State of the Environment 2011 Committee. Australia state of the environment 2011.
Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011.
Animals, plants and other organisms aggregate in combinations that we recognise as different ‘systems’. The mixes of species in these aggregations are influenced by such factors as variations in rainfall and temperature regimes, soil type, altitude and exposure to sunlight. Historical factors, such as which species arrived first, are also important. These aggregations are useful for classifying the variety of life at a higher level than species. They are variously called ‘ecosystems’, ‘communities’, ‘vegetation types’, ‘vegetation associations’ or other similar terms (Table 8.4). These different approaches are understandable, because the aggregations are human perceptions. However, the lack of standardised terms is a challenge for collecting and assessing information and data, particularly across jurisdictional boundaries. The National Vegetation Information System (NVIS)28 provides a partial solution, but gaps and inconsistencies remain due to different ways of mapping and analysing vegetation in different parts of Australia.
|Community||A natural aggregate of different species of organisms existing in the same environment. While species within the community interact with each other, forming food chains and other ecological systems, they do not generally interact with species in other communities. For the purposes of the National Vegetation Information System (NVIS), a community is described as an assemblage of plant species that are structurally and floristically similar and form a repeating ‘unit’ across the landscape. See also vegetation type below|
|Ecosystem||An aggregate of animals, plants and other organisms, and the nonliving parts of the environment, that interacts and that is relatively self-contained in terms of energy flow|
|Vegetation type||A community that has a floristically uniform structure and composition, often described by its dominant species. In NVIS, a vegetation type is commonly represented by a vegetation description|
NVIS = National Vegetation Information System
Source: Executive Steering Committee for Australian Vegetation Informatioon29
Given the challenges of assessing variation at species and within-species level, biodiversity conservation strategies generally seek to manage these higher-level aggregations of species as a means of conserving their constituent species. The importance of this ‘ecosystem approach’ to conservation was reiterated in the recent review of the EPBC Act,30 but there are many challenges to achieving it. For example, individual species may be threatened or vulnerable, even though the ecosystems in which they are found are protected (e.g. corroboree frogs or mountain pygmy possums in alpine ecosystems).
The classification of species aggregations is still evolving at a national scale. The NVIS has identified 23 major vegetation groups (MVGs) based on structure, growth form and floristic composition of the dominant stratum of each vegetation type, and 67 major vegetation subgroups (MVSs), based on MVGs but including understorey characteristics and other identifying floristic affinities.31 Other classification systems have been based on finer scale differentiation, such as that proposed by the National Land & Water Resources Audit (NLWRA) from ecosystems identified by each Australian jurisdiction.32 The biodiversity theme paper for the previous national SoE report urged that this type of approach be built on as a way to identify regional priorities for action.33 This exercise has not been updated since, and we know of no national surveys at comparable levels of ecosystem differentiation.
States and territories define and list ecological communities in different ways from one another and from the Australian Government. Nevertheless, it is instructive to summarise trends for communities from the jurisdictional reports (Table 8.5).
