The Children of Arachne
The Cosmopolitan. August, 1889. pp. 333—344.
The Children of Arachne
By Emile Blanchard
The Cosmopolitan. August, 1889, pp. 333—344
Greek legend pays a high compliment to the skillful industry of the spider in the story of the young girl of Lydia, Arachne. As is well known, Arachne was so famous for her great cunning in weaving, and so proud of her superiority in this art, that she challenged Minerva, the patroness and goddess of the loom and distaff, to a trial of skill. For this piece of presumption she was changed into a spider. Losing the gracious charms of womanhood, she retained and still retains her name and her talents.
In both hemispheres, from the torrid zone to the coldest regions of the north, the spider has her home. She is spoken of here in the feminine gender, because of her Lydian descent, and because, contrary to the order of things in the human family, the female is not weak, nor gentle ... but of the two sexes, by all comparison, the more powerful. Hers, indeed, is an ideal preponderance of strength, ferocity, and influence, well calculated to delight the hearts of all advocates of women's rights.
Spiders are, in general, very prolific; and yet their population does not seem sensibly to increase in certain countries. Fecundity is always in proportion to the multitude of dangers that menace individuals. These animals, skillful in setting traps for others are liable, especially when young, to fall victims to the appetites of birds and carnivorous insects. All of them, without exception, lay eggs. From these eggs issue forth creatures possessing already the form and aspect of the parents. The mothers are almost incomparable in their solicitude, vigilance, and devotion, spiders having no feeling for anything excepting for their offspring. From the moment that the young ones are in condition to quit their mother, far from coming near her again, they separate themselves forever from her and from each other. As long as she is not taken up with the cares of maternity, the spider lives only for herself, a stranger to the existence of every other individual of her race, whom she will devour mercilessly if within her reach. In a world like hers, in very truth, there is no such thing as love. The females seem absolutely indifferent to tender passion. If a male wishes to contract a marriage, he must proceed with the most unheard-of precautions, so deeply conscious is he of being badly received. Finally, if endowed with the requisite adroitness and agility, he will succeed in getting an embrace for an instant, and then, immediately profiting by his legs, that are no longer than those of his ferocious spouse, he will take himself off with the utmost dispatch. Poor male! he [sic] knows nothing of the joys of paternity; but doubtless he finds many occasions to renew those short moments of desperate and one-sided dalliance, for the two sexes are represented in the most unequal fashion, the females being ten or twenty times more numerous than the males.
Spiders have no voice; they have nothing to hear, no calls to answer. Accordingly, in harmony with the economy of Nature, that never wastes functions, although often recklessly wasteful of their results, spiders should discern no sounds; nor do they. This statement will astonish some; for these creatures are vulgarly believed to have a great taste for music. A pure delusion! At the sounds of violins and pianos they have often been seen to descend from cornices and ceilings, to take part in the concert, as is generally supposed. The truth is, their webs undergo vibrations from the shock of the soundwaves, and the spinners, filled with fear, run hither and thither seeking to escape.
In front of the spider, and somewhat underneath, two large appendages project, curved horizontally, and armed at the extremity with a movable hook. These are the nippers, each of which is furnished with a poison-secreting gland, whose minute conduit ends nearly at the point of the hook. All those that have watched a spider taking a fly, will have remarked the manner in which she seizes her victim, stinging it so as to kill it before carrying it to her mouth.
Everyone knows that spiders have four pairs of legs, a fact clearly distinguishing them from insects that have only three pairs. These members are furnished with claws at the extremities, and are, in the case of the majority of the species, instruments of the most surprising perfection. The body and the limbs are covered with hair, soft down, and bristles, more or less strong. These are organs of touch, sometimes of an exquisite sensibility, and implanted in the skin; hairs, down, and bristles transmit the impressions received at the slightest contact. When the fine hairs of the spider are submitted to the microscope, a surprising discovery is made. The subtile down, that is hardly perceptible to the naked eye, is found to be fringed and barbed, precisely like the plumage of birds. In fact, they are feathers of an incomparable delicacy. The long legs, armed with claws, are of a serviceableness that leaves nothing to be desired.
