combined for analysis. Fishes were sampled in one pass along each 100-m section using a backpack electroshocker (Model 12 POW Electrofisher, Smith- Root, Inc., Vancouver WA) for 45–60 min. Seines and nets were also used in combination with electroshocking in areas where shocking was difficult, such as in shallow, swift riffl es and/or heavily vegetated areas. All fish collected were identified on site, digitally photographed (for voucher purposes), and released at the site of capture. Difficult-to-identify specimens were transported to the lab for comparison with voucher specimens previously collected and maintained in the JSU Biology Department zoology collection. Most of these specimens were transported back to their site of capture and released following identification. A few specimens of some species were humanely euthanized, following Jackson State University (JSU) IACUC protocols (NIH-OLAW assurance # A3680-01), and maintained for the JSU collection. Positive identifications of fish were confirmed Figure 1. Map showing creeks in the NE corner of Shoal Creek District (Talladega National Forest, AL). Circles indicate study sites. Major highways and Forest Service roads (FSR) are indicated. 680 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 8, No. 4 in the field and lab using appropriate field guides (e.g., Boschung and Mayden 2004, Mettee et al. 1996). On occasion, identification was also confirmed via personal communication with other ichthyologists within the state (i.e., Dr. Ken Marion, University of Alabama-Birmingham, Birmingham, AL; Dr. Bernard R. Kuhajda, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL). The numbers of fish species and numbers of individuals of each species taken at each site were used to calculate diversity. Species diversity (H) at each site for each year was calculated using the Shannon index (Smith and Smith 2000). Mean total diversity for the duration of the study was also calculated and the means were compared for each site using the t-test proposed by Hutcheson (1970) (Zar 1999). For each site, index of biological integrity (IBI) scores were calculated using pooled data from all collections (Barbour et al. 1999, Karr 1981). A newly-modified IBI, developed to better refl ect the natural organization of fish communities in the Coosa River system, was used (O’Neil et al. 2006). Specifically, 12 metrics were scored and used to determine stream quality based on fish species present. These metrics included: 1) number of native species, 2) number of darter species, 3) number of native minnow species, 4) number of sucker species, 5) number of intolerant species, 6) proportion of tolerant species, 7) proportion of omnivores and herbivores, 8) proportion of invertivores, 9) proportion of top carnivores, 10) proportion of non-lithophilic spawners, 11) average catch per effort, and 12) proportion of DELT+hybrids (i.e., proportion of fish with deformities, eroded fins, lesions, and tumors + presence of hybrids). Results At the creek sites surveyed, water depth ranged from a few centimeters in riffl es to about 1 m in pools. Width of surveyed creek sites ranged from approximately 1–5 m. During the summer of 2005, heavier than normal precipitation precluded the surveying of all creeks except Choccolocco Creek (NOAA reported 21 days of rain for July in 2005). When all creeks were surveyed—during periods of more normal rainfall—fl ow rates could be described as low but steady for all sites, though water fl ow was not determined. In a previous study, water fl ow in Shoal Creek at various reaches near Pine Glen, was reported as 0.5 m s-1 (Johnston and Hartup 2002). Choccolocco Creek, a higher-order stream, likely had similar or slightly higher fl ow rates. Dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations at all sites ranged between 6 and 8 mg L-1, and water temperature varied from 20–23 °C despite air temperatures averaging between 25–30 °C during the summertime surveys. Water turbidity and presence of nitrogenous compounds (NH3, NO2) were negligible at any site, and the pH at most sites was neutral to basic (7–7.5), except for Scarbrough Creek (pH 6.5–7). Conductivity was also low at the sites and ranged from 40–80 μmhos cm-1. No silting or bank erosion was observed at any site during the study. During the five years of this study, a total of 1263 fish was collected and identified. The greatest number of fish was observed in Choccolocco Creek (n = 320), whereas the least number of fish was observed in Scarbrough 2009 M. Meade, J. O’Kelley, G. Scull, and J. Turner 681 Creek (n = 152). Including all sites, the five most-abundant species collected were Cyprinella trichroistia (Tricolor Shiner; n = 247), Semotilus atromaculatus (Creek Chub; n = 156), Hypentelium etowanum (Alabama Hogsucker; n = 140), Campostoma oligolepis (Largescale Stoneroller; n = 129), and Notropis xaenocephalus (Coosa Shiner; n = 107). These species accounted for 62% of the total number of fish collected. The Creek Chub was the only species observed in Scarbrough Creek. The Holiday Darter was found in Shoal Creek near Pine Glen and in Shoal Creek north of Sweetwater Lake. A total of 27 species of fish were observed in this study. Species richness varied among the five sites studied and within a site from year to year. Shoal Creek near Sweetwater Lake (site #3) yielded 21 species, the highest observed. Nearly 20 species were observed at all sites except Scarbrough Creek (site #5; total fish distribution and number collected at each site are presented in Table 1). Shoal Creek near Sweetwater Lake (site #3) also had the highest mean diversity over the duration of the study (H = 2.73), although mean diversity was not significantly different for any of the sites except Scarbrough Creek (α = 0.05). The lowest diversity was observed in Scarbrough Creek (H = 0.00; species diversity indices for all sites are shown in Table 2). IBI scores for all sites except Scarbrough Creek ranged from 48 to 54 and indicate that the sites were “good” and thus suitable for fish communities (Table 3; O’Neil et al. 2006). Scarbrough Creek, with an IBI score of 22, was classified as a “poor” site (O’Neil et al 2006), likely a result of either poor water quality, poor habitat quality, or a combination of the two. Discussion The Shoal Creek District of the Talladega National Forest is located at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Northeastern Alabama and lies on the border where the Alabama Ridge and Valley and Upper Piedmont physiographic regions converge. Because of many diverse habitats, the plant and animal species in the area are unique, and many are rare. Management efforts to maintain overall species richness in this region are a main concern of many environmental agencies (i.e., USDA Forest Service, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, etc.; Mirarchi et. al. 2004). The index of biological integrity (IBI) was developed as a standard analysis technique for the quantification of stream biological integrity (Karr 1981). IBI has become a particularly common method of examining the impact of urbanization on streams. Although the sites on the streams surveyed in this study are relatively unimpacted by urbanization, modified IBIs have recently been developed and are useful in the assessment of fish assemblages in rural regions (O’Neil et al. 2006). Choccolocco and Shoal creeks had relatively high diversity and IBI scores and can be categorized as having fish populations in “good” condition. Indeed, at all sites surveyed on these creeks, at least half of the fish observed were minnows and darters (i.e., invertivores and sensitive species), both major indicators of stream health. Also, the presence of longlived species, such as suckers, and the presence of top carnivores, such as bass, indicates that these are good quality fish habitats. 682 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 8, No. 4 It is estimated that 75–80 fish species occur in the Coosa River and its tributaries (Mettee et al. 1996). Thirty species of fish are typically found in relatively high abundance in the Ridge and Valley physiographic region of Alabama where this study was conducted (O’Neil and Shepard 2007). In the 1960s and 1970s, before the construction of several impoundments along Shoal Creek, other species of fish were reported (USDA Forest Service, Shoal Creek District Ranger Station, Talladega National Forest, Hefl in, AL, unpubl. data). Although unverified, several notable species previously reported in Table 1. Number observed of all fish species collected in Talladega National Forest creeks from 2003–2007. Site # Species 1 2 3 4 5 n % Catostomidae Hypentelium etowanum Jordan (Alabama Hog Sucker) 102 15 11 12 140 11.1 Moxostoma erythrurum (Rafinesque) (Golden Redhorse) 5 1 2 8 0.6 Centrarchidae Ambloplites ariommus Viosca (Shadow Bass) 10 1 1 12 0.9 Lepomis auritus (L.) (Redbreast Sunfish) 1 2 3 0.3 L. cyanellus Rafinesque (Green Sunfish) 8 3 1 12 0.9 L. humilis (Girard) (Orangespotted Sunfish) 2 2 0.2 L. macrochirus Rafinesque (Bluegill Sunfish) 6 21 48 5 80 6.3 L. megalotis (Rafinesque) (Longear Sunfish) 3 3 2 1 9 0.7 Micropterus coosae Hubbs and Bailey (Coosa Bass) 24 12 14 8 58 4.6 Pomoxis annularis Rafinesque (White Crappie) 22 22 1.7 Cottidae Cottus carolinae (Gill) (Banded Sculpin) 15 8 9 36 68 5.4 Cyprinidae Campostoma oligolepis Hubbs and Greene 15 29 34 51 129 10.2 (Largescale Stoneroller) Cyprinella calistia (Jordan) (Alabama Shiner) 20 39 17 7 83 6.6 C. trichroistia (Jordan and Gilbert) (Tricolor Shiner) 22 90 18 117 247 19.6 Notropis chrosomus Jordan (Rainbow Shiner) 1 1 0.1 N. stilbius Jordan (Silverstripe Shiner) 2 1 2 5 0.4 N. xaenocephalus (Jordan) (Coosa Shiner) 9 37 2 59 107 8.5 Semotilus