Dr Patricia Woolley, zoologist

Dr Patricia Woolley

Patricia Woolley was born in 1932 in Denmark, Western Australia. After she earned a BSc from the University of Western Australia (1955) she continued working there as a research assistant to Professor Harry Waring, investigating marsupial biology. Her lifelong interest in dasyurid marsupials began at this time.

In 1960 Woolley moved to Canberra and she worked demonstrating and lecturing in zoology at the Australian National University before completing a PhD there in 1966.

Woolley worked at La Trobe University in Melbourne from 1967 to 2000 as lecturer, senior lecturer, reader and associate professor. During this time she researched dasyurid life history and reproduction. In 1991 she started searching for the Julia Creek dunnart, Sminthopsis douglasi, a species thought to be extinct, and caught the first live animals in 1992. During the 1980s and 1990s Woolley made many trips to New Guinea, searching for dasyurids and documenting their biology.

Interviewed by Professor Ian Thornton in 2000.


Learning to overcome difficult circumstances

Dr Woolley, I gather that you began life in Western Australia.

Yes. I was born in Denmark, which was then a town with a population of about 1000, in the south of Western Australia. My father retired to that area – he was a medical practitioner and my mother a nurse. My father died when I was 10, however, which left the family in rather strained financial circumstances. My brother had to leave the agricultural college that he was attending. But being six years younger, I had to continue my elementary schooling, which was at the state school in Denmark. Like most people at that time we didn’t give much thought to my educational future, because it was generally expected that women would get married and take their place in the home. My teachers, though, certainly encouraged me very much to continue at school, and I remember the state school headmaster urging my mother to send me to Albany High School to complete my Junior Certificate.

Was that when you decided that you wanted to study science, even although your parents had both been in medicine?

I don’t think I ever considered the possibility of medicine – in fact, I recall being vaguely intimidated by a leather trunk full of rather frightening medical instruments that my father kept. But I seemed to do quite well at mathematics at school. By the time I finished my Junior Certificate at Albany High School, my mother had moved to Perth and so I followed her. I wanted to do science subjects but Perth Modern School, which was the school of choice in those times, wouldn’t let women do chemistry. So I went to Perth Technical College and then on to Leederville Technical College, where I studied a lot of mathematics. One teacher really encouraged and inspired me, and as a result of his enthusiasm I decided to study mathematics at university.

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A diversion into marsupial studies

And of course you went to the University of Western Australia.

Yes. In those days university was free; if there had been fees I wouldn’t have been able to go. And also the Universities Commission provided students with a small stipend, a sort of a living allowance, so that you could survive. I didn’t find the transition from school difficult, but for some reason I didn’t do well in my first year at university. Certainly I found university mathematics extremely boring, and I lost interest in both that and physics.

My choices then were a bit more restricted, but I was doing zoology at the time and decided I would make that my major field of study. (I was probably influenced by my husband-to-be also studying zoology.) The University of Western Australia, when I began my studies there, had only 2000 students in all, and the zoology classes were small – in my third year there were only six in the class. Four of us went on eventually to academic careers in zoology.

Were you able to get a job on graduation?

Yes. Professor Harry Waring took me on as his research assistant, to continue with experimental work that he’d been carrying out in England before he came to Australia. That was on colour change mechanisms in cold-blooded vertebrates and also pharmacological effects of posterior lobe pituitary hormones. He had come to Australia, however – in his own words – to find out what made marsupials tick. He built up a school of people to work on marsupials, and marsupial studies was the major thrust in the department. So I became diverted into helping people with their marsupial work: I helped four PhD students with studies on quokkas and tammar wallabies, red kangaroos and euros. (One of these students was Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe, who later became my PhD supervisor.)

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Antechinus surprises

In 1960, having gained such a wide introduction to marsupial biology, you left Perth. Why was that?

My husband had a position in the John Curtin School of Medical Research and so I followed him to Canberra. At first I had no work there, but I soon discovered that domesticity wasn’t the life for me and I got some part-time work demonstrating in zoology, which is often the way that women were employed in those days. The next thing came just by chance, when the then Canberra University College became a department in the Australian National University. The newly appointed professor, Desmond Smith, was setting up a new Department of Zoology. Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe was appointed to a lectureship there but he couldn’t take up his appointment for a year, so Desmond Smith gave me the job in a temporary capacity.