|Jurisdiction||State (and trend if reported)b|
|ACT||There is a relatively high level of habitat protection, including lowland woodland and grassland
20 vegetation communities are recognised and described; 19 have more than 30% of their remaining extent well conserved; 8 have less than 30% of their pre-1750 distribution remaining; and another 3 have more than 30% remaining but are under significant threat
|NSW||Clearing of woody vegetation has fluctuated over the past 20 years, but has stabilised over the past 3. Status varies across areas and vegetation types. Native vegetation that is structurally intact (but is not necessarily in good condition) covers 61% of the state; a further 8% is derived (native vegetation that has been structurally modified, but where more than 50% of the ground cover is native species); and 20% is a mixture of native and non-native elements, which cannot be discriminated by remote sensing (mostly non-woody grassland that is devoted to grazing)
The number of listed communities increased by 14% to 91 listings since 2006, mainly due to assessment of previously unassessed entities. Most communities have experienced a reduction in range
|NT||Large areas have little clearing, and clearing is concentrated in a few areas around Darwin, and in the Daly River. Impacts of grazing by stock animals may have similar impacts to clearing on small mammals and birds in the territory
The process for listing threatened ecological communities is evolving, and none are currently listed by the government
|Qld||Most of the state has relatively continuous native vegetation, but there is concern about the more fertile landscapes in wetter parts of the state, which have been reduced to less than 30% of native vegetation cover on average. In the south-east, revegetation processes are producing a net gain in vegetation extent, but in most regions, the total area of regrowth is very small compared to the amount of clearing
Declines in the state of regional ecosystems is continuing. Of 1351 regional ecosystems, 92 are endangered, 516 are vulnerable (of concern) and 743 are not of concern. A high proportion of regional ecosystems in the New England Tableland, south-east Queensland and Brigalow Belt bioregions, and in parts of the Wet Tropics, Mulga Lands and Central Queensland Coast bioregions, are endangered and of concern. Some regional ecosystems in fragmented landscapes are poorly conserved
|SA||The overall trend is reported as stable; there has been limited clearing in arid areas (37 of 56 subregions), but around 75% clearing in the other 19 subregions
There is no formal process for listing threatened ecological communities, but the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has a provisional list of threatened ecosystems in the state based on expert opinion and available data. Five ecological communities occurring in the state are listed as endangered or critically endangered nationally
|Tas||Conversion of native forest to plantation reduced in 2007–08, but decreases in area and condition continue due to other pressures. Native nonforest vegetation decreased by 3807 ha from 2000–05
Of 142 native vegetation communities, 39 are listed as threatened and 10 as endangered. A number of vegetation communities were significantly affected by conversion to plantation in the period from 1996 to 2008, and there was a significant reduction of the area that was rabbit-free compared to 1996
|Vicc||At least half of the state’s native vegetation has been cleared. On public land, vegetation gains have offset losses, but on private land gains have outweighed losses. Bioregions suitable for urban development and agriculture have suffered the greatest loss of vegetation; vegetation quality is low and it is highly fragmented
Plant communities are relatively intact in the Eastern Highlands and the Mallee, but condition is variable due to previous and ongoing pressures. Many ecosystems in bioregions suitable for urban development and agriculture are classified as endangered
|WA||Of the 54 terrestrial subregions, 41 have 96% or more native vegetation remaining; but in the south-west bioregions, only about 40% of the pre-European settlement extent remains
There are 66 ecological communities listed as threatened, and 3 that are thought to be extinct or destroyed. The listing process is incomplete and is thought to under-represent the true number of threatened communities
About 87% of the continent still has native vegetation cover. Native vegetation has been modified and cleared substantially since European settlement, especially from intensive agricultural and urban areas (particularly in southern and eastern Australia and in south-western Australia). Native vegetation is being lost faster than it is replaced. More than 50% of pre-1750 vegetation has been lost from several IBRA subregions along the east coast of Qld and northern NSW, south-west WA, and southern Vic and SA. Less than 10% of the pre-1750 native vegetation remains in some IBRA subregions in southern Australia and south-east Qld, but more than 70% remains in most IBRA subregions of central and northern Australia
50 ecological communities are listed as threatened nationally under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Listed ecological communities occur in higher numbers along the east coast of Australia, in southern Australia generally, and in south-western WA
ACT = Australian Capital Territory; ha = hectare; IBRA = Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation of Australia; NSW = New South Wales; NT = Northern Territory; Qld = Queensland; SA = South Australia; Tas = Tasmania; Vic = Victoria; WA = Western Australia
a As the aim of this table is to provide a high-level overview of the state and trends in biodiversity in each state, the information is drawn from the published state of the environment reports. Except in the case of the Northern Territory, where no state of the environment report was available and information was sourced from the threatened species website (see sources below), we have not searched state online databases. For numbers of species listed as threatened nationally (under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 Act—EPBC Act) we also referred to the EPBC Act website (see sources below)
b Different states and territories adopt different indicators and approaches to reporting against them. We have not attempted to standardise across reports in this table. Elsewhere in this chapter and in Chapter 5: Land we report in a more standard way across Australia on aspects such as land clearing and extent of major vegetation types remaining. Where trends are not given this is because these were not reported (usually due to data limitations). Many reports have not attempted to assess change in state or trends over the 4–6 year period between state of the environment reports, again due to data limitations and the variability of available data. Where this has been done it is stated. Where no period for assessment is given it is assumed to have been historical change, since the arrival of European settlers
c In Victoria, threatened species are officially listed under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988, but the Department of Sustainability and Environment also maintains an Advisory List of Threatened Vertebrate Fauna and an Advisory List of Rare and Threatened Plants based on expert opinion and information that has not yet been fully considered via the official process
Vegetation communities, or assemblages of plants within a region, form the basis for Australian habitats, with particular vertebrates and invertebrates being associated with particular communities. Although, at a continental scale, 87% of Australia’s native vegetation remains, there has been a substantial loss of vegetation since European settlement as land clearing for agriculture and urban development proceeded in areas of intensive use and many coastal zones (see Table 8.5 and Chapter 5: Land). Native vegetation loss continues at a rate of nearly 1 million hectares annually (see Chapter 5: Land).
The Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC) has initiated an analysis of major vegetation types to identify:
- terrestrial vegetation types that are under-represented in the threatened ecological communities currently listed under the EPBC Act (Table 8.6)
- which major vegetation types and bioregions are likely priorities for further investigation (Table 8.7).
|Major vegetation group||No. bioregions where presentb||Extent within IBRA bioregion
No. bioregions where present (no. with >70% decrease in area)
|>70% decrease in area|
|1 million ha +||100 000 to <1 million ha||10 000 to
<100 000 ha
|<10 000 ha||No. bioregions||% total|
|1. Rainforests and vine thickets||36||1||9 (1)||13||13 (1)||2||5.6|
|2. Eucalyptus tall open forests||26||1||12||5 (1)||8||1||3.8|
|3. Eucalyptus open forests||50||14 (1)||26 (3)||6 (2)||4||6||12.0|
|4. Eucalyptus low open forests||22||0||2||5||15 (2)||2||9.1|
|5. Eucalyptus woodlands||79||32 (9)||26 (6)||18 (8)||3 (1)||24||30.4|
|6. Acacia forests and woodlands||68||13 (2)||14 (1)||15 (3)||26 (3)||9||13.2|
|7. Callitris forests and woodlands||27||1||6||6||14 (1)||1||3.7|
|8. Casuarina forests and woodland||53||4||14 (1)||16 (2)||19 (3)||6||11.3|
|9. Melaleuca forests and woodland||45||2||13 (1)||18 (2)||12 (3)||6||13.3|
|10. Other forests and woodlands||55||2||14 (1)||18 (2)||21 (2)||5||9.1|
|11. Eucalyptus open woodlands||68||14 (1)||19 (1)||20 (3)||15 (2)||7||10.3|
|12. Tropical Eucalyptus woodlands/grasslands||13||4||7||2||0||13||0.0|
|13. Acacia open woodlands||35||8||12||9 (1)||6 (1)||2||5.7|
|14. Mallee woodlands and shrublands||35||7||11 (3)||8 (1)||9 (3)||7||20.0|
|15. Low closed forests and tall closed shrublands||26||1||3 (1)||8 (1)||14 (3)||5||19.2|
|16. Acacia shrublands||44||21 (1)||11 (1)||6||6 (2)||4||9.1|
|17. Other shrublands||62||5 (1)||21||20 (1)||16||2||3.2|
|18. Heathlands||32||0||2||15 (2)||15 (1)||3||9.4|
|19. Tussock grasslands||60||10||23 (2)||14 (1)||13 (3)||6||10.0|
|20. Hummock grasslands||36||17||11||4||4||0||0.0|
|21. Other grasslands, herblands, sedgelands and rushlands||59||2||7||29 (2)||21||2||3.4|
|22. Chenopod shrublands, samphire shrublands and forblands||58||10||12||13 (4)||23 (10)||14||24.1|
|23. Mangroves||26||0||3||12||11 (1)||1||3.8|
ha = hectare; IBRA = Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation of Australia
a No communities within the major vegetation groups are represented on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation List of Ecological Communities that are either endangered or under consideration
b Excluding minor occurrences of <100 ha within a bioregion
c Zero values not shown
Note: Many major vegetation groups occur in more than one bioregion
|Region||IBRA bioregionsa||MVGs identified as decreasing in area by >50% within the bioregionb||MVGs identified as decreasing in area by >70% within the bioregionb|
|South West Western Australia||AW||3, 11, 22||5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18|
|SWA||11, 17||3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 15, 22|
|GS||10, 14, 17, 18||5, 6, 11, 16, 22|
|MAL||16, 17, 21||8, 10, 11, 22|
|JF||5, 8, 17||10, 14,15,|
|Southern Victoria||VVP||3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 18, 19, 21, 23|
|SCP||2, 9||1, 3, 5, 10, 17, 18, 19|
