What Happened to all the IRL Horseshoe Crabs? SLR/IRL

Young horseshoe crabs, public photo, 2017

When I was a kid, I often walked to the Indian River Lagoon and just stood there in amazement watching the hundreds, if not thousands, of baby horseshoe crabs winding their way through the sands. They left circular trails, crossing over and over again…

Where were they going? What were they doing? Why were there so many?

Photo by Anthony J. Martin

Every once in a while, I would pick one up and place it carefully in the palm of my hand. Its sharp tail and prickly feet pushed against me. I watched in wonder at its strength as it bent in half. Once returned to the sand, the little crab went back to work immediately as if nothing had happened at all.

My mother had told me the horseshoe crabs were more ancient than the dinosaurs and had been here “forever.” “They are living fossils” she would say. “And they can live over 20 years and take 10 years just to mature.”

Although I picked them up with such care, today, forty years later, when I try to find them, they’re gone.

What happened to the horseshoe crabs of the Indian River Lagoon? How did a creature so ancient, resilient, and prevalent almost “disappear?”

Although there is quite a bit of literature on the Central Indian River Lagoon, I could not find much on the Southern Lagoon. Some of the best documentation came from Gretchen S. Ehlinger and Richard A. Tankersley. On line, they are cited multiple times for their paper “Reproductive Ecology of the American Horseshoe Crab, Limulus Polyphemus, in the Indian River Lagoon: An Overview.”  I was also able to read “Evaluation of the Horseshoe Crab Fishery in the Indian River Lagoon Using Catch Data From Two Power Plants,” and a September 2014 “FPL Cape Canaveral Energy Center Horseshoe Crab Deterrent Fence Specifications” publication.

All of these lead to the following observations: decline of the species has been noted  for around three decades. There  have been UME’s or “Unexplained Mortality Events” where up to a 100,000 have died in the same area around the same time.

Factors that are related to their overall decline in the lagoon include intense coastal development, shoreline breeding grounds destruction, and unbridled  human population growth; expansion of agriculture drainage watersheds into the IRL; deteriorating water quality; power plants sucking up as many as 100,000 a year into their intake canals; and over-fishing. The crabs are used as bait, collected for marine purposes, and more recently captured live and bled for their “blue-blood”that is invaluable to human health.

Unfortunately, for many years, the value and importance of the horseshoe crab was not recognized. For instance, Ehlinger and Tankersley note  a one year study in the early 2000s at two Indian River Lagoon power plants that recorded a total of 39,097 crabs trapped on the intake screens at Cape Canaveral, and 53,121 at the Orland Utilities Plant. The scientists also mention a previous study from 1975 that estimated 69,662 at the Canaveral Plant, and 104,000 trapped annually at the Orlando Utilitility’s Indian River plant. “This alone could easily account for a decline in the Indian River population.” (Ehlinger and Tankersley 2007)

The St Lucie Power Plant  located here in the southern lagoon did not agree to be part of the study and there is very little research one can now find on the subject.

In any case, the good news is that just recently the Cape Canaveral plant has installed a wall to protect the horseshoe crabs and science’s recognition of the species has people wanting them to come back.

The Florida Wildlife Commission notes:

“Horseshoe crabs are extremely important to the biomedical industry because their unique, copper-based blue blood contains a substance called “Limulus Amebocyte Lysate”, or “LAL”.This compound coagulates in the presence of small amounts of bacterial toxins and is used to test for sterility of medical equipment and virtually all injectable drugs.  Anyone who has had an injection, vaccination, or surgery has benefitted from horseshoe crabs!”

…”in March 2000, a series of management measures for horseshoe crabs went into effect in Florida. The regulations required a license to harvest and set a limit on the number of animals each licensee could harvest per day (25 to 100 animals allowed per day per person depending on the permit). In 2002, a biomedical permitting rule created a mechanism to allow for biomedical collection.”

Yikes!

Horseshoe crabs being bled. Image as shared by FWC in 2017, first published in Popular Science.

Personally, looking at these photos of the horseshoe crabs being bled is like a science fiction movie to me. Never as a kid would I have imagined my little friends with needles in their heads being milked for their blood.

….But if this is what is going to save them… I must say, if they could talk, I bet now is the strangest part of their 450 million year journey. In my mind, they will always be free and drawing circles in the sand.

Ancient horseshoe crab fossil. CREDIT CARBON NYC / FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

 

Horseshoe crabs gather under a full moon to procreate. Photo, National Park Service.

Links:

Horseshoe crab eye, JTL.

Ehlinger and Tankersley: http://www.horseshoecrab.org/research/sites/default/files/DONE%20Ehlinger%20and%20Tankersley.pdf

http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1999-08-22/sports/9908220099_1_crabs-mosquito-lagoon-titusville

FPL wall to protect marine life, central lagoon:
http://www.nexteraenergy.com/energynow/2015/0915/0915_marinelife.shtml

St Lucie Power Plant effects on IRL and environment: https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML0214/ML021430397.pdf

Changing Global Perspectives on Horseshoe Crab Biology and Conservation Management: https://www.kobo.com/at/en/ebook/changing-global-perspectives-on-horseshoe-crab-biology-conservation-and-management

Bleeding Horseshoe Crabs for Human Health: http://www.americanpharmaceuticalreview.com/Featured-Articles/167236-The-Incredible-Horseshoe-Crab-Modern-Medicine-s-Unlikely-Dependence-on-a-Living-Fossil/

FWS: https://www.fws.gov/northeast/pdf/horseshoe.fs.pdf

FWC:
http://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/crustaceans/horseshoe-crabs/fishery/

http://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/crustaceans/horseshoe-crabs/facts/

continued….

Me with horseshoe crab on my head, Spoil Island family boat outing, IRL, 1980. Photo Sandra Thurlow.

Ehlinger and Tankersley Links:

Addendum to FPL CCEC Horseshoe Crab Fence ERP Application

Ehlinger and Tankersley 2007 Fla Sci

Power Plant Study

12 thoughts on “What Happened to all the IRL Horseshoe Crabs? SLR/IRL

  1. You know I just love your posts. I learn something every time, and I used to see these horseshoe crabs when I was younger as well. Very interesting, and hubby and I got a kick out of the strolling gators.

    Hope all is well in your world. Hi to Ed!

    Janet Alford

    Sent from m >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoy you posts. Dr. Anne Rudloe (deceased) did some of the first research of horsehoe crabs that I am aware of……..

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. All creature have special skills that has allowed them to survive while competitors perished and went exstinct. The horseshoe crabs special skill that has allowed it to survive is simple but very efficient It uses its shell like a little bulldozer. As it pushes the top layer of sand it exsposes the food that lies just below the surface were fish and other competitors can not find it. It is like it has a big hard hat on will it feeds.. From the tracks in the sand it is obvious it is looking for food.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article, thank you. I occasionally still find them on the shoreline up by my island and the other spoil islands in the IRL.

    Such a pensive and serious photograph of you! Yet you’re wearing that horseshoe crab on your head like a crown. I had to chuckle, but then no. I realized we can’t really change our fate or the things that drive us forward through this world.

    I hope it wasn’t stinky ;-).

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Don’t kid yourself, it’s a wonderful snapshot of you, it speaks volumes. A window into a special time and place that’s not exactly who you are today, but then again, would not be possible without it. Youth, with all it’s curiosity, angst and determination for our lives to somehow have meaning and purpose.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Facbook comments: 49 Joyce Chartier, Jenni Backer and 47 others
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    Rachel Recherché
    Rachel Recherché David A. Coombs Jr. like we were just talking about…
    Like · Reply · 2 · August 9 at 3:14pm
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    MaryAnn Ketcham
    MaryAnn Ketcham So sad, really….
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 9 at 3:31pm
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    Margo Brann
    Margo Brann That really makes me sad knowing what you remember as a kid and now with literally one of the longest inhabitants of the planet. They are definitely a canary in the coal mine.
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 9 at 3:38pm
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    Mark Grove
    Mark Grove I’ve seen 2 in the past 4 years. One was crawling through the algae stench on my beach last summer… And the other floated up dead last summer. Haven’t seen any since then. 😢
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch 🙁
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    Ginny Decker Douglass
    Ginny Decker Douglass Even our sand fleas are missing!
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch You are right! That should be yet another post! They are part of that memory bank too. Thank you Ginny Decker Douglass
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    Ginny Decker Douglass
    Ginny Decker Douglass I volunteer out at Florida Oceanographic and we used to have sand fleas in the touch tank. Seldom seen now! Kids loved them.
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    Alek Loudakis
    Alek Loudakis Good question, I remember them too
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 9 at 6:49pm
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    Megan Lynn Remick
    Megan Lynn Remick I was JUST saying this today! Steve Corbett
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Ironic!
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 9 at 8:38pm
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    Boo Lowery
    Boo Lowery sue and i were talking about them last week also, must have been crab week???
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    Sally Wilson Maio
    Sally Wilson Maio · 2 mutual friends
    Thanks for the story Jacqui. Nice to read a story of interest on FB. They were here when we first came in 84 and it just hadn’t occurred to me that I rarely if ever see one anymore.
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 9 at 7:54pm
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Thanks. I always hope that someone will read and together we form possible improvement. 💚
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 9 at 10:11pm · Edited
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    Jen Shaber
    Jen Shaber See them quite often on the island sandbar between sand sprit and sewalls point
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 9 at 10:42pm
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch That’s great! Every once in awhile I see one at the shore.
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    Ellen Feeley Gittin
    Ellen Feeley Gittin JTL- I experienced the same as a kid. It’s unfortunate that my kids can’t experience what we did in so many ways!
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 10 at 5:41am
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    Bill Waxler
    Bill Waxler We say that to our kids, our parents told us a similar story. You wouldn’t believe what it was like when I was a kid my mother used to say. My grandmother moved here in the turn of the last century (1900’s)before the cross state barge canal and the discharges.
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    Ellen Feeley Gittin
    Ellen Feeley Gittin But Bill… I am a bit amazed at the change. So I left immediately after high school went to school and Pittsburgh and did my career in Houston but moved back about 2 to 3 years ago. Although my parents still lived here and I would come back on a regular basis I am amazed at the difference in just literally the last 10 years.
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 10 at 8:28pm
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    Ellen Feeley Gittin
    Ellen Feeley Gittin We used to go to Peck’s Lake every weekend in the boat. You can’t get near it now! Not sure you want to either! You know what I mean?
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 10 at 8:29pm
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Bill Waxler absolutely. shining baselines….great to talk bill. 🙂
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    Peggy Juntilla
    Peggy Juntilla They are in a lab
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 10 at 6:09am
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Agg. Not my preferred life…
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
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    Aimee Carson
    Aimee Carson Yes I remember seeing them everywhere as a kid.
    Like · Reply · August 10 at 8:13am
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    Kevin Stinnette
    Kevin Stinnette Seawalls and shoreline armoring have eliminated the sandy beaches where they lay their eggs. Their eggs are a key part of the food web and the loss of the horseshoe crabs brings a loss of fish and birds.
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    Kevin Stinnette
    Kevin Stinnette Watch Crash a Tale of Two Species on YouTube
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    Bill Waxler
    Bill Waxler Most of the ones I’ve seen in the past 25 years were dead. Not like when we were kids. So many things are different. I haven’t seen bioluminescence here since 1981 . I remember being on the Highline cruise at night in the 70s, standing on the bow and seeing all kinds of glowing things in the water moving. Today it’s just dark.
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    Ellymay Key
    Ellymay Key I also wonder the same thing when I was little they would swarm around all over the lagoon. I know they do use their blood for cancer patients I believe
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    Mary Jo Askew
    Mary Jo Askew What about hermit crabs
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    Bill Waxler
    Bill Waxler Much much fewer. The scary thing is the land crabs. Where did they go? When it rained heavily they would come out by the millions! It was like something out of the Bible. You’d have them in your house. Haven’t seen that happen since the mid-80s maybe.
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    Ellen Feeley Gittin
    Ellen Feeley Gittin Bill… have a ton by me! They’re still here without a doubt! Just chased one off my pool patio yesterday
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
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    Jude D’Angelo
    Jude D’Angelo Yes now that You mention it….
    Need to Do something about this…….💖
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    Jackie Wilson Farber
    Jackie Wilson Farber I used to be able to get as many sand fleas I wanted to fish at Jensen beach. Sad…. they were supercool
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    Bill Waxler
    Bill Waxler Saw someone catch him a bunch of them the other day
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    Charles Pierce
    Charles Pierce One other thing missing from the environment is the 10’s of thousands of land crabs that use to migrate to the salt water to spawn. Where have they gone?
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 10 at 12:35pm
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    Bill Waxler
    Bill Waxler I know right! You thought it was the end of the world when they would come out after a big rain. And they pop your tires.
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
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    Aimee Carson
    Aimee Carson The seahorses that use to swim everywhere. Every time I got in the Ocean as a kid they were always there. I don’t see or hear about them anymore.
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    Robert Ettari
    Robert Ettari I saw a few in the lagoon a few miles north of midway just the other day
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    David Schmeling
    David Schmeling The pollution killed them off
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    Ozzie Monzon
    Ozzie Monzon Discharge from Lake Okeechobee, global warning and a chemically polluted lagoon. All our doing. Too bad that we had to grow up, face it and realize what we had done or failed to do.
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    Bill Waxler replied · 1 Reply
    Charles Pierce
    Charles Pierce The history of lake O goes back to 1928 and is a flood control structure to prevent the repeat of the 4000 or so death from a hurricane slosh. The Pollution coming out of lake O has very little to do with Big Agro or sugar but rather to Big Orlando. The canalization of the Kissimmee River and the 2.4M people who now live in Orlando. Clean up what is coming down the Kissimmee River or lake O will slowly die and the pollution will only get worse. The Filter areas South of the lake are a good idea and enough land is there to build enough filters. If you destroy Big Sugar and Agro you make the problem with what is Florida poorest area worse. Many other problems exist with the process I75 and the Tamiami Trail both cause the water flowing south to pick up speed creating problem in Florida Bay.
    Like · Reply · 22 hrs
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    Bill Waxler
    Bill Waxler I include Orlando with big ag
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    Charles Pierce
    Charles Pierce We disagree only in a name, I view Orlando as Big Disney/Universal. I can remember as a Young many when Orlando was a very small town that was a gas stop on my way to school at UF. But of course we the people are the route of all of the problem. Part of our problem is expressed in the writing of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted that nature has to be conquered.
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch

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  6. Michelle Conner Wow Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch I always loved horseshoe crabs as a kid along the shore at my grandparents home but little did I know what they did for the medical field. Very interesting. They should be protected. I always thought they were the coolest creatures.
    Like · Reply · 2 · August 9 at 3:14pm
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    Rufus Wakeman
    Rufus Wakeman When I was at Duke Marine lab in NC they were studying them there for their hemoglobin aspects. Interesting stuff
    Like · Reply · August 9 at 5:01pm
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Thanks Michelle. Me too!
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 9 at 8:33pm
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch

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    Julia Perry
    Julia Perry Gone the way of the dodo. Sadly
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 9 at 3:34pm
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch replied · 1 Reply
    Nicole Lebel
    Nicole Lebel I remember them and being scared at first, I was told the same thing, living dinosaur, so I always treated them with awe. It hurts me so to see that it was because of what they could DO for us and not because we were killing them by the thousands did humans finally decide to do something about trying to save them. Save them because they NEED to be saved, not because they have special blue blood and are of use to us. Geesh, mankind stinks, always his needs before others…. That’s how we got into this toxic water situation.
    Like · Reply · 2 · August 9 at 6:11pm
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch replied · 1 Reply
    Bobbi Blodgett
    Bobbi Blodgett I saw 1,000’s of them in Cape May NJ long ago. I worked there during the summers. They would come to the point to breed. I was mesmerized. What cool creatures!
    Like · Reply · 1 · August 9 at 6:57pm
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    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch
    Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch Would have loved to witness! Very cool Bobbi Blodgett
    Like · Reply · August 9 at 8:35pm

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  7. 32 You, Sharkey Steve, Gail Meredith and 29 others
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    Marcia Foosaner
    Marcia Foosaner They have also done plenty with them in regard to eye health. Amazing critters thanks Jacqui.
    Like · Reply · Yesterday at 8:42am
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    Dean Gornto
    Dean Gornto My boys are fascinated by them. Any time I see one I make sure to point it out to them and we follow it for a few minutes.
    Like · Reply · 1 · 23 hrs
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    Scott Hanney
    Scott Hanney They used to be everywhere under Pineda by the sand bar
    Like · Reply · 2 · 23 hrs
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    Rodney Smith
    Rodney Smith Once was, but not anymore.
    Like · Reply · 2 · 16 hrs
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    Matt Powers
    Matt Powers I just thought of that. I lived on the river on tortoise island as a kid and literally every single day we’d be out playing in the river throwing horse shoe crabs at each other. This was like 1998
    Like · Reply · 1 · 11 hrs
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    Matt Powers
    Matt Powers I even remember my friends went out of town and throwing one in their pool while they were gone and they came back so puzzled how it got in there lol, those things were disposable back in the 90s, sad to see them gone
    Like · Reply · 11 hrs
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    Rodney Smith
    Rodney Smith Too many pools.

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