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    Other plant-life: the arid and humid zones

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: Plants of the arid zone include the various cacti (covered in previous tips). Another that you will see in lots of places is Palo Santo, which Fabian also referred to as Holy Stick or the Jerusalem Tree. This is related to frankincense, and its sap contains an aromatic resin, hence the common names. The branches are shipped to the mainland where they are burned as incense in churches. Palo Santo looses their leaves during the dry season to help stop water loss, so the ones we saw (for example on North Seymour and Genovesa) were bare and looked almost dead. We also saw Palo Verde which has long, green, leafless stalks and extremely sharp spines. Another plant to beware of in this zone is the Manzanillo, also known as the "poison apple" tree. This is the only indigenous toxic plant in the islands. Touching the sap causes dermatitis, and eating the fruit can be lethal to humans, although giant tortoises can eat it and enjoy it. We saw a Manzanillo just by the beach on Santiago, near where we left our snorkelling and swimming gear – Fabian made sure we didn’t get too close though.

    Also common in this zone is Cordia lutea or Yellow Cordia – very pretty. We saw this on Rabida and on Santa Cruz. Another colourful plant is the alternanthera, of which several species can be found – the one in my photo is on Santiago.

    We didn’t spend much time in the humid zone anywhere, apart from our afternoon in the Highlands of Santa Cruz. The landscape here was very different from elsewhere, partially cultivated with crops such as palms, tropical fruits and maize. Elsewhere we saw tall trees hung with moss and covered in lichens (these were scalesias, or daisy trees, which can grow to almost 15 metres), and various ferns. It all looked very lush and rather alien after our days at sea and on rocky islands.

    This is the last of my tips. Click here to return to my intro page, or here to see my travelogue with photos of the end of cruise party!

    Alternanthera Palo Santo and blue-footed booby Fabian demonstrating the scent of Yellow cordia
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    Other plant-life: the coastal zone

    by toonsarah Written Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: As well as the cacti, there are plenty of other plants to bring colour to the islands, though some you will have to search for. The islands are typically divided into three major vegetation zones, each with a very different landscape and correspondingly different flora: the coastal (or littoral) zone, the arid zone and the humid zone (the latter only found on the larger islands with highland interiors, such as Santa Cruz and Isabella). Some sub-divide the zones, but recognising these three is enough to help the average visitor’s understanding of the flora here.

    Plants of the coastal zone include the various types of mangrove (black, white and red, of which the latter is the most common). We saw mangroves on Genovesa, home to hundreds of nesting Red-footed Boobies, and in Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz, among other places. Other coastal zone plants are Saltbush, Beach Morning Glory and Galápagos Carpet Weed or Sesuvium. The latter changes its colour from intense green in the rainy season to orange and red in the dry season, such as when we visited, and was especially spectacular on South Plaza – like a New England Fall at ground level!

    Next tip: plants of the ”Arid and humid zones”

    Mangroves in Balck Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz Red-footed booby and mangrove, Genovesa Sesuvium, South Plaza Beach morning glory on Santiago
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    Other cacti

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: While prickly pears are found in many parts of the world, the large Candelabra Cactus is endemic to the Galápagos. Named for its shape, it resembles the Organ Pipe Cactus of the Sonora Desert and can reach seven metres in height. It can be seen in the more arid zones of some islands – the ones in my picture (number three) were photographed on Santiago, opposite Sombrero Chino.

    The other cactus found here is the Lava Cactus. This plant is often the first coloniser of new lava flows (hence its name) and its presence helps to start the breakdown of the rocks into soil that will eventually allow other plants to move in. They grow in clumps measuring up to 60 cm in height with soft furry spines. New growth on the cacti is yellow, and rather attractive, but as the cacti mature the colour fades, becoming first paler and then eventually a drab grey or black with age. We saw clumps of lava cactus dotted over the somewhat barren and surreal landscape of Bartolomé and on Genovesa.

    Next tip: plants of the ”Coastal zone”

    Lava cactus on Bartolom�� Lava cactus on Genovesa Candelabra cactus on Santiago
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    Opuntia

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: You will naturally spend much of your time on the Galápagos Islands marvelling at the animal life, but the plant life too is worthy of mention as it helps to shape and to colour these amazing landscapes. Of these, the most striking are probably the three species of cactus that grow here – Opuntia (or prickly pear), lava cactus and the candelabra cactus.