Was it at about that time that you thought of becoming a candidate for the PhD?

Yes. I could see that I had to make some hard decisions about the future, and the best thing seemed to be to get a PhD. I thought I might try to do a project on differentiation of sex in mammals, which was one of the topics that had intrigued me in Western Australia when I was working on topics that Harry Waring was interested in. But of course I had to find a study animal. That occupied some time until, just by chance, I went to an ANZAAS conference in Brisbane and heard Basil Marlow (from the Australian Museum) talking about a small marsupial he had been studying. It was a dasyurid which he called  Antechinus flavipes. As he described the very curious behaviour of these animals, I was really intrigued and decided they were worth looking at – not only because of the work that Basil talked about, but because up to that time the emphasis on research in marsupials had been on macropodid marsupials, and the dasyurids largely had been neglected.

So it was Basil Marlow that influenced the choice of animals on which you based your life’s work?

Yes. And Basil introduced me to trapping marsupials; after my first lessons with him I started collecting  Antechinus  and studying them. Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe, being a marsupial biologist, took over supervision of my project when he came to Canberra. The project was on the life history and reproduction of what was called  Antechinus flavipes  but was subsequently found to be another species,  Antechinus stuartii. Since that time  Antechinus stuartii  has been split into  A. stuartii  and  A. agilis, and I believe that the species I worked on was really  A. agilis.

What was so unusual about the life history of  Antechinus agilis?

Well, as a result of the work I was doing, I set about trapping the animals. I had a couple of study areas near Canberra. I used to go out regularly to trap the animals to try and see what their breeding pattern was in the wild, and I also brought animals into captivity and maintained a colony. But in the course of the trapping I discovered that once the animals had mated, I could no longer trap males. This was really curious, almost unheard of, and I remember giving a seminar in the Zoology Department at the Australian National University when I was actually scoffed at because I suggested that the males had all disappeared from the population. During subsequent laboratory studies, the males did survive the breeding season. (It is a fairly frantic affair during which they copulate for up to 12 or 13 hours.) But in the following year’s breeding season those males were reproductively sterile, incapable of breeding. In histological section their testes looked a bit like those of 80- or 90-year-old men.

Two Fellows of the Royal Society came out to Australia, looking for potential speakers and fields of interest for the first symposium on comparative biology of reproduction, which they were organising to be held in London. When they heard about my work they thought it would be very interesting for presentation at this meeting, so they invited my supervisor – not me – to present the work. But I decided that if anyone was going to do it, I was going to. It created a little bit of surprise that a person in my position would say such a thing.

They didn’t know Pat Woolley, did they!

No. Getting the funds to go overseas for this was difficult, too, but I did get them. While I was writing up my PhD thesis, my husband moved to Melbourne, to a job at Monash University. I stayed on in Canberra, though, until I finished.

Ah, that was very wise.

Yes, I think so too.

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From field work to teaching marsupial biology

Once I had finished my degree, I had to start looking for a job. Being unsure of getting one, I went for a few months to work in Victor Macfarlane’s Department of Animal Physiology at the Waite Institute, in Adelaide. Victor’s research centred on fat and water metabolism in arid adapted animals, so he gave me a research fellowship to go and collect fat-tailed dasyurids for him. That introduced me to field work in the centre of Australia. I trapped on Ayers Rock – in those days you could actually set traps there – and all around the base of the rock, and in that general area.

I gather you brought some of the animals you trapped in that project to La Trobe University, in Melbourne. I know you were the first zoologist at La Trobe, because when I came a year later you were one of the two zoologists already present.

Yes. I got a job at La Trobe, fortunately, when it was one of three new universities starting up – the others were Macquarie in Sydney and Flinders in South Australia. Victor shared his animals with me, and I brought some and started working on their pattern of reproduction. Actually, my first year at La Trobe was mainly occupied with building up teaching collections, ordering material and starting teaching programs, so there wasn’t much time for research, but I did maintain some colonies of animals right from the very beginning.