atromaculatus (Mitchill) (Creek Chub) 1 3 152 156 12.3 Fundulidae Fundulus stellifer (Jordan) (Southern Studfish) 4 8 12 0.9 Ictaluridae Ameiurus natalis (Lesueur) (Yellow Bullhead) 5 7 10 22 1.7 Percidae Etheostoma brevirostrum Suttkus and Etnier 5 4 9 0.7 (Holiday Darter) E. coosae (Fowler) (Coosa Darter) 4 18 8 4 34 2.7 E. jordani Golbert (Greenbreast Darter) 14 1 3 18 1.4 E. stigmaeum (Jordan) (Speckled Darter) 1 1 2 0.2 Percina kathae Thompson (Mobile Logperch) 2 2 2 6 0.5 P. palmaris (Bailey) (Bronze Darter) 7 7 0.6 P. nigrofasciata (Agassiz) (Blackbanded Darter) 3 2 5 1 12 0.9 Total 271 299 221 320 152 1263 100.0 2009 M. Meade, J. O’Kelley, G. Scull, and J. Turner 683 Shoal Creek and not found in this study include Etheostoma chuckwachatte Mayden and Wood (Lipstick Darter), Etheostoma artesiae (Hay) (Redspot Darter), and Cyprinella venusta Giard (Blacktail Shiner). The Lipstick Darter and the Redspot Darter are uncommon species to the Upper Coosa River (Boschung and Mayden 2004). It is possible that these species were mis-identified, being confused with similar-looking species, such as Etheostoma jordani Gilbert (Greenbreast Darter). The Blacktail Shiner, however, was observed along Shoal Creek in 2002 (Johnston and Hartup 2002), but was not reported in 2006 (O’Neil et al. 2006). It is possible that the distribution and/or population density of Blacktail Shiners along Shoal Creek is limited and resulted in its absence in some surveys. It may also be possible that the impoundments along Shoal Creek have affected the distribution of Blacktail Shiners in the Shoal Creek District. The USDA Forest Service maintains a database on fish species diversity in the Shoal Creek District. Using only seining techniques, 25 fish species were observed along Shoal Creek at several sites, including Pine Glen, in 2002 (Johnston and Hartup 2002). We observed approximately the same types and number of species along Shoal Creek during this five-year study. Ambloplites ariommus (Shadow Bass), Lepomis cyanellus (Green Sunfish), and Lepomis humilis Table 2. Species diversity (Shannon-Weiner indices, or H) calculated from survey sites in the Talladega National Forest from 2003–2007. *denotes incomplete data or site not sampled. Year Site 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 Mean H 1 - Shoal Creek at Pine Glenn 2.73 2.06 * 2.39 2.36 2.39 2 - Shoal Creek near FSR 553 2.42 3.07 * 2.94 1.76 2.55 3 - Shoal Creek near FSR 546 2.70 3.33 * 2.72 2.16 2.73 4 - Choccolocco Creek at FSR 540 2.40 2.55 2.47 2.49 1.79 2.34 5 - Scarbrough Creek near FSR 532 0.00 0.00 * 0.00 0.00 0.00A A Significantly different than all other sites. Table 3. Index of biological integrity (IBI) scores for survey sites. (From O’Neil et al. 2006) Site Metric 1 2 3 4 5 1. Number of native fish species 5 5 5 5 1 2. Number of darter species 5 5 5 3 1 3. Number of native minnow species 3 5 3 5 1 4. Number of sucker species 3 1 3 3 1 5. Number of intolerant species 5 5 5 5 1 6. Proportion as tolerant species 3 3 1 5 5 7. Proportion as omnivores/herbivores 5 5 3 3 1 8. Proportion as invertivores 3 3 3 5 1 9. Proportion of top carnivores 5 5 5 5 1 10. Proportion of non-lithophilic spawners 5 5 5 5 1 11. Average catch/unit effort 5 5 5 5 3 12. Proportion of DELT+hybrids 5 5 5 5 5 Total score 52 52 48 54 22 684 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 8, No. 4 (Orangespotted Sunfish) were not observed in the 2002 study and were observed in this study. Not reported in this study but reported in 2002 were species such as Notropis asperifrons Suttkus and Raney (Burrhead Shiner), Lepomis microlophus (Günther) (Redear Sunfish), and Notropis volucellus (Cope) (Mimic Shiner) (Johnston and Hartup 2002). Similarly, in 2006, species such as Ambloplites ariommus (Shadow Bass) and Burrhead Shiner, were observed in Shoal Creek at Pine Glenn, whereas Lepomis microlophus (Redear Sunfish) and Mimic Shiner were not observed (O’Neil et al. 2006). Previous studies examining fish-collecting methods suggest that combinations of methods are best to assess overall assemblages at any site (Onorato et al. 1998a). Furthermore, sampling effort has been shown to dramatically affect fish assessments (O’Neil et al. 2006). Overall, this study, and the aforementioned, complements those efforts to determine fish diversity and to increase our knowledge of fish distribution in the Shoal Creek District. Shoal Creek is listed as the primary habitat in Alabama for the threatened Etheostoma brevirostrum (Alabama Holiday Darter). It has been suggested that impoundments (lakes) located along the creek isolate Holiday Darter populations (Johnston and Hartup 2002). Conditions including impervious cover, historic land use, and hydrogeomorphic factors were recently examined in the nearby Etowah River Basin in Georgia (Wenger et al. 2008). The Etowah River is another tributary of the