At the extremities of the body are jointed and elastic tubes; their walls are solid and resisting, and they are truncated at the end, where they are covered with a membrane, perforated with holes like the surface of a sieve. Through these microscopic apertures the liquid escapes, which, when hardened by contact with the air, becomew the thread adapted to the manufacture of the web and the cocoon. This thread, therefore, so extremely fine in itself, is formed of innumerable strands, each of which oozes from its hole in a fluid condition, and unites with the others in a comparatively coarse filament.
Various attemps have been made to turn to economic uses the silk of spiders. In 1710, M. Bon, of Montpellier, France, took infinite pains in collecting and utilizing the silk of the different diminuitive European species, and from it he succeeded in manufacturing stockings and mittens. These objects were sent to the Academy of Science, at Paris. The matter was referred to the celebrated Réaumur, who declared that the Academy received with pleasure these articles as objects of curiosity, but regard for the public weal did not permit him to stop there. He first took into consideration the question of whether it would not be too difficult to collect a sufficient quantity of spiders, and to nourish them in captivity. Next he seeks to discover whether the textile material is worthy of recommendation for industrial exploitation. In this connection, Réaumur sees only difficulties. He judges that all the flies in France would hardly be sufficient to feed enough spiders for the production of silk in any considerable quantity. However, recourse might be had to an infinity of other insects as a means of food. But, he asserts, it would be impossible to maintain the spiders in captivity; they would devour each other, and it would be found rather embarrassing to attempt to confine each individual to her own cell. He reckons that it would take 663,552 spiders to furnish one pound of silk; and this immense army of spinners must be of a particular species, for the web of the majority of spiders could not be utilized.
From time to time experiments of the same kind have been made, but without any better success. Occasionally, interest has been excited in the more beautiful and more abundant material produced by the larger species of tropical countries. The silk of these creatures is soon soiled by the dust; but amateurs, wandering through the savannahs of warm countries, easily find means of obtaining it in perfect purity. The spiders always have a filament hanging from their extremity. This is seized and wound around a card or piece of wood. In this manner, quite a quantity of exquisitely fine silk may be obtained, in a brilliant yellow color. The creature, after being released, does not seem to suffer from the test. Doubtless her economy repairs quickly the loss she has undergone. By manipulating, in a similar fashion, a number of spiders, a considerable quantity of textile material may be collected, from which tiny articles for the toilet might be fabricated. More than this is hardly to be expected from spiders' silk.
On a warm summer's day, when the sun is shining brilliantly, many a curious scene meets the eye, where interesting little creatures are at work or play at the edge of a wood, with tall and beautiful trees whose bark is fissured; or in the country, where a creviced wall winds along fragrant meadows, and by the side of murmuring streams. Tiny spiders are gathered here and there: some come together in groups—manifesting no enmity the one for the other. How pretty the dainty little creatures are! With what eagerness they seek the sunniest places! Parts of their bodies are sleek and brilliantly colored; parts ornamented with regular and elegant designs, finely embossed in white, yellow, or red. The observer tries to catch one of these graceful little animals, but he has his trouble for his reward. The wee spider makes a prodigious bound, and is far away. It is a springer, belonging to a group naturalists call the saltica.
In the midst of the curious manifestations of Nature's workings, one is struck by certain relations of physiognomy of creatures of widely different organization. These resemblances are doubtless instinctive mimicries arising from inherited impulses to deceive an enemy, just as they deceive an inexperienced observer. Many of this family of spiders appear clothed in the costume of certain hymenoptera: other species have the appearance of ants. Mayhap they escape, through these disguises, the pursuit of voracious animals. At laying-time the springing spider incloses herself in her cocoon; the poorer species have no other cover for their eggs; while species a little more richly endowed inclose them in little sacs with thin and almost transparent walls.
The springers, being unable to set snares for their prey, are compelled to live by hunting. Accordingly, when the weather is bad they must fast; but when the days are propitious, issuing from their retreats, they spread themselves in every direction. They are provided with eyes occupying the whole breadth of the cephalic region (some small and some enormously large). With these organs they explore minutely the space round about. If an unfortunate gnat is seen, the spider springs upon him with lightning-like rapidity. Rarely does she miss her quarry, so expert is she in measuring her distances; but if it happens by chance that she is at fault, she suffers no injury, for she took the precaution of a silken filament at the point of departure that unrolls itself during her leap. Consequently, she does not fall to the ground, nor strike against any hard substance capable of hurting her. She is suspended in the air for an instant. She again betakes herself to the same or some other point of vantage.