Your marsupial biology course, which you developed in later years, became quite famous in Australia. Could you tell us something about that course?

It grew by a process of evolution, really. I taught a number of different courses at La Trobe and developed them; then gradually, as the staff increased, other people took over the teaching in those areas and I concentrated more on my special area of interest. It started off as a short course on mammals and then I was able to convert it into a course on marsupials only.

As invited lecturers, I involved marsupial biologists who were the leaders in their field at the time; I thought it was really good for the students to be exposed to these people. My reasoning for the course was that 70 per cent of all marsupials are found only in the Australasian region, and it was very appropriate for Australian students to learn about marsupials. And it was in my own area of interest, because I was working on one group of these marsupials. My invited lecturers were wonderful – they all gave their time freely and were very stimulating.

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Dibbler disappointments and successes

So, having set up and established your teaching program, you had to start research going. How did you decide to work on the little dasyurid called the dibbler?

In fact, dibblers were rediscovered in the year I started work at La Trobe University. They were thought to be extinct but someone found three animals in the south of Western Australia, and after the preliminary excitement it was decided that La Trobe was the best place for them to go, as I was the only person working with dasyurid marsupials at the time. So the dibblers were sent to me to try to get them to breed.

I didn’t succeed, though. As is so often the way with dasyurids, if you only have a small number of individuals you can’t be sure of success. You do seem to get incompatibilities between animals. I spent a lot of time searching for dibblers in the wild – also fairly unsuccessfully. I collected another two, I think, some years after the initial group, but because by then I no longer had the one male, I couldn’t even attempt to breed them.

The dibbler was presumably on the endangered species list by then.

Not until later. Some isolated populations of dibblers have been found on a couple of offshore islands and also on the mainland again, in two areas not very far from where the earlier ones were found. And I’m happy to say that Perth Zoo has been able to breed them in recent times and animals have been established on another island. So it is a success story, really.

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Anatomical taxonomy in the genus Antechinus

Wasn’t it your dibbler work that stimulated your interest in the penis of dasyurids?

That’s right. The one male dibbler that I had was trying to mate with one of the females but he didn’t have much luck, as far as I could see. He had a problem with his penis: he couldn’t retract it. I don’t even know if he got it inside the female, but he could not get it back inside himself. He had a permanent erection, in effect. I just couldn’t believe what a remarkable structure his penis was – it actually had an appendage on it – and that started me off on a new line of research.

Did you ever find out the function of the appendage? I gather that it is larger than the penis itself.

I was able to study the anatomy of it, but I was unsuccessful in my observations of mating animals to see how they deployed it.

Tell me about your paper with the quite famous title ‘Phallic morphology of the Australian species of Antechinus (Dasyuridae, Marsupialia): a new taxonomic tool?’

The dibbler at that time was one of 12 species known as  Antechinus, and I was interested to see whether the other species had similar penises. (In fact, I knew that the penis of the one I had studied for my PhD was different.) I set about collecting these animals from quite remote areas in Australia, so that I could look at the anatomy of the penis and also their pattern of reproduction. To study the anatomy of the penis I had to cut histological sections and then try to build up a three-dimensional picture of this quite complicated structure. By projecting the sections onto acetate film and just colouring in and cutting out, I was able to build up three-dimensional models which helped me to understand the differences in the anatomy of the penis of these species.

The paper came out of that project. As a result, only seven of the 12 species remained in the genus  Antechinus. The other five, on the basis of their penis morphology, were placed in three separate genera. The true Antechinuses don’t have the appendage. The other species have either something that approximates an appendage or else, like the dibbler, a real appendage. The erectile tissue inside the appendage was bifid, and the appendage became erect at the same time as the penis proper.

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Extending the studies to New Guinea

Your study of dasyurid reproductive patterns has been of great importance.

