Life in the World's Oceans

In partnership with
Professor Sean K. Todd, Ph.D.
College of the Atlantic
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Course No. 1725
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Uncover how chemosynthesis led to life in the absence of sunlight.
  • numbers Explore how some marine mammals plan, communicate, and use tools.
  • numbers Learn about adaptations that allow mammals to live in the ocean.

Course Overview

For thousands of centuries, humans lived near the ocean, wandered right up to its edge, and turned back to the relative safety of the known land. Even when we invented ships and the very bravest among us sailed out, our fears and imaginations took over. What creatures could be living in the unknowable darkness, the bottomless depths? Giant worms, microorganisms that eat metal, faceless fish, giant sea spiders? Marine life is even more otherworldly and fantastical than we ever imagined, and Life in the World’s Oceans brings you face to face with these exciting creatures. From the phytoplankton that can only float at the whim of wind and currents to the gray whale that migrates 16,000 kilometers each year, you will be amazed at the variety of life in the seas and what we have only recently learned about its biology, evolution, life cycles, and adaptations.

The Great Courses has partnered with the Smithsonian to produce a vivid exploration of life in this fascinating space—the environment that accounts for 99 percent of Earth’s habitable space. With curatorial expertise, content development, and stunning still and video imagery provided by Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, you’ll understand our planet’s ocean environment and the life it supports as you never have before.

Working in close consultation with Don Wilson, curator Emeritus from the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Professor Sean K. Todd of the College of the Atlantic—and one of the world’s leading marine biologists—developed 30 fascinating lectures that take you on a journey from the beginning of life on Earth four billion years ago to the environmental factors and international treaties and protocols that affect our oceans today. With an easygoing manner and an infectious passion for his topic, Professor Todd shares the latest research from the field's most fascinating areas of study, including marine-mammal intelligence and communication, bioluminescence, exploration of the ocean floor, as well as the Smithsonian’s own cutting-edge research work around the world, including the Great Barrier Reef.

Phytoplankton: Carrying the Weight of Ocean Life—and Us

Professor Todd starts your ocean journey at the very beginning, with the wonders of water and a fascinating look at the specific properties that make this unique molecule the essential ingredient for life. You’ll learn how life itself was ignited in this environment, eventually evolving into the phytoplankton that help keep us alive today, providing about 50 percent of all atmospheric oxygen. This phytoplankton—primarily free-floating, photosynthetic, and microscopic algae; and protists and prokaryotes—is the base of almost every marine food web. In fact, the largest animal ever known to have existed on earth, the 200-ton blue whale, sustains itself throughout an 80- to 90-year lifespan by eating only krill, which itself feeds directly on phytoplankton. With each blue whale requiring four tons of krill per day, it’s easy to see the critical link between a healthy phytoplankton population and whale viability.

Professor Todd also explains how research with new technology has recently reversed more than one common “truth” about marine life. DNA analysis has revealed new relationships between lifeforms and resulted in major taxonomic changes. And high-tech submersibles have allowed biologists to explore the deepest ocean floor, revealing a pathway to life in the absence of sunlight. Only recently have scientists learned that bacteria and other organisms use the hot, metal-rich fluids released by hydrothermal vents to turn chemical energy into food. That energy then fuels species of snails, shrimp, giant tube worms, and others that have evolved to thrive in these aphotic ecosystems.

And if snails, shrimp, and giant tube worms are not enough to peak your interest, the unforgettably dramatic images provided through this course give you access into the depths of the oceans, grant you up-close-and-personal encounters with charming marine mammals, and allow insights into the exhibits of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History that you wouldn’t get without being there—from the fossils of red alga to the giant skeleton of a Basilosaurus in the Sant Ocean Hall.

Those Charismatic Marine Mammals

Life in the World’s Oceans provides a fascinating view into the complex lives of marine mammals, enhanced by stunning visual resources from the Smithsonian. Professor Todd shares his own exciting research and field experience with marine mammals to help respond to the most commonly asked questions about their intelligence.

In this course, you’ll learn that:

  • Some marine mammals use tools. Sea otters and one population of bottlenose dolphins, for example, use rocks and sponges, respectively, to acquire food while protecting their skin.
  • Some groups of humpback whales exhibit a feeding method that is not genetic, but is a learned, cultural behavior. Known as bubble-net feeding, it requires planning, cooperation, and communication among groups of these usually solitary animals.
  • In their attempt to attract a mate, humpback whales compose lengthy songs and transmit them across the entire population of breeding males for that region. And as the song slowly morphs over the course of the season, all the males adopt those changes, presumably learning from each other.
  • In the 1980s, a researcher noticed a humpback whale in the Gulf of Maine exhibiting a feeding behavior never recorded and named it lobtail feeding. Within ten years, the percentage of humpbacks seen using this technique went from zero to 50 percent, clear evidence of cultural transmission between individuals.
  • Bottlenose dolphins, orcas, and false killer whales appear capable of recognizing their image in a mirror. This is an extremely rare ability among animals, and indicates that some marine mammals could be “self-aware.”

Based on these observations and additional exciting research, you’ll learn exactly why Professor Todd concludes that these magnificent animals are indeed intelligent, communicative, and “accomplished” in their own environment to meet their own needs.

The Future of the Oceans

Given the size of the ocean, it’s understandable that humans believed it would be an inexhaustible resource, capable of diluting anything we threw its way. As Professor Todd leads you through the underwater wonders, he also focuses on the history and evolution of the vast entity. You’ll learn how the industrial revolution brought new, unforeseen technologies that possessed the ability to severely impact our environment. Climate change, acidification, and overfishing affect marine populations around the globe. During a relatively short period of time, we “fished” various sea life almost to extinction in the northern Atlantic, including the right whale, California sardines, several species of tuna, Chilean sea bass, and many more. As Professor Todd introduces you to various types of marine life, he also shares which ones are still facing great risks. Even today, many species of albatross, sharks, and sea turtles are in danger of becoming nonexistent.

One of the most important lessons Professor Todd shares in Life in the World’s Oceans is why it’s so important to consider the ocean environment as an entire system. Professor Todd’s passion for preserving the precious resource of the world’s oceans—and the diversity of life within them—is another area where the educational mission and research aims of the Smithsonian were a perfect match. Professor Todd demonstrates the value of using our resources and conservation efforts to protect the ocean environment itself, as opposed to addressing the plight of any species. Professor Todd explains that with a clean, healthy ocean environment, the plants and animals will be able to take care of themselves, just as they have evolved to do. Even more importantly, a healthy ocean will provide resources for continued human survival and success, from food to energy to the oxygen we need for life itself.

Swimming with dolphins, talking to whales, touring the barrier reef, plunging the depths of the seