OIKOS 62: 209–215. Copenhagen 1991

Herbivory, seed dispersal, and the distribution of a ruderal plant living in a natural habitat Javier Herrera

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Herrera, J. 1991. Herbivory, seed dispersal, and the distribution of a ruderal plant living in a natural habitat. – Oikos 62: 209–215. Geranium purpureum is a winter-annual, self-pollinating herb common in anthropogenic habitats of southern Spain. It is rare, however, in natural habitats such as the open woodland-scrub vegetation of Donana, where populations are fragmented into patches associated with the dominant tree in the area. Factors limiting the fecundity and growth of individuals and, hence, population spread and persistence, were studied by combining seedling transplants, herbivore exclosures, and data on seed dispersal distances. Results indicate that the association is not due to properties of the soil under trees. Rather, the observed distribution results from the combined effects of intense herbivory in inter-tree areas, and a relatively inefficient (ballistic) mechanism of seed dispersal. The spatially fragmented structure of the population is discussed in relation to the ballistic system of dispersal, and the occasional ingestion of seeds by vertebrates. J. Herrera, Departamento de Biologia Vegetal y Ecologia, Universidad de Sevilla, Apartado 1095, E-41080 Sevilla, Spain.

Extensive disturbance of natural habitats by man during the last millenia resulted in the decline of some plant species, while others took advantage of perturbations to increase noticeably their populations and, on occasions, become `weeds' (Baker 1974). The term is perhaps too generally used to label plants that mostly (although not only; see below) live in man-generated habitats such as arable fields, roadsides, or the vicinity of human habitations. Plants from anthropogenic habitats typically exhibit ecological and physiological attributes that confer high capacity of recovery after disturbance, which include short life-cycles in association with rapid growth, selfcompatibility, production of numerous small, highly dispersable dormant seeds and, often, high nutrient requirements (Bazzaz 1979). Such characteristics, however, are unlikely to represent true adaptations to anthropogenic habitats but, rather, `preadaptations' evolved under more natural selective pressures (Baker 1974). Since the spatial distribution of any plant species re-

suits from a combination of habitat requirements, biotic interactions, and dispersal properties (Harper 1977), studying weedy plants in natural situations may be useful to analyse, in a flashback, those ecological factors that originally limited the fecundity and distribution of such organisms. Indirectly, it can also help to reconstruct the scenario where, prior to man's influence on natural habitats, the diversification of many annuals took place. The Donana National Park, southern Spain, is a relatively undisturbed wild life preserve since its establishment in 1969. Nevertheless, and due to past disturbances, species from anthropogenic habitats are common (Rivas-Martinez et al. 1980). One of these species is Geranium purpureum Vill. (Geraniaceae), an annual that behaves as a ruderal (i.e., often found in the vicinity of human habitations) on a regional scale (Valdes et al. 1987). The plant is rare in Donana compared with other therophytes, and it almost invariably grows under individuals of the dominant tree (Juniperus turbinata) , a situation that has been verified to remain unchanged for

Accepted 13 June 1991 ® OIKOS


OIKOS 62:2 (1991)


Fig. 1. The distribution of Juniperus trees at the study site. Black circles represent crown projections sheltering Geranium purpureum plants, the number of which is also indicated. Open circles represent trees with no Geranium plants. Inset: side view of a Juniperus with the typical layer of dead branches at the lowest part of the crown.

several generations. During field work and observations spread over 4 yr not a single plant has been observed beyond tree canopy cover (J. Herrera, pers. ohs.). A population living far (more than 5 km) from human habitations was used to study the behaviour of this herb under natural conditions, and to investigate the causes of its restricted spatial distribution. The following three hypotheses are formulated, though these are not meant to be mutually exclusive or to take into account all the possibilities involved. (1) plants inhabit only areas under trees because of unknown, distinctive properties of the soil in these places, perhaps related to higher availability of nutrients; (2) the fragmented distribution is created by herbivores which, because of their foraging preferences, selectively eliminate those plants growing in inter-tree areas; and (3) Geranium plants lack the ability to autonomously move their seeds away, and their progenies remain associated to trees that were reached long ago through unknown, man-related processes. All three factors considered (site specificity, selective herbivory, and seed dispersal) may have a potentially important role in determining plant distribution (Harper 1977). Hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, and factors accounted for are in fact expected to interact.

Study area Field work was carried out at Reserva Biologica de Doflana, Donana National Park, southern Spain. The reserve is a coastal area with a Mediterranean climate. -l Precipitation averages 537 mm yr ; January and July being respectively the coldest (9.8 °C) and hottest (24.6 210

°C) months. Open Juniperus turbinata ( Guss.) Nyman woodland mixed with sclerophyllous scrub dominates vast areas of the reserve (Allier et al. 1974). This markedly xerophytic vegetation grows on old stabilized sand dunes where underground water is relatively deep during summer (Gonzalez-Bernaldez 1977). At those times of the year when the sandy soil is superficially moist (winter and spring), a rich therophyte community can also be found (see Rivas-Martinez et al. 1980). The study plot covered an area of 1500 m 2 at Sabinar del Ojillo, a typical formation of Juniperus turbinata (Juniperus, hereafter) woodland and sclerophyllous scrub (Allier et al. 1974). It encompassed 40 Juniperus trees, some of which sheltered large numbers of Geranium purpureum plants (Fig. 1). Trees at the study area present a characteristic architecture which is displayed in Fig. 1. Branching starts at ground level, there being no distinct trunk and crown. Instead, branches often rest on the ground and completely close the crown projection. Furthermore, most trees have at the bottom an intricate layer of dead, rigid branches with sharp ends that makes it difficult or even impossible for humans or large animals to enter within the canopy. In this way, trees act like shady, moist refugia where annuals and seedlings of various woody shrub species are often found. Plants of Geranium purpureum are rare outside this particular habitat. Major vertebrate herbivores in Doflana are cattle, red-deer (Cervus elaphus), fallowdeer (Dama dama), and rabbits ( Oryctolagus cuniculus). Herbivore pressure may be locally very intense (R. C. Soriguer, pers. comm.).

Material and methods Study plant Geranium purpureum (Geranium,

hereafter) is a strong-smelling winter-annual often designated as nitrophilous (Rivas-Martinez et al. 1980) and ruderal (Valdes et al. 1987). In southern Spain it is prevalent in the neighbourhood of old or extant countryside human settlements, along trails, and at sites used by wild or domestic ungulates to rest, such as sheltering rocks or trees (J. Herrera, pers. obs.). It can, however, someti mes be found in places without or with just negligible human influence. Its ecology is in many respects identical to that of the related, widely distributed species G. robertianum L. As is often the case among sand-dune annuals living in the area, Geranium can facultatively self-pollinate, which it regularly does. Pollen-to-ovule ratio is 60, while fruit-to-flower ratios are usually near 100% (Herrera, unpubl.). Fruits are beaked schizocarps that liberate 3–5 seeds (properly speaking, mericarps) ballistically. Each mericarp consists of one seed surrounded by carpel walls. When ripe, each seed bears a rigid awn 13–15 mm long and an elastic sticky thread, both of OIKOS 62:2 (1991)

Table 1. Some characteristics of Juniperus trees that either shelter (Colonized) or do not shelter Geranium purpureum plants ( Uncolonized) at the study site. Measurements (means ± s.e.) are in m. Tests for mean differences were performed on log-transformed data. Type of tree

Colonized Uncolonized Student ' s t p


18 22

Crown diameter

3.6 ± 0.5 2.3 ± 0.2 2.662 0.011

which are fused to the fruit's central axis. Following sudden release of the seed-awn connection, the seed is projected violently up and away from the plant. Upon projection, both mericarp and thread are carried together, so that seeds often become stuck to the spot they collide with. Apparently, diaspores lack other adaptations promoting dispersal through wind or living organisms. They also lack the characteristic self-burying mechanism of species in the related genus Erodium (Stamp 1989).

Methods Investigations were carried out during one-day weekly visits spread from January through May 1990. Trees were mapped with measuring tape and compass. The crown diameter of each Juniperus, and the number of adult Geranium plants living beneath were also registered at peak flowering (March). Two pot-grown, relatively large Geranium plants from the population where most of the study was done, provided the material to investigate seed dispersal. When they started to bear ripe fruit, plants were sequentially set at the centre of an empty 4 x 4 m room and allowed to release their diaspores. Prior to fruit maturation, mericarps had been dusted with fluorescent dye to facilitate diaspore location. The floor was daily scanned with a UV lamp for the presence of projected mericarps, and the distance from the diaspore to the center of the plant recorded. Observations on the mechanism of dispersal were also performed in the field. The effects of location (within or outside a Juniperus crown) and herbivory on growth and reproduction were studied with seedling transplants and herbivore exclosures. Geranium plants had just germinated by the time this study started (January), so that individuals had a short root, 2—3 tiny leaves and still bore the cotyledons. This, together with the sandy nature of soil, allowed digging out seedlings without serious damage to the roots. Each transplanted seedling was watered with 100 ml of tap water, which contributed to compact the soil around roots. The goal of Experiment A was to ascertain if the thick layer of litter that accumulates beneath trees, or other unknown features of these spots, had any effect on 14*

OIKOS 62:2 (1991)

Distance to nearest Juniperus tree Of any kind


1.1 ± 0.4 1.7 ± 0.3 1.454 0.154

2.7 ± 1.2 4.8 ± 0.6 4.378 < 0.001

Geranium growth. Sixty seedlings were selected, of which half were planted again within the same canopy and the other half moved to a nearby, open site more than 3 m away from any Juniperus. The latter set of plants was then covered with several armfuls of dead Juniperus branches. Two separate experiments (B and C) were used to evaluate the role of herbivory. In Experiment B, 20 Geranium seedlings were removed from the Juniperus they inhabited and transplanted into a neighbouring tree. In their new location, half of the seedlings remained protected by branches of the recipient tree. The other ten seedlings were left unprotected after removing some of the branches. In Experiment C, I tried to avoid any disturbance caused to plant roots by transplant. Here, the intricate layer of branches was completely removed from a Juniperus. The exposed area (3 m') contained 55 Geranium seedlings, 20 of which were covered by cylinders made of rigid plastic screening (2 mm mesh) firmly fastened to the ground with thick wires. The other 35 plants were left unscreened. After manipulations, plants were left undisturbed and periodically checked for survival, growth, and herbivore damage. When seed dispersal and plant senescence had started (May), complete plants (including roots) were collected, and fruit number recorded. In individuals from experiments A and C, plant dry mass was determined to the nearest mg with an electronic balance. To compute seed production per plant, the number of fruits was multiplied by the average number of seeds per fruit (4.6 ± 0.18; mean ± s.e.; N = 25).

Results Spatial distribution At the site of study, not a single adult plant or seedling of Geranium was found on intertree areas. About half of the Juniperus trees in the site were found to be colonized, that is, they sheltered some Geranium plant (Table 1). For these trees, the number of adult individuals living beneath ranged between 1 and 199 (Fig. 1), and average density was 3.0 plants m' (N = 18). Compared with colonized trees, non-sheltering (empty') trees were smaller in terms of crown diameter, and 211

tions promoting dispersal through wind or water. Seedcollecting by ants has never been observed.

Site specificity

Fig. 2. The distances travelled by 70 Geranium purpureum seeds through ballistic dispersal. The 16 cm class intervals considered are roughly equal to plant diameter.

relatively isolated (Fig. 1). Mean distances to the nearest colonized tree differed significantly for empty and colonized Juniperus (4.8 m and 2.7 m, respectively; Table 1) implying that, on the basis of the ballistic seed-dispersal mechanism of Geranium (see below), the arrival of diaspores to empty Juniperus trees from colonized trees is an unlikely event.

Seed dispersal The dispersal distances of 70 seeds from the two potgrown plants ranged between 0 and 160 cm (Fig. 2). The distribution was strongly right-skewed, with half of the seeds landing within a radius of 44 cm or less from the centre of the plant. Hampering by leaves and branches forced many seeds (35%) to land within the canopy of the parent plants. Geranium seeds lack obvious adapta -

Results of the experiments designed to determine the effect of growth conditions on the size and fecundity of Geranium individuals are reported in Table 2. Experiment A demonstrated that the site where an individual of Geranium had grown (within or outside the canopy of a Juniperus) was not relevant to its fecundity. The biomass of plants grown beneath Juniperus is also statistically indistinguishable from that of plants grown in the open.