Everywhere there are rich and poor; this is true equally among spiders as among men. One spider has at her disposal an immense quantity of textile material, while others produce but very little. These last, having neither the means of building houses nor setting snares, have for their only dwelling the cavities they find under stones, under dead leaves, or in the trunks of trees, and in the walls. The exigencies of life compel them to the life of huntresses. They range the country, the fallow fields scorched by the sun, and the moist meadows. Several among them frequent the borders of lakes, marshes, and water-courses, and even from the ambush of aquatic plants spring upon their prey with such wonderful agility and address that their victim rarely escapes.
The lycosae belong to this class. They are creatures of diminuitive size and of somber color, and have nothing in their appearance to attract attention or admiration. Yet at certain times the observer will be arrested in his meditation at the view of the lycosa as she darts across his path and seeks to hide herself in the grass. The fragile and timid little creature carries on her darkish dress a little round bundle of pure white color: it is the small sac containing her eggs. To make this tiny purse, the spider has expended all the silk of which she was mistress. Being a mother of the most incomparable vigilance, and having no dwelling when her eggs are laid, she weaves around them this silky covering, the crradle of her offspring that she never abandons for an instant. Should you, during your rambles, succeed in capturing a lycosa, and in detaching her cocoon, you will find the little creature, that under ordinary circumstances thinks only of withdrawing herself from danger, erect on her feet, with raised nippers menacing the aggressor. If the cocoon be on the ground, she is actuated by the desire of seizing upon it anon and escaping with it as quickly as possible. When the young ones are hatched, they immediately attach themselves to the body of their mother, who thus carries her children until the day when they are sufficiently strong to follow their prey, sufficiently cunning to outwit an enemy, and sufficiently ungrateful to ignore a mother for whose tender solicitude they no longer have any use.
In southern Europe, Africa, and some parts of Asia, live large spiders of this same species. Dressed in varied and vivid colors, they wander like their congeners of cold and temperate zones. But they have the advantage over the latter of enjoying a much longer life, and also of possessing fixed dwellings. They hollow out a hole in the ground, carpeting the walls and garnishing the entrance with an entanglement of silky filaments, a kind of barricade not to be recommended for its perfection.
One of these fine specimens of the lycosa is quite celebrated, without any particular merit of its own. Allusion is here made to the taratula, which is met with frequently along the shores of the Gulf of Naples. If you point out one of these innocent creatures to a native of the country, you will see him spring back in horror, ejaculating, "The tarantula is a terrible creature; its sting produces the most fearful effects; the person stung becomes prey to the most singular and erratic physical agitation, and a kind of delirium that would result in death, if, in the territory of Naples, where the people are all ingenious and skillful musicians, a dance had not been invented capable of curing the evil occassioned by the tarantula." Those peculiarly baneful properties attributed to the sting of the tarantula are entirely without foundation in fact. Here, another poetic illusion must needs betake itself to the limbo of exploded superstitions.
In 1747 a worthy priest, Father Lignac, recounted how, when bathing in a little river a few leagues from Mans, something very wonderful happened. "Bubbles of air," he says, "shining like polished silver, seemed to swim around me and come after me. Their free movements, controlled neither by the motion of the water nor by the lightness of the air, showed me that they were alive. But soon my surprise was changed to amazement; I saw they were big spiders, whose bodies, seen through the transparent medium, were enveloped in air."
At this time our bather did not push his discoveries any further. Two years later, however, he devoted much diligence to the study of these admirable creatures. He found that they breathed the atmospheric air; that sometimes they climb upon aquatic plants, and run along the banks. Nevertheless, the water is almost exclusively their permanent abode, and being able to respire only air, it is necessary that they possess the art of constructing dwellings appropriate to the conditions of their existence. Man, in his pride, boasts of having invented the diving-bell; and yet this apparatus exists in nature from a period so remote that no one can even surmise the date of its invention.
A curious spectacle is offered by the water-spider, engaged in building her diving-bell. Clinging to the inferior surface of some leaves that form a kind of vault, the spider fixes them in position by means of silken filaments; then she mounts to the surface of the water, her belly turned toward the sky; and, curving her posterior legs, she retains a small quantity of air between the hairs with which her body is clothed. Then, diving immediately, she appears in the silvery dress already mentioned. She betakes herself at once to the chosen place, and, brushing her body with her legs, the air is detached, and forms a bubble under the leaf held down by the filaments. The spider then weaves around the bubble an impermeable tissue of silk. Reascending to the surface of the sheet of water, she brings back with her another bubble of air, which is added to the first. As the bubble of air increases in size, so also is enlarged the envelope, until the diving-bell is of the requisite form and dimensions. And thus the submarine dwelling of the little naiad is achieved.
After having considered the saltica and lycosa in field and wood; after having dabbled in the river or in the pond, filled with admiration for the argyoneta, it is but natural that we should wish to take a little rest in a small house at the entrance of the village. Here another opportunity is offered to continue our observations on the same world. In a corner of the room, under the ceiling, a large web extends, and on the web a spider, provided with long legs, stands on the watch. This is the domestic spider. She has a pronounced taste for our dwellings, and profits by them as though people's houses were built expecially for her use. She is well skilled in the art of weaving, and has at her disposal an abundant supply of material. Her web consists of a closely woven fabric. When new it is of a beautiful white color; but it becomes soon soiled with dust, and then offers a repulsive appearance, which, however, does not seem to incommode its owner. The domestic spider is timid, and she would not feel fully secure did she not possess a means of escape. In the corner of the wall a free space has been left, and by this route Dame Arachne sneaks off if she finds herself disturbed. Below the web she has a spacious hammock hanging, where she can take refuge.
After the laying season, she installs her eggs in a silken bag that she places under foreign bodies, such as bits of down and sprigs of moss, in order to hide them from the covetous longings of animals that delight in such tid-bits. During the time of incubation this excellent mother is ceaselessly on guard near her cocoon, even forgetting to take the necessary food. When the young ones have left their cradle the emaciated parent reacends into her web, and seeks reparation for her past deprivations by seizing every kind of prey that comes in her way, and incontinently devouring it. It is then that the flies fall in multitudes, and their sucked-out bodies litter the ground, and madam soon regains her pristine corpulency.
In the pleasant season of the year, on a sunny day, when the wind blows, long strings and flakes, white as snow, may be seen floating in the air. Sometimes they undulate in the breeze, covering the grass, and producing strange effects with their reflections on the green vegetation. City people, walking in the fields, and observing these filaments cling to their clothes, ask where they come from. In France, the young country maiden, when interrogated, will answer without hesitation, "They are fils de la Vierge" —the Holy Virgin's threads. The naturalist would say, with more truth: "They are filaments, seemingly given over to the wind's sweet will, by certain spiders that abound in the fields and meadows."
This species is called thomisa. These creatures, seeking their food, or engaged in their amours, haunt low plants, and even shrubs. They are diminuitive of body, and they love the sunniest places. They are clad in brilliant colors, that sometimes are confounded with those of the flowers they inhabit, and through this circumstance they often escape the notice of other carnivorous animals. Their movements are abrupt and quick, and their singular crab-like gait is due to the comparatively enormous size of their bellies. They fabricate no web, but dart from their ambush upon their prey with such suddenness that they rarely fail in capturing it. The silk that they expend serves generally to transport the young ones that cling to the snow-white flakes swaying in the breeze. The thomisa finds shelter under stones or leaves, and in crevices. She deposits her eggs in little sacs, and bestows on them the most extreme care.
As the butterfly excels the moth in brilliancy of color, so excels the epeira all other spiders. They weave webs of enormous size, with large and regular meshes. Who does not know the big spiders of our parks and gardens, whose web often embraces the breadth of an entire thoroughfare? Who has not had occasion to admire the splendid appearance of the epeira diadema, with its reddish-yellow coat, marked in the upper part with dark lines, a sort of design resembling the cross of St. Denis?
When in wait for her prey, the epeira takes her position in the center of the web, with her head downward. If an insect happens to strike against the net, she precipitates herself upon it, and in a moment ties it with a thread in such a manner that there is no escape. At the end of the summer, after laying her eggs, she imprisons them in a cocoon, formed of a different kind of textile materal that constitute her net. The poor mother, that has to die in autumn, is careful to hide the cradle of her offspring in the most sheltered place that she can find. The young ones are hatched out in the spring, and live together a few weeks en famille; then they disperse, each to lead a hermit existence in the manner best pleasing to the daughters of Arachne.
Many brilliant species of the same spider inhabit different parts of the East Indies, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Several of them love to establish themselves above water-courses, and here the view they offer is charming in the extreme. Imagine a peaceful river, or one angry with cataracts, bordered with luxuriant vegetation, with thickets where the most incongruous plants mingle to form a harmonious whole. Strange flowers stand out in bold relief from verdant copses; trees project their branches downward and intertwine. The epeira fixes her net at the summit of the great trees, extending it from bank to bank, an aerial construction of such exceeding delicacy, that the traveler, passing underneath in palanquin or pirogue, is often struck with astonishment at the view. And these fabrics sometimes succeed each other at short intervals, lending to the landscape an unexpected aspect. At the center of each web a huge spider is usually seen, either motionlessly awaiting a victim, or quivering with excitement as she seizes upon it. At certain seasons are seen globes, as yellow as gold, suspended from the aerial nets; these are the bags containing the eggs. In spreading their snares above torrents, the epeira are guided by the happiest instinct. In the midst of extraordinarily dense vegetation, they find vast open spaces, well adapted to the setting of their enormous webs. There, better than elsewhere, they escape voracious enemies, such as various species of mammifers, insects, lizards, birds, and even man, who, in the Polynesian Archipelago, considers the beautiful spinner a dainty article of food. There, too, they have the good fortune of ensnaring myriads of insects that keep their larder fully supplied.
In Madagascar, with its wealth of tropical vegetation, the epeira (one of the largest and handsomest of the species) builds vertical webs, attaching them to trees and shrubs by silken cords of great strength. The black epeira is a native of the island of Réunion. In the island of St. Maurice the golden epeira is found, a magnificent creature with a body nearly three inches in length, and having on the upper part of it a broad space of the most beautiful yellow relieved by two bands of black spots. The Madagascar species is devoured greedily by the natives. It is distinguished by the brilliancy of its dress. The jet black dorsal shield is surmounted by a bar of polished silver; the abdomen, where ebony, gold and silver mingle in most harmonious coloring, and the legs, of a fire-red hue, declare it one of Nature's privileged creations.
As has been said before, among spiders in general the male, in point of size, is much inferior to the female; but it is rare to meet with so enormous a disproportion as exists between the sexes of the black and golden epeira. The male, when contrasted with the female, is a veritable pigmy. The question is, what chance has he when his fancy turns to amorous thoughts, and he erects his tiny tent near the vast structure of his Dulcinea? Generally speaking, spiders take care to live away from one another; this is a matter of instinct, otherwise there would be perpetual throat-cutting and cannibalistic orgies. Woe to the more feeble or less dextrous one! Whenever two spiders meet, they are taken with a terrible yearning desire to devour each other. But to this rule is found one singular exception. In divers parts of the world a little spider called linyphia exists, that does not fear to attach her web to the broad-meshed net of the epeira. The owner of the large web permits these parasites of a particular kind on her domain, because they catch in their nets only gnats, while she seizes the insects capable of furnishing a more abundant repast.
Certain species of spider, belonging to the "first families," live in the shade. They do not construct webs, but erect for themselves sumptuous dwellings in artfully hidden places. Their building material is of fine white silk, of which they form symmetrical tubes that serve them as almost permanent residences. The legestria is recoked the handsomest individual in this group. The Florentine legestria, the largest species, is of a superb black color, with nippers of a brilliant emerald green. She takes up her abode under cornices, in the fissures of walls, and in the crevices of rocks. For hours she sits motionless at the entrance of her tube, watching for flies that may venture in the neighborhood. She darts upon her prey with vertiginous swiftness, entangling the insects in filamentous coils; then she retreats backward to the inmost recess of her lodging, to eat her dinner in obscure retirement. While the spiders of every other type have eight eyes, the tube-dweller has only six, another example of Nature's adaptability. She lacks the organs of vision directed backward, because living in a tube closed in the rear, she has no use for them.
The Abbé Sauvage announced to the Academy of Science of Paris in the year 1768, that he had discovered a spider whose custom it is to spread no net, but who digs a burrow like a rabbit, and adds to it a movable door.
A little previous to this, Patrick Browne came across similar burrows in Jamaica; but they were much larger, and greatly inferior as regards workmanship. In France the proprietress of those dwellings is known as the mason-spider; in England she is called the trap-door builder ... [T]he spider's dwelling is neat and agreeable. Exteriorly, it is concealed so perfectly that only an experienced observer can succeed in distinguishing it at the surface of the ground. There is nothing at first to make you suspect the luxury displayed in the interior. It reminds you of some wealthy Oriental's home in the narrow and tortuous streets of Damascus, or in some squalid corner of Smyrna or Beirut. In order not to excite feelings of covetousness and rapacity, everything on the outside bears the impress of poverty, while within reign neatness and elegance. In the same manner, throughout southern Europe, hidden from the view of simple mortals, abound the constructions of the mason-spider. In compact soil, free of stones and gravel, where no infiltration is to be feared, the masons' nests are found, frequently excavated very close to each other. Each nest consists of a vertical hole, a kind of well, proportioned as to dimensions according to the size of the architect. The perfectly cylindrical tube is widened regularly toward the orifice. The walls of the narrow dwellings are tapestried with the softest satin. They look like some fairy boudoir.
But it must not be imagined that these nests remain open and their inhabitants exposed to the danger of being caught and eaten by carnivorous animals. A solid door, a trap not easily to be broken or burst in, forms for them a surprising protection. The door is fashioned from the material thrown out during the boring of the well, the earthy particles being joined together in layers with the silky substance, of which the spider has an abundant store. Any amount of pressure from the outside will not cause it to yield, for it is molded in the form of a cone, so as to correspond in each part with the widened portion of the cylinder. It is rough and uneven exteriorly like the soil that surrounds it, through which means it escapes the notice of prowling enemies.
But a hinge is indispensable, and a lock is often serviceable, to a door. These advantages are recognized by the spider. The hinge, formed of compact and tightly-twisted silk, offers incredible resistance, and possesses such elasticity that the trap, when elevated, falls back invariably as soon as it is let go. That which serves as a lock or bolt is more primitive. It consists of a series of small holes, resembling needle pricks, disposed in a circle on the side opposite the hinge. When the door is lowered, it shuts with such nicety that the most delicate instrument can not be introduced between the interstices without risk of injuring it. The recluse may sleep in peace in her lair. If an enemy tries to life the trap, however, she is immediately on the alert. Cowering in her well, she fixes her claws in the little holes and makes the most desperate efforts to hold it back. When evening comes, in the twilight or at night, by the soft light of the moon, the mason-spider steals forth from her retreat, and enters in full campaign, for she must make her living. As soon as her appetite is appeased she returns to her home, and lifting the trap with her claws, disappears in an instant.
Different mason-spiders show different grades of skill in architecture. Consequently there are among them individuals more refined, more expert, more distinguished than others. Often a nest is met with having two doors and two vestibules. In this case, one of the doors has been condemned, and is generally permanently closed. Moggridge says such houses have been built by young and inexperienced spiders. He relates further, that certain individuals of this group build a supplemental chamber to their dwelling in an upward direction, but not opening at the surface of the ground. This apartment is provided with a door also, connected with the principal room. In his opinion this is a means of defense; for, supposing her domicile invaded by a lizard or centipede, she can retire to the spare chamber and shut the door in the face of the intruder. Thus she secures herself against all surprises, and her voracious enemy, finding the house empty, doubtless retires much discomfited.
Although the spider is an artist of extraordinary endowments, she inspires neither the sympathy nor interest excited by insects working in common and forming communities that remind one of human associations. Always leading the life of a solitary, she seems to represent individual egotism in its most absolute sense. And yet, whether she is rich or poor, vagabond or sendentary, she is without exception a good mother. To her husband she is a "holy terror." She makes life a burden to him, when, in her personal interest, she does not end it by making a bonne bouchée of him. But her sex and her maternity cover a multitude of sins. In the case of almost all other creatures, at least in their youth and in the season of pairing, the relations of the sexes are most intimate and deliciously pleasant. The spider offers nearly the only exception to this rule in the whole dominion of nature.
Other historical science articles:
Out-door Botanizing (1878)
The Little Fossil-Gatherer (1869)
Other historical articles about animals:
A Plea for Pussy and Her Possibilities as a Pet (1889)
Our American Birds (1889)
What Three Little Kittens Did: A Fact (Poem—1889)
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