    The former in particular not only forms a prickly backdrop to the many natural dramas played out before you on each island, but has also played a leading part in the evolution of some of their inhabitants - the Cactus Finch, for example, who has developed a long bill to delve between the spines to reach the juicy pads. The Opuntia has also allowed the Land Iguana to thrive on these islands, providing it not only with its main source of food but also of water. On islands where the Opuntia is less easily found, the early iguanas which arrived here, floating on rafts of vegetation, were in some cases forced to look to the sea for their food, and evolved into the Marine Iguanas we see today.

    But evolution works both ways! On some islands such as South Plaza and Santa Fe, the Opuntia has grown tall and tree-like to keep the pads out of reach of the Land iguanas and other herbivores such as Giant Tortoises, but where these animals are less prevalent or non-existent it has remained a low shrub.

    And on Genovesa (at Prince Philip Steps) Fabian showed us how the spines of the Opuntia cactus here have softened through evolution, thus allowing the Galápagos Dove to reach the pads more easily and to pollinate the flowers. This is a result of the lack of bees on this remote island that would normally perform this function. Altogether there are six different species of Opuntia in Galápagos (O. echios, O. galapageia, O. Helleri, O. insularis, O. saxicola, O. megasperma), and these can be divided into 14 different varieties. When you learn all about them, you will find yourself looking at these prickly specimens in a new light.

    Next tip: ”Other cacti”

    Land iguana eating Opuntia on North Seymour Opuntia on Rabida ... and on South Plaza Opuntia grow like trees on Santa Fe ... Cactus finch, Santa Cruz
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    Manta rays and more

    by toonsarah Written Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: I had seen rays before (in an aquarium!) and loved the graceful way in which they move. But I have never before seen a manta ray, the largest of the species. A couple of our group had already spotted one briefly from the boat by the time we reached Rabida, but I had missed it on both occasions, so I was thrilled when one was sighted in sea beneath where we stood on the cliffs here. It swam languidly up and down for some time, so we were able to get a good look at how it moved and to appreciate its huge size. Manta rays can grow up to seven metres across, and when their triangular “wings” appear out of the water you might at first think a shark is swimming past, until you spot the large mass of its body just beneath the surface. Sometimes they even jump clear of the water, and it was this behaviour that I unfortunately missed seeing from the boat. But watching this huge fish drift past below us here was a special experience that I was pleased not to have missed.

    We also saw Spotted Eagle Rays, on the same final panga ride in Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz, when we saw the sharks mentioned in my previous tip. And when we snorkelled in Gardner Bay, Española, there were some Stingrays in the water, although again I didn’t get a clear look – certainly not clear enough for a photo. Spotted Eagle Rays have a wingspan ranging from one to two metres, pointed heads, and long tails with a spiny termination, but their most distinguishing feature is, as the name suggests, the white spots dotted over their black tops. Stingrays are a similar size but are grey rather than black, with no spots, and of course have a nasty sting in their tail – so don’t get too close if you see one!

    Next tip: ”Opuntia” – the first of several about the flora of the islands.

    Manta Ray, Rabida Manta Ray, Rabida Spotted Eagle Ray, Santa Cruz
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    Sea turtles

    by toonsarah Written Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: As well as all the wildlife on the islands and in the air above, there is lots to see in the surrounding waters. You will some marine life from the boat and panga, but to see it at its best it is necessary to get into the sea with them, so do sample snorkelling Galápagos style!

    The Galápagos Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas agassisi) is a subspecies of the Pacific Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas), and is the only turtle to breed on the islands. Nesting is between the months of December and June, and we were there in November – too early, although Fabian did point out one nest on the beach of Bartolomé, where we also saw a turtle swimming in the sea very close to the shore, his head poked above the waves. We saw several on our last morning too, on a panga ride in Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz. But the best place to see them is, as I said, in the water. There were several at our snorkelling site off the beach of Santiago, but my clearest encounter was in Gardner Bay, Española.

    The Pacific Green Sea Turtle is listed as an endangered species and is protected from exploitation in most countries, including Ecuador. The Galapagos National Park authorities close certain beaches in the Islands when it is nesting season for the Green Sea Turtles to protect the nests from tourist activity. However, the turtles are still in danger because of several human practices. Water pollution indirectly harms them as it threatens their food supplies, and many green sea turtles die caught in fishing nets. If you do find yourself on a beach with a turtle nest, as we did, your guide will point it out – be sure not to walk on it.