Well, I looked at as many species as I could – about half the 65 or so dasyurid species – to establish whether they were seasonal breeders or could breed throughout the year. After I had looked at many of the Australian species, I became curious about the 17 known from New Guinea. One very small study had been done on two species by an Australian scientist working in New Guinea – he’d made the observations incidentally, while working on some rats that he was interested in – but basically all that we knew about New Guinea dasyurids came from museum specimens of skins and bones and a very few animals that had been kept in zoos. I decided to try to get to New Guinea and work on them, and I spent nearly a full year of study leave there in 1981-82.

I started with the idea of looking at the pattern of reproduction in the three species of  Antechinus that occurred in New Guinea. I wanted also to compare the anatomy of their penis with that of the Australian species. It was known that these animals could all be found on one mountain near the town of Wau, and fortunately I was able to base myself at the Wau Ecology Research Institute (which had started life as a field station of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu). From what I knew about the distribution of the animals, I thought I should be able to find them at different altitudes on Mount Kaindi, so my plan was to trap downwards from the top until I found areas where I could get them. I didn’t do very well: in my first seven weeks in New Guinea I only caught two dasyurids. One of them may have been an  Antechinus, but anyway they both died.

You also had interference by the local people, didn’t you?

Yes. In putting out my trap lines, I always used a set of numbered traps. But I would discover the traps out of the right order, so I realised that people were visiting the traps, taking the animals out and then putting the traps back – but not in the right place. It was difficult to work anywhere near where people were living.

On one of the Wau trips I had a  raskol  [rascal] problem. I was confronted by three masked men who banged on the door of the house I was using and demanded money and the gun. They threatened me with a gun, a bush knife and a carving knife, so I had very little option but to give them what I had. Fortunately, they didn’t harm me, but their gun went off and made a hole in the ceiling. It wasn’t very pleasant, but at the time it didn’t worry me very much. The house I was living in was a couple of kilometres out of town, and I remember getting fairly calmly into my car and driving into town and then to the golf course to find a student who was working in New Guinea with me at the time. Then I went to the police, who didn’t know what to do. But after I had rushed back to the house I did discover I was rather upset.

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Show me the way you go home

After seven weeks, and two captures, you returned to Australia. Did your experiences put you off New Guinea?

No. I went back to have another go. On my second visit I stayed for five months, which was almost as bad as the first seven weeks but not quite: by the end of that five months I had caught 16 dasyurids and I was beginning to get a feel for working in the forests – a totally different environment from Australia. Back at La Trobe, having caught just 16 animals, at first I thought I might give up. But not being one to give up easily, I decided to go back for another three months. That was when everything started to fall into place, and by the end of that time I had a total of 81 dasyurids. (But I’d also caught over 500 rats.)

I went back to New Guinea about 18 times during the 1980s and 90s. I had a student working in Wau for a year, trapping regularly throughout the year. He collected the faeces of the animals that were easy to trap in that area and analysed the contents to determine the animals’ diet. And during that year I did an interesting study to find out where they nested, because until the animals are in our traps (which we set on the ground) we don’t really know what the animals are doing. I used spool and line tracking, a technique that had been developed a little earlier. You attach a spool of thread to the animal’s back, anchor the end of the thread where you release it, and let the spool unwind as the animal moves away. At some time later you can follow the thread and find out where the animal’s gone.

Yes, if you’ve got very good eyes. This is in the middle of a forest.

That’s right. I relied very heavily on my local assistants, who were extremely good at this sort of work. They knew their way around the forest as well as we know our way around our living rooms. My concept of exactly where the traps were and the routes the animals had taken from the release site was a little vague, but these people made me some really interesting drawings, one of which appeared in a publication.

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Seeking certain interesting species

You turned your attention to four other species of dasyurids. Why were they so interesting?

Well, I realised I couldn’t catch enough animals for the project that I’d initially set out to do, but I was able to trap all seven species of dasyurids that occurred in the vicinity of Wau and to bring small numbers of animals back to Australia to study their reproduction – again to look at the reproductive pattern in captivity. (And we incidentally collected information on it in the wild, because we could make observations on the animals when they were first caught.) I decided to expand my research to cover as many New Guinean dasyurid species as I could catch, but some were of special interest. They involved travel to other parts of New Guinea, because they didn’t occur in the Wau area.

One of them,  Murexia rothschildi, was of interest because it was rare and also very spectacular: the animal has a wide black stripe on it, as if someone had run a texta pen down its back. It was known from very few specimens and had a fairly restricted distribution – it had only been caught on the southern slopes of some mountains in Papua New Guinea.

The second interesting species was  Neophascogale lorentzi. Its distribution is more to the west, principally in Irian Jaya, but it does extend into the Papua New Guinea highlands around Mount Hagen. I mounted a ‘one-man’ expedition to try to get up into the area where the Archbold expedition, back in the ’30s, had collected these animals. Because they occur at fairly high elevation and I’m not all that fit, I decided to hire a helicopter. But the helicopter couldn’t lift a lot of our equipment to the elevation that I was going to be working at, so we took it all to a village part-way up the mountains, offloaded it and abandoned it there to carriers, hoping that I’d see it at the top of the mountains. The helicopter dropped me off (with one Irianese person) on a plateau above Lake Habbema, in the centre of Irian Jaya, and we waited there until the carriers arrived. And then we walked back down the mountain a little to the area that we thought was going to be a good place to trap. In this part of the country the people develop groves of pandanus, which are native to the area, so they can harvest the nuts for food. We set up our camp in one of these groves, by a native hut used in the pandanus season, and did our trapping from there. It was an interesting experience – including even the need for an umbrella while I worked in the 'kitchen'.

Unfortunately, that was not one of my success stories. We didn’t succeed in catching any  Neophascogale, although they had been very abundant in that area decades earlier. In fact, the Archbold expedition collected a very large series of animals, which are in the American Museum of Natural History. The only dasyurids I caught there were an animal called  Phascolosorex dorsalis – again we caught a lot of rodents and got a lot of interesting information, but not really what I wanted.

The third species I tried to find was  Phascolosorex doriae, a relative of  P. dorsalis which is restricted to Irian Jaya, at lower elevations than  Neophascogale. After my work on  Neophascogale I tried to find a locality where I could trap the  Phascolosorex. But that area was rather sensitive at the time because of the transmigration programs that were going on and I wasn’t able to actually visit it, so I went looking for the animal in the Arfak Mountains on the Vogelkop, the Bird’s Head Peninsula of New Guinea. Again I couldn’t find these animals, but on the last day that I was there I found a jawbone of one of them – it was on the ground under a tree, inside a pellet that a bird of prey had ejected.

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More disappointments and consolations

You went to the Aru Islands to find the fourth of these species. Whereabouts is that?

The Aru Islands are about 150 kilometres south of Irian Jaya and about 800 kilometres north-east of Darwin. To get there, you have to fly to Ambon and then take either a boat or the weekly flight to Dobo, which is the main town in the Aru Islands. And then you have to rely on fishing boats and the villagers’ canoes to move around. I spent four weeks in a village called Namara, on the island of Kubroor.

The islands are just very low-lying limestone outcrops, about 6 or 7 degrees south of the equator. So it is hot there anyway, but with all the sea channels between them it’s very humid. And the village houses are built on bare areas of limestone, where it is extremely hot. It was very uncomfortable.

I believe the famous Russell Alfred Wallace collected the species you were looking for. Did he collect it in the Arus?

Yes, on his visit in 1857. (He said he was the first European to spend any length of time in the islands, and certainly in the village where I lived the children hadn’t ever seen a white woman before.) Wallace collected some of the four  Myoictis specimens that had been obtained on the Aru Islands. And only about three of the same species were known from lowland areas on the mainland of New Guinea. This was another animal that I wasn’t able to trap. I think trapping was doomed to failure because the animals are diurnal: I’d be very surprised if animals would enter the traps in broad daylight. But the local people speared two for me and I managed to persuade them to catch some by hand, so I was able to get three specimens alive back to Australia.

They are quite spectacularly coloured animals, quite different from the montane species of  Myoictis in New Guinea, and are the size of a very large rat. Actually, the local people eat them, so there’s a bit of meat on them.