|Southern and Eastern South Australia||NCP||17, 18||3, 5, 9, 14, 19|
|EYB||14||5, 9, 11, 13|
|Southern New South Wales and Northern Victoria||RIV||7, 10||5, 6, 14|
|SEH||5, 19||4, 14, 21|
|Northern and Central Tasmania||FLI||2, 5, 11, 22|
|TNM||3||5, 15, 22|
|KIN||4, 5, 22|
|TNS||5, 15, 22|
|South Eastern New South Wales||SB||5, 17||8, 14, 22|
|SEC||11||8, 14, 19|
|Brigalow Belt and South East Queensland||SEQ||1, 3, 5, 15, 18||6, 16|
|BBS||5, 19, 23||1, 6, 9|
|BBN||1, 19||6, 10, 13|
AW = Avon Wheatbelt; BBN = Brigalow Belt North; BBS = Brigalow Belt South; ESP = Esperance Plains; EYB = Eyre York Block; FLB = Flinders Lofty Block; FLI = Flinders; GS = Geraldton Sandplains; IBRA = Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation of Australia; JF = Jarrah Forest; KAN = Kanmantoo; KIN = King; MAL = Mallee; MVG = major vegetation group; NCP = Naracoorte Coastal Plain; NSS = New South Wales South Western Slopes; RIV = Riverina; SB = Sydney Basin; SCP = South East Coastal Plain; SEC = South East Corner; SEH = South Eastern Highlands; SEQ = South Eastern Queensland; SWA = Swan Coastal Plain; TCH = Tasmanian Central Highlands; TNM = Tasmanian Northern Midlands; TNS = Tasmanian Northern Slopes; VVP = Victorian Volcanic Plain
Note: Many MVGs occur in more than one bioregion
Table 8.6 illustrates the decrease in extent of major vegetation groups by their bioregional extent. It is notable that some extensive occurrences of 1 million hectares or more have declined in some bioregions, particularly for Eucalyptus woodlands. Some of the MVGs that have declined are presently under-represented on the national list of threatened ecological communities. For example, components of MVGs 14, 15 and 22 have suffered extensive declines in some bioregions but are not yet listed or under assessment. Table 8.7 supports the conclusions of the most recent national assessment of Australia’s terrestrial biodiversity that:
… over 50% of pre-1750 vegetation has been lost from several IBRA [Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation of Australia] subregions along the east coast of Queensland and northern New South Wales, south-west Western Australia, and southern Victoria and South Australia. Less than 10% of the pre-1750 native vegetation remains in some IBRA subregions in southern Australia and south-east Queensland, but more than 70% remains in the majority of IBRA subregions of central and northern Australia.15
Habitat ‘quality’ is also an important determinant of biodiversity status, and research has sought to identify cost-effective ways to assess the quality of habitat, in terms of such attributes as its ‘condition’ and the degree of connections between patches of habitat.15 Although few data have been reported on habitat quality in SoE reports to date, apart from in Victoria (Table 8.8), a number of approaches have been developed and are in at least limited use by jurisdictions, including being tested in case studies in New South Wales and Queensland.49-54 The Australian Government intends to develop nationally consistent measures to assess habitat quality that could be used in future national reporting.15 Summary statements from the most recent state and territory SoE reports are presented in Table 8.8.