Herbivory In Experiment B, out of ten seedlings transplanted to a nearby site within the canopy of a Juniperus and subsequently exposed to herbivores, only one set a fruit. The remaining nine plants were eaten by vertebrates well before reaching reproductive size. In contrast, out of ten individuals transplanted to the same tree and protected from herbivores, six set at least one fruit. As reported in Table 2, average fruit set per plant differed significantly between treatments. Experiment C differed from B in that plants were not moved from the site of seed germination before being controlled for the effect of herbivory. As shown in Table 2, only seven plants among those exposed to herbivores (20%) set fruit, while 15 out of 20 (75%) screened plants did. Unscreened Geranium's set on average less

Table 2. Results of three field experiments testing the effects of growth conditions on the size and fecundity of Geranium purpureum plants. Plant mass (in mg) and number of fruits per plant means sharing the same superscript letter are not significantly different at p = 0.01 (Duncan multiple-range test on log-transformed data). Numbers in brackets are standard errors. nd: no data. Experiment




Growth conditions


Plants setting fruit

Plant mass

Fruits per plant














a 139 (37) a 221 (108)













c 3.77 (0.59) c 3.40 (0.45) a 0.20 (0.20) b 1.60 (0.86)


a 69 (13)

ab 0.66 (0.25)


b 388 (80)

c 6.65 (1.12)


no no

no yes

35 20

Seeds' per plant

17.4 15.6 0.9 7.4 3.0


' J, within; 0, outside the projection of a Juniperus crown. 'Estimated from an average of 4.6 seeds per fruit (N = 25). 212

OIKOS 62:2 (1991)

Table 3. Results of an ANOVA analysing the effects of growth conditions (see Table 2) on Geranium purpureum fecundity. The dependent variable is the log-transformed number of fruits set per plant. Source Site Transplant Herbivory Error




0.870 0.670 26.673 0.332

1 1 1

2.622 2.018 80.387

P 0.108 0.158 <0.001


than one fruit per plant, while protected ones set in excess of six. Additionally, herbivory caused a five-fold decrease in plant size (in terms of dry mass) compared with caged plants (Table 2). All caged and uncaged plants grew within an area of 3 m 2 .

Combined effects Data from Table 2 have been combined into a single ANOVA model, the results of which are reported in Table 3. Herbivory is the only significant source of variation, while effects of site and transplant can be considered negligible. Consequently, plants from the three experiments have been pooled and the overall frequency distribution of the number of fruits per plant plotted in Fig. 3. Safe from vertebrates, Geranium plants set between 0 and 18 fruits (mean 4; median 3), while fecundity drops to 0–6 fruits per plant (mean 0.6; median 0) if vertebrate herbivores have easy access to plants.

would appear if, for some reason, seeds were completely unable to germinate on open, well insolated sites, or if seedlings died at a critical, very early stage of development. Although this seems unlikely to me, sowing seeds, instead of making transplants, would be the only way of ascertaining the point.

Herbivory Protection from browsing, grazing, or desiccation of seedlings of a perennial plant species by another is usually termed `nursering' (Steenbergh and Lowe 1969, Whitford and Whitford 1988). Because of the short life-cycle, however, nurse trees are essential for Geranium at all stages, and in fact the only suitable habitat. Intense reproductive depression caused by herbivores has been described before for several Mediterranean perennials (Herrera 1984, 1987, 1990), while herbivory on Geranium is so intense that it reduces fitness to zero and becomes close to a predator-prey relationship (Dirzo 1984). The intensity of damage caused by herbivores may vary a lot between coexisting herb species (Meij den et al. 1988, Prins and Nell 1990). The relatively high palatability of Geranium (R.C. Soriguer, pers. comm.) might explain why other annuals can grow and reproduce on intertree areas (J. Herrera, unpubl.), while Geranium cannot. This suggestion is in accordance with previously reported evidence that the composition of Mediterranean grasslands is to some extent determined by grazing (Noy-Meir et al. 1989).