Coosa River and has many imperiled species, including several populations of Holiday Darter, considered related populations to the Alabama Holiday Darter. In their study, historic and current land use, particularly farming and urbanization, infl uenced lowland stream regions. Species particularly affected by land use included minnows and catfish. In headwater or highland streams, slope, affecting the presence of riffl es, and impoundments were the major infl uences on the presence of darter species. Similarly, in previous reports, small changes in stream conditions, such as hydrology, storm fl ow, impervious surface cover, and bank height, have been demonstrated to affect minnow and darter populations (Oronato et al. 1998b, Phillips and Johnston 2004, Powers et al. 2003, Roy et al. 2005). It is likely that impoundments, rather than farming, are the major factors affecting fish populations in the Shoal Creek District. Farming does occur in the area; however, it is limited to the lowlands several miles below the creeks surveyed in this study. Logging and/or prescribed burning of the forest did and does occur in the Shoal Creek District on an occasional basis. This activity is monitored by the Forest Service and, based on previous data, is not believed to be a major factor affecting stream ecology in the region. When frequent, fire has been shown to affect fish assemblages by infl uencing, among other things, water quality (Burton 2005). In most instances, fish assemblages rebound and repopulate affected streams in the months and years following a fire. In some instances, fish diversity actually increases following a fire. Currently the effects of prescribed burns on stream ecology in the Shoal Creek District of the Talladega National Forest are being examined. Of all the creeks in this study, Scarbrough Creek exhibited the lowest species diversity and the lowest IBI score. This creek fl ows through a deep 2009 M. Meade, J. O’Kelley, G. Scull, and J. Turner 685 gorge between Potter and Rattlesnake Mountains. Eventually the creek runs from the mountains into a valley and empties into Choccolocco Creek. The survey sites on Scarbrough Creek are near its headwaters in the mountains. Survey sites were extended nearly a mile from the headwaters when only one species, the Creek Chub, was initially observed. In similar regional studies of fish assemblages in the eastern US, the Creek Chub was often the only fish inhabitant observed (Robinson and Rand 2005). Scarbrough Creek contains many large boulders and has many vertical rises over short distances. A waterfall splits the creek into upper and lower regions. A survey was not conducted below the waterfall and in the lower (valley) regions of Scarbrough Creek. The geographical barriers along Scarbrough Creek in its upper region likely limit fish assemblages. However, it is likely that species diversity increases in lower valley regions near where Scarbrough Creek enters Choccolocco Creek. A similar study of a southern Appalachian elevated watershed reported that fish assemblages did, in fact, increase as streams moved into valley regions (Robinson and Rand 2005). Thus, the low diversity and IBI score calculated for this creek may not truly indicate the “quality” of this stream for maintaining fish assemblages. Future studies on the lower sections of Scarbrough Creek are needed to fully assess the biological integrity of this stream. Fish assemblages in the Shoal Creek District of Talladega National Forest are diverse in the majority of creeks in the region. Similar species can be found in different creeks and at different sites along a single creek. Many creeks, however, are isolated and maintain small populations of threatened fish populations. This study concurs with other studies that suggest fish assemblages may be less diverse in the region than historically reported. Whether or not the current diversity is maintained will likely depend upon habitat viability, which appears stable at the present time. Studies examining the distribution of threatened species in the region, particularly focusing on determining abundance and identifying key habitats, are needed to ensure the preservation of the unique aquatic fish fauna in this region. Acknowledgments This project was supported by a JSU Faculty Grant. The authors wish to express their thanks to the JSU undergraduate biology students that participated in gathering data for this project. Literature Cited Barbour, M.T., J. Gerritsen, B.D. Snyder, and J.B. Stribling. 1999. Rapid bioassessment protocols for use in streams and wadeable rivers: Periphyton, benthic macroinvertebrates, and fish. EPA-841-B-99-002. Office of Water, US EPA, Washington, DC. Boschung, H.T, and R.L. Mayden. 2004. Fishes of Alabama. Smithsonian Books, Washington, DC. 736 pp. Burton, T.A. 2005. 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