    Next tip: ”White-tipped Reef Shark”

    Sea turtle off Espanola Sea turtle, Black Turtle Cove Sea turtle, Black Turtle Cove
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    Other birds seen

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: We saw very many other species of birds in our week in the Galápagos Islands, not all of which I was able to photograph or even to note. Among those I did capture, either in my camera or journal or both, were:

    ~ Red-billed Tropicbird (from the cliffs of South Plaza)
    ~ Brown Pelicans (at the Fish Market and around the harbour of Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, on South Plaza and elsewhere – even in one of the Angelito’s pangas – see photo three!)
    ~ American Oystercatcher (on Rabida and Santiago)
    ~ Shearwaters (from the cliffs of South Plaza)
    ~ White-cheeked pintail duck (in the Santa Cruz Highlands)
    ~ Smooth-billed ani (in the Santa Cruz Highlands)
    ~ Vermillion flycatcher (in the Santa Cruz Highlands)
    ~ Common Noddies (from the cliffs of South Plaza, near Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz, and elsewhere)

    Next tip: let’s get beneath the waves and go ”Snorkelling"

    Red-billed Tropicbird, Rabida Pelican in a panga! Pelicans, Santa Cruz American Oystercatcher, Santiago
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    Short-eared Owl

    by toonsarah Written Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: Owls are nocturnal, right? Well yes, normally – but not here on the Galápagos! The Short-eared Owl is one of two owl species found here (the other is the Barn Owl, which we didn’t see on our trip). We saw several on Genovesa, on the trail at Prince Philip’s Steps (El Barranco). And although it was broad daylight, they were not only to be seen on the ground, but also, some of them at least, flying and hunting. Fabian explained that with few competitors for prey and no real threats, they are free to hunt by daylight, unlike elsewhere in the world. However they do tend to feed nocturnally in areas where the Galápagos Hawk is present.

    The Short Eared Owl is a medium sized owl averaging 34 – 43 cm in length. It has large eyes, a big head, short neck and broad wings. Its plumage is mottled tawny to brown with a barred tail and wings, and a streaked breast. Its beak is short, strong, hooked and black, and its eyes yellow. Those seen here in the Galápagos belong to an endemic subspecies, Asio flammeus galapagoensis.

    Next tip: some “Other birds seen”

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    Yellow Warbler

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 7, 2012

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    Favorite thing: One of the smallest but prettiest of Galápagos Islands birds is the Yellow Warbler. It is not endemic, being found from Alaska to Peru, but as with all species, you are likely to get closer to one here than elsewhere. And like the finches, it is continually on the move and thus very hard to photograph – I have more pictures of blurred Yellow Warblers than of any other species!

    This is a small songbird (12-13 cm in height), with a thin pointed beak. It is mostly yellow in colour and the male has reddish streaks on his chest and a reddish-brown crown. The female lacks the crown patch, having a more olive-coloured head. The only half-decent photo I managed to get was of this male on South Plaza, but we also saw them on the beach at Bartolomé, on the lava rocks of Santiago (where they looked very bright and cheerful against the black), and at Gardner Bay on
    Española, among others.

    Next tip: ”Short-eared Owl”

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    Galápagos Finches

    by toonsarah Written Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: Although small and relatively plain, the Galápagos or Darwin Finches are amongst the best-known of the archipelago’s species, owing to the role they played in shaping Darwin’s theories. Although their bodies look similar, their bills vary greatly in size and shape, leading Darwin to theorise that they had adapted to suit the food that was available to them on their particular island.