Scales of dispersal and spatial structure of the population

Discussion Site specificity A variety of circumstances, such as physico-chemical properties of the soil, or the establishment of mycorrhizal associations, for example, could be claimed to determine the association between Geranium and Juniperus. In other species of Geranium it has in fact been demonstrated that the latter factor may greatly affect growth and reproduction (Boerner 1990). But even if we accept that Geranium growth is optimal under Juniperus trees because of soil characteristics (nutrient enrichment, for example), suboptimal conditions outside trees would still allow the development of some, albeit less vigorous plants, as it happens in other southern Spanish populations of the herb (J. Herrera, pers. ohs.). In the studied population, however, there must be more factors involved, since results demonstrate that Geranium can grow and set fruit equally well within or outside the canopy of Juniperus (Table 2). The site-specificity hypothesis should thus be rejected, the only cautionary remark in this regard being that a similar association OIKOS

62:2 (1991)

Most Geranium seeds from experimental plants fell within a radius of 0.5 m around the parent plant (Fig. 2). The distances travelled by seeds in the wild, however, are probably even shorter than those reported here. This is so because plants inhabit intricate places full of obstacles to ballistic dispersal, so that many seeds

Fig. 3. The fecundity of Geranium purpureum plants exposed to or protected from herbivores (pooled data from Table 1).


hang stuck to the branches inside trees only to return to the ground within the same crown projection inhabited by their parents. Decreased dispersal ability has been claimed to be adaptive for desert plants occupying small spots of habitat surrounded by vast extensions of unsuitable land (Ellner and Shmida 1984, Pijl 1972, Shmida 1985) and, in a parallel way, the short-range, ballistic mechanism of Geranium avoids sending diaspores to death and probably contributes to the persistence of dense patches. Since the areas under the canopies of other shrubby plants are never colonized, and since inter-tree areas are lethal, Juniperus trees become for Geranium something of the nature of islands in an ocean of open land. It has been shown that only exceptionally will the diaspores disperse further than 1.5 m (Fig. 2), while nonsheltering trees are at an average of 5 m or so from a source of seeds (Table 1). Not surprisingly, thus, many potential nurse trees remain empty that would be colonized if the plant could direct its seeds more precisely to the target. While the ballistic mechanism is effective enough to completely occupy a given patch of habitat (up to 199 adult plants were found beneath a single tree), long-range dispersal (i.e., the colonization of new trees) represents an interesting problem and exemplifies a potential scenario where the evolution of a more efficient system of dispersal (for example, operating through seed-gathering ants that nested under Juniperus trees) would be advantageous. There is, however, no evidence of the existence of such a system: on the one hand, diaspores lack the necessary adaptations (i.e., an elaiosome; Beattie 1985) and, on the other, seed-gathering ants in Donana forage and nest not under Juniperus, but in open areas (J. Herrera, pers. ohs.). This mismatch between dispersal ability and the patchy nature of the habitat should not be surprising since Geranium probably evolved primarily as a shade-tolerant herb in woodlands that were denser than today, thus allowing for a more continuous population spread. Inter-tree dispersal through wind or ants cannot be ruled out. Much more likely, however, tree colonization could also be accounted for by ingestion of seeds by vertebrate herbivores, which are known to disperse the seeds of non-endozoochorous plant species by ingesting them together with foliage (Pijl 1972, Janzen 1984). A few accessible plants bearing seeds in the population would render this possible. If the strong smell of Geranium foliage should be interpreted as a deterrent or an advertisement for herbivores (Janzen 1984) is a matter of conjecture. In the study area, spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo graeca L.) have been reported to ingest and defecate viable seeds of many annuals including Geranium (Cobo and Andreu 1988), and may thus act as potential dispersal agents. The same could apply to other wild herbivores known to consume the seeds of plants not adapted to endozoochory and able to penetrate within the canopy of Juniperus (e.g. rabbits; R. C. Soriguer, pers. comm.). As long as foraging beneath 214

Juniperus was delayed until Geranium seed maturation, there would be no contradiction with the notion of trees as relatively safe sites for the herb. It should also be noted that Geranium diaspores are to some extent sticky, which suggests that epizoochory could play some role in the colonization of new favourable sites. Acknowledgements — I thank R. Dirzo and C. Blazquez for comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. The Estacion Biologica de Donana (CSIC) provided permission to work in the Reserve.

References Allier, C., Gonzalez Bernaldez, F. and Ramirez Diaz, L. 1974. Reserva Biologica de Donana. Ecological Map. EstaciOn Biologica de Donana. — CSIC. Madrid. Baker, H. G. 1974. The evolution of weeds. — Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 5: 1-24. Bazzaz, F. A. 1979. The physiological ecology of plant succession. — Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 10: 351—371. Beattie, A. J. 1985. The evolutionary ecology of ant-plant mutualisms. — Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge. Boerner, R. E. J. 1990. Role of mycorrhizal fungus origin in growth and nutrient uptake by Geranium robertianum. — Am J. Bot. 77: 483—489. Cobo, M. and Andreu, A. C. 1988. Seed consumption and dispersal by the Spur-thighed tortoise, Testudo graeca. — Oikos 51: 267—273. Dirzo, R. 1984. Herbivory: a phytocentric overview. — In Dirzo, R. and Sarukhan, J. (eds), Perspectives on plant population ecology. Sinauer, Sunderland, MA, pp 141—165. Ellner, S. P. and Shmida, A. 1984. Seed dispersal in relation to habitat in the genus Picris (Compositae) in Mediterranean and arid regions. — Israel J. Bot. 33: 25—39. Gonzalez-Bernaldez, F. 1977. Sintesis de los ecosistemas del Bajo Guadalquivir. — Monografias ICONA 18: 9—21. Harper, J. L. 1977. Population biology of plants. — Academic Press, London. Herrera, C. M. 1984. Seed dispersal and fitness determinants in wild rose: combined effects of hawthorn, birds, mice, and browsing ungulates. — Oecologia (Berl.) 63: 386—393. — 1987. Distribucion, ecologia y conservacion de Atropa baetica Willk. (Solanaceae) en la Sierra de Cazorla. — Anales Jard. Bot. Madrid 43: 387-398. — 1990. Biologia y ecologia de Viola cazorlensis. II. Uso de sustratos, reproduccion y consumo por los herbivoros. — Anales Jard. Bot. Madrid 47: 125—138. Janzen. D. H. 1984. Dispersal of small seeds by big herbivores: foliage is the fruit. — Am. Nat. 123: 338—353. Meijden, E. van der, Wijn, M. and Verkaar, H. J. 1988. Defence and growth, alternative plant strategies in the struggle against herbivores. — Oikos 51: 355—363. Noy-Meir, I., Gutman, M. and Kaplan, Y. 1989. Responses of mediterranean grassland plants to grazing and protection. — J. Ecol. 77: 290—310. Pijl, L. van der. 1972. Principles of dispersal in higher plants. — Springer, Berlin. Prins, A. H. and Nell, H. W. 1990. The impact of herbivory on plant numbers in all life stages of Cynoglossum officinale L. and Senecio jacobaea L. — Acta Bot. Neerl. 39: 275—284. Rivas-Martinez, S., Costa, M., Castroviejo, S. and Valdes, E. 1980. Vegetacion de Donana (Huelva, Espana). — Lazaroa 2: 5—189. Shmida, A. 1985. Why do some Compositae have an inconsistently deciduous pappus? — Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 72: 184—186. oIKOS 62:2 (1991)

Stamp, N. E. 1989. Seed dispersal of four sympatric grassland annual species of Erodium. – J. Ecol. 77: 1005–1020. Steenbergh, W. F. and Lowe, C. H. 1969. Critical factors during the first years of life of the saguaro (Cereus giganteus) at Saguaro National Monument, Arizona. – Ecology 50: 825-834.

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Valdes, B., Talavera, S. and Galiano, E. F. 1987. Flora vascular de Andalucia Occidental. – Ketres, Barcelona. Whitford, P. C. and Whitford, P. B. 1988. A note on nurse trees and browsing. – Michigan Bot. 27: 107–110.


Introduction Study area Material and methods Study plant Methods Results Spatial distribution Seed dispersal Site specificity Herbivory Combined effects Discussion Site specificity Herbivory Scales of dispersal and spatial structure of the population Acknowledgements References Fig. 1. The distribution of Juniperus trees Fig. 2. distances travelled by Geranium purpureum seeds Fig. 3. The fecundity of Geranium purpureum Table 1. Some characteristics of Juniperus trees Table 2. effects of growth conditions on the size and fecundity Table 3. effects of growth conditions on fecundity

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