Since 2006, EPBC-listed ecological communities have increasingly taken condition of remnants into account, partly to provide guidance on when a patch of an ecological community may be too degraded to be considered for EPBC referral or compliance. Condition and decline in integrity is also one of the criteria for assessing an ecological community as threatened. It allows for qualitative assessment of decline where reliable quantitative evidence for decline may be lacking, or in addition to it, as further support for listings. Most of the items listed since 2006 are broadscale listings covering much of the south-eastern agricultural and urban zones. Although this evidence relating to the community integrity trigger does not provide quantitative estimates of how much remains in good versus poor condition, it provides sufficient evidence that there has been qualitative decline to some extent across a community’s range.
The capacity of ecosystems to meet human needs depends on both the functionality of those ecosystems and the needs that people have (see Section 1.2). Information on what people—including those outside Australia—need or demand from Australian ecosystems is limited. Measures such as ecological footprint, for example, give a broad estimate of how much productive land the average Australian needs to maintain their current lifestyle (see Section 3.6.2). However, it is difficult to identify where that land is located in Australia or, indeed, in other countries. Detailed analyses of the stocks of natural resources and flows of those resources into and out of processes that support human activity are very useful. They have been used to identify where there are risks of resource shortages in relation to population size and resource consumption behaviour.55-56
There has been considerable analysis to suggest that current levels of some natural resources, such as water, oil, coal, gas and land for food production, might become limiting in the near or medium-term future, depending on rates of population growth and resource use per person.56-57 However, there has been little detailed consideration of the costs associated with replacing ecosystem services such as water filtration, pest control, waste assimilation and pollination as biodiversity declines.58 These complex interrelationships need to be better understood in order to assess whether the current state of Australia’s environment, and the biodiversity within it, are adequate to meet human needs now and into the future.
|Jurisdiction||State (and trend if reported)|
|ACT||There is continued decline in woodlands and grasslands|
|NSW||The trend is unknown, and information is limited. Pressures on condition are likely to remain for the foreseeable future due to the lag effects of fragmentation following clearing, coupled with increasing pressures from invasive species and climate change|
|NT||High proportions of area are burned. There is a high density of bores throughout much of the territory. Most bioregions have 3–9% exotic plants (some have 9–15%)|
|Qld||The condition of native vegetation is variable (depending on the bioregion, 0.7–60% of ecosystems in the region are considered endangered and 5.4–51.7% of concern); intact areas are in better condition than fragmented areas
The condition of regional ecosystems in bioregions subject to little or no clearing has still declined due to other factors
|SA||The condition is unknown overall but there has been documented improvement in some pastoral areas|
|Tas||Baseline assessments are under way. At least 270 forest-associated plant species are at risk from isolation and loss of genetic diversity|
|Vic||Native vegetation is fragmented over much of the state and is declining in quality, but the quality of largely intact landscapes is generally high. Native grasslands retain less than 1% of their original extent in good condition
Assessments of vegetation quality are modelled at a landscape scale across the state based on assessment of site condition and landscape context. These components contribute to a habitat score. Statewide, it is estimated that there have been gains and losses of habitat hectares on both public and private land resulting in a net loss of approximately 4090 habitat hectares per year (a net gain of 5900 habitat hectares per year on public land but a net loss of 9990 habitat hectares per year on private land)
|WA||The south-west wheatbelt has the highest ‘continental stress class’ score. (Continental stress class is a method of describing landscape health; Class 1 contains the most stressed regions and Class 6 the least stressed.) Other coastal parts of the south-west and mid-west also show high levels of stress. Much of the Kimberley region and the central desert areas have the lowest stress|
|National||Information is currently limited but progress has been made towards a national approach to assessing habitat condition. Trials in Victoria have produced a statewide map|
ACT = Australian Capital Territory; NSW = New South Wales; NT = Northern Territory; Qld = Queensland; SA = South Australia; Tas = Tasmania; Vic = Victoria; WA = Western Australia
a See notes below Table 8.5 for caveats and sources
Recent research and practice suggest a number of starting points for these assessments. The state of ecosystems in relation to land uses was assessed in Victoria’s Goulburn Broken catchment in 2001.59 The assessment found that most land uses in that catchment rely on most ecosystem services, and that there are several situations in which the state of biodiversity might be approaching the point at which it will start to limit benefits to humans below their needs. For example, it was considered that the service of waste absorption—the breaking down of human and animal wastes by soil organisms—was at a critically low level and that this was affecting all but two land uses.
Research in the Gwydir catchment in New South Wales has shown that strategic management of remnant vegetation to improve elements of biodiversity makes major contributions to carbon sequestration, erosion prevention, improved grazing on flood plains, bird breeding events and biodiversity conservation generally.60 The benefits of only these four ecosystem services were estimated at $94 million over 30 years.
Information such as this has been used in Victoria to prioritise the purchase of specific ecosystem services—the protection of habitat of biodiversity and enhancement of carbon sequestration—from land managers.61
The public benefits of environmental services from agricultural land are estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars for individual industries, and several billion dollars overall.62 Research by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has shown the importance of soil biodiversity in supporting horticulture63 and other industries (Box 8.2). Pollination by bees and other animals increases the size, quality or stability of harvests for 70% of leading global crops.64 A recent analysis of 23 studies, representing 16 crops on 5 continents, concluded that pollinator richness and visitation rate on crops show general and significant exponential declines with increasing distance from natural habitat, and that for many crops this results in decline in fruit and seed set.64 Concerns have been raised about effects such as this in Australia if populations of introduced honeybees, the main pollinator of many crops, decline and if retention of native vegetation is inadequate to supply enough native pollinators to replace the ecosystem service.65
Although economic valuation of benefits from ecosystems is an important tool for understanding the importance of biodiversity, economic value itself is not a good indicator of the state of biodiversity. This is because economic value is influenced by many factors, including both the rarity of the benefit and the cost of replacing it.
Over the past decade, a number of studies have investigated approaches to assessing the contributions of ecosystems to human wellbeing using an ecosystem services framework.59,71-78 Australia does not currently have a formal approach to collecting information on the state of ecosystem services, although this need is being considered as part of the National Plan for Environmental Information16 and examples are now emerging from other countries.79
While a start was made some years ago on consolidating national information on major groups of soil invertebrates,66 to date soil biodiversity has rarely been given much attention in state of the environment reporting.
Soil organisms affect important ecosystem processes, including soil formation, decomposition and nutrient cycling, carbon and nitrogen fixation and sequestration, infiltration, purification and storage of water. Bacteria are responsible for by far the greatest diversity of biogeochemical transformations of any group of organisms—they are the chemical factories that underpin soil ecosystems. The invertebrates, especially the larger arthropods like insects and spiders, play critical roles in burrowing, drilling, mixing and processing the soil substrate: filling its matrix with a spatial complexity of networks of burrows, pores, tunnels and tubes. These ‘ecosystem engineers’ provide the soil with access to water and air that are critical requisites for biogeochemical reactions to occur. Other arthropods harvest organic matter and build compost heaps in their nests and burrows, inoculating them with fungi to break down otherwise intractable plant material into food for their colonies. Australian soils have a high diversity of insects, spiders, earthworms and other species in contrast to the earthworm-dominated soils of many parts of the Northern Hemisphere.
The important ecosystem functions performed by soil organisms can be restored to degraded grazing soils in less than a decade through revegetation of landscapes.67 A new and exciting discovery is that the presence of ants and termites in certain cropping soils has a direct effect on improving yields of wheat.68
Several soil invertebrates are considered of conservation significance, including the giant Gippsland earthworm, massive mound building termites, the honey-pot ant and several burrowing spiders. But the distribution and abundance of these organisms is still relatively poorly known and specific conservation management strategies that go beyond simply maintaining habitat integrity have not been developed.
Other soil organisms are invasive species that are important in terms of management. These include several exotic earthworms and termites, the yellow crazy ant, the red fire ant and the tropical fire ant.
Soil invertebrates have complex interrelationships with agriculture and other land uses. At a time when carbon storage on agricultural land is a major issue,69 soil organisms may prove to be major beneficiaries from management practices aimed at soil carbon sequestration and storage. Recent work has highlighted the impact of agricultural land-use practices on diversity and abundance of functional groups of soil bacteria,70 highlighting the need to consider a broader conservation framework that includes the protection of ecosystem processes and functions, as well as biodiversity.
Source: An abridged version of a short essay by Matt Colloff, CSIRO, written for this report and available on the SoE website, www.environment.gov.au/soe.
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