Didn’t you hope to catch another dasyurid species on the Aru Islands?

Yes. It had been found near a village that Wallace had visited, where he had made some interesting observations. These animals were obviously a different species from the  Myoictis  which Wallace had discovered, because he commented that they were about the size of rats and mice and they had a habit of coming out at night and eating any uneaten food that was left lying around. This was a species of  Murexia  that had been collected by other people on the Aru Islands, and I was really interested to try to get specimens, to compare them with the  Murexia  from mainland New Guinea. I was able to learn where the village was, but it had been abandoned (probably because of disease or lack of water) and people were so reluctant to let me go into the area that I was unable to get there. So I didn’t get any of those. Small mammal work can be very difficult, with lots of disappointments.

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Collecting Sminthopsis

Eventually you turned back to Australia – presumably when the research grant was running out – to work on another problem to do with dasyurid marsupials.

That’s right. I felt I had done as much as I could in New Guinea without more substantial funding. I thought I would follow up my earlier line of research, looking at whether I could use penis anatomy to establish relationships within the genus  Sminthopsis. For this project I had to obtain males of all 19  Sminthopsis  species, many of which were very poorly known. That involved me in field work, again in many remote parts of Australia, trying to obtain material for the study. One of the species I wanted to work on was  Sminthopsis douglasi, otherwise known as the Julia Creek dunnart. That was rather a challenge, as the animal was extremely rare (it was known only from four specimens in museums) and might even be extinct. Although I got permission to try to collect them, I’m quite sure that no-one thought I’d find them.

I started off by getting help from the local people. I did a little advertising and said, ‘Have you seen any of these animals? Or if your cat brings anything in, would you save it for me and let me have a look at it?’ I was lucky: after a few months two or three specimens turned up, and so I was able to focus on the areas that these had come from and go trapping. In fact, on my second attempt to trap them I was able to get eight animals that I brought back to La Trobe to develop a breeding colony.

At the same time you investigated the distribution of the Julia Creek dunnart in the wild, didn’t you?

Yes. Because it was so rare, I was interested to see how far afield it could be caught. I did try trapping, but it requires enormous effort and trapping success is generally very low. So I utilised the superior ability of owls to find small mammals – they have to eat these animals to live. They regurgitate the bones and fur, which they can’t digest, in the form of pellets. I went around collecting owl pellets from as many localities as I could, over an area where it seemed likely that I might find the remains of Julia Creek dunnarts, and so I was able to plot the distribution of the animal. We’re still trying to expand the area it is found in – I currently have some funding to try to establish, perhaps by radio tracking, exactly where the animals live. But the distribution is very restricted and over ten years we have trapped only about 300 individuals. The Julia Creek dunnart was placed on the endangered species list some years ago. We are also trying to determine what impact introduced predators are having on the animals. From a project carried out by one of my students we know that they are preyed upon quite heavily by cats and foxes.

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Highlights: contributions and recognition

Looking back on your career so far, what would you say have been the highlights?

One highlight would have to be the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Society of Woman Geographers. That is an international society based in Washington, DC, founded in 1925 by a group of women who felt that women’s achievements were not being given much recognition. Their understanding of the term ‘geographer’ went beyond a limited sense to a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, biology, ecology and oceanography.

And you have recently received a rare honour.

Oh yes. I was made an Honorary Life Member of the Australian Mammal Society, which has only four or five life members. Actually, I attended the inaugural meeting of the Society in Perth in 1959, but I became a member in 1961.

What would you say was your most important contribution to marsupial biology?

Well, studying this group of marsupials that no-one had paid much attention to previously has been important. They were generally regarded as too difficult to keep in captivity. They do take a lot of effort to maintain in captivity, and I guess people just weren’t prepared to put in the effort that is required. But the  Antechinus  work that I did for my PhD, when I discovered its curious life history pattern – that all the males die at the end of their first breeding season, in what has come to be known as the die-off – has led many, many students to complete PhDs on that topic since.

Pat, if you could have your life over again, would you still become a zoologist?


And a marsupial biologist?

Oh definitely, yes. They’re a fascinating group of animals.

Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

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