    Altogether there are 13 species, all of them endemic to the islands, namely:
    Vampire Finch; Large Ground Finch; Medium Ground Finch; Small Ground Finch; Large Tree Finch; Medium Tree Finch; Small Tree Finch; Vegetarian Finch; Cactus Finch; Large Cactus Finch; Woodpecker Finch; Mangrove Finch; Warbler Finch

    They can be divided according to whether they eat mainly seeds, fruit or insects. The former live mainly on the ground and have beaks suited for crushing. The insect eaters live mostly in trees. Some have probing beaks, while others are slightly hooked and best for grasping. The fruit-eating Vegetarian Tree Finch has a parrot-like beak, and the ground-living Cactus Finch has a long curved beak like the probers, to get between the spines of the Opuntia on which it feeds. But while all this sounds helpful, it is still difficult to distinguish some of the species from each other. None of us in the group were ever sure whether we were looking at a Small, Medium or Large Ground Finch, however many times we asked Fabian (and he patiently replied). I think we would have needed them to line up in an avian identity parade to be confident of naming them! But the Cactus Finch was a little easier, owing to his long beak and unique choice of food.

    We saw finches just about everywhere we went. Like all of the island species, they are pretty tame, but they hop around a lot and are hard to capture on camera. The best shot I got was at the airport on Baltra while waiting in the café for our flight back to Quito – the finches were everywhere snatching up the crumbs, sometimes even from the plates of those still eating. But of course by then we had no Fabian with us to help with identification! I’m pretty sure it’s a Ground Finch, by the shape of the bill, and if so it must be a female, as all the males are black; my guess is that it’s a female Large Ground Finch, but if anyone knows otherwise ...

    My other two photos are of a male Cactus Finch we saw at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. You can clearly see the much longer, pointed bill.

    Next tip: ”Yellow Warbler”

    Cactus finch, Santa Cruz Cactus finch, Santa Cruz Ground finch (I think) at the airport, Baltra Ground finch, Genovesa
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    Mockingbirds

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: There are four different species of Mockingbirds found on the Galápagos, all of them endemic. Two of these are rare and one considered endangered, and we didn’t see either as we didn’t go to the islands where they live. These are the Charles (or Floreana) Mockingbird found only on two small islands Champion and Gardner just off Floreana (of which only 150 birds are thought to exist), and the more common, but equally restricted in area, Chatham (or San Cristóbal) Mockingbird, found only on San Cristóbal.

    But we did see the Hood mockingbird on Española, where it is endemic and relatively common, and the Galápagos mockingbird, which is widespread on several of the islands, on Genovesa. The latter is recognised as having six subspecies: barringtoni (Santa Fe); bauri (Genovesa); hulli (Darwin); parvulus (Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour and Daphne); personatus (Pinta, Marchena, Santiago and Rabida) and wenmani (Wolf). The one in my photo, therefore, is subspecies bauri, since I saw it on Genovesa. Charles Darwin noticed the varied species and subspecies of mockingbirds in the archipelago, and his observations of them shaped his theories on evolution, probably more so than those of the more often cited finches:
    ”I examined many specimens [of mockingbird] in the different islands, and in each the respective kind is alone present. These birds agree in general plumage, structure, and habits; so that the different species replace each other in the economy of the different islands. These species are not characterized by the markings on the plumage alone, but likewise by the size and form of the bill, and other differences.” (Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, 1839)

    All the mockingbirds have grey and brown plumage with white under parts, and are about 25-28cm in length. Their bill is long, thin and black. They are omnivorous, eating seabird eggs, insects, young finches or even small lava lizards in addition to seeds. They are known to try to get water from tourists’ water bottles if left on the ground for any time, and would eat any food dropped by visitors if they were to disobey park rules and bring some on to the islands. But that won’t be you, will it?!

    Next tip: "Galápagos Finches”

    Mockingbird, Genovesa
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    Galápagos dove

    by toonsarah Written Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: The Galápagos dove was another of the birds that we saw on many of the islands, on beaches and on the low scrubby ground that often lies behind the foreshore. It is quite small (between 18 and 23 cm long) and rather attractive, with a vivid blue eye ring and red legs and feet “topping and tailing” a soft brown mottled body, its wing feather flecked with white and with a rose-pink breast.

    The Galápagos dove has a curved beak and feeds largely on seeds picked from the ground, mainly from the Opuntia cactus. It also eats the pulp of the cactus, which is probably their main source of water. On Genovesa, Fabian showed us how the spines of the Opuntia cactus have softened through evolution, thus allowing the Galápagos dove to reach the pads more easily and to pollinate the flowers. This is a result of the lack of bees on this remote island that would normally perform this function.

    As well as Genovesa, we saw Galápagos doves on North Seymour, and on most of the other islands too.

    Next tip: ”Herons”

    Gal��pagos dove, North Seymour
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    Gulls

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: There are five species of gull that you might see on the Galápagos Islands, of which two are endemic – the swallow-tailed and lava gulls. We saw both of these, but far more of the former. As the name suggests, it has a forked tail and is an attractive bird, I thought, with its silver-grey plumage (white on the under parts), dark head and red eye-ring. Among the islands where we saw the most swallow-tailed gulls were:
    North Seymour
    Genovesa
    South Plaza

    I especially enjoyed watching them on Genovesa where I sat for some time by a rocky pool right next to a very affectionate nesting pair!

    Next tip: "Galápagos doves”

    Swallow-tailed gulls, Genovesa Swallow-tailed gull, Genovesa Swallow-tailed gull and chick, Genovesa
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    Galápagos hawk

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: We were pretty excited when we first saw a Galápagos hawk, on Santiago, and tried (and failed) to get some photos of it. We had more success on Española, where a pair were nesting (and mating) at one end of the beach at Gardner Bay. But it was on Santa Fe that we were to have one of our most memorable encounters with them, and indeed with any species in the islands.

    The Galápagos hawk is the only hawk to be found here and is endemic. It is found throughout the archipelago but not in great numbers, and is considered under threat. One estimate puts the current population of mating pairs as low as 150. The adults are a dark brownish black, with darker heads and paler tails and under-wings. They have brown eyes, grey beaks, and yellow legs and feet. The juveniles are a mottled brown, which becomes darker as they grow older. This mottled effect gives them excellent camouflage when small and vulnerable.

    Fondest memory: But back to that encounter on Santa Fe. Landing early here we were met by the sight of a newborn sea lion pup, the mother still blooded and the placenta lying on the sand nearby. As we watched, we spotted a couple of juvenile Galápagos hawks circling the area and landing in the nearby trees. They were all eyeing up this “treat” and eventually one dived in to snatch it. They were soon all fighting over it and devouring it with great relish. I made a short video of them and for a minute or two felt just like David Attenborough! Once satisfied they remained in the trees nearby and seemed totally unfazed by their human audience, even seeming to pose for photos with us (see photo four). What an experience!

    Next tip: ”Gulls”

    Juvenile, Santa Fe Juvenile, Santa Fe Snatching the placenta On Santa Fe Adult pair, Espanola
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    Galápagos penguins

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 6, 2012

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    Favorite thing: The Galápagos penguin is the second smallest penguin in the world and the only one to live north of the equator. It is mostly seen on the western islands, Isabella and Fernandina, neither of which were on our itinerary, but fortunately we saw some on the rocky black lava shoreline of Santiago when we took a short panga ride there before landing on Sombrero Chino opposite. The group here consisted of a couple of pairs and one juvenile. A couple of days later we spotted another, swimming just off the beach of Bartolomé.

    Galápagos penguins nest in loose colonies in burrows or crevices close to the shore, breeding throughout the year depending on food availability, so you might be lucky enough to see a chick or juvenile at any time. They are considered a vulnerable species, and their numbers fluctuate between a few thousand and a few hundred, declining significantly after El Niño years when there is little or no upwelling of the Humboldt Current. Males and females are almost identical, although males are slightly larger than females. Their upper parts, flippers and face are black), with a white line running through the eyes, down the cheeks and across the throat. Their under parts are white with a black line across the breast and down the flanks. Juveniles are grey and lack the patterning of the adults. My photos were taken from a rocking boat so could be clearer, but you can see that in the main one the juvenile is on the left.

    Next tip: "Galápagos Hawks”

    Adult and juvenile penguins, Santiago Gal��pagos penguin, Santiago Chris with the penguins
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Galápagos Islands Hotels

  • Finch Bay Eco Hotel

    Barrio Punta Estrada S/N, Puerto Ayora, 00000, Ecuador

    Satisfaction: Excellent

    Good for: Business

    Hotel Class 4 out of 5 stars

  • Red Mangrove Isabela Lodge

    Puerto Villamil, Isabela Galapagos Islands, , Ecuador

    Satisfaction: Excellent

    Good for: Solo

    Hotel Class 3 out of 5 stars

  • Hostal Casa de Laura

    Before coming to San Cristóbal I had read in my guidebook about Hostal Casa de Laura and it seemed...

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Galápagos Islands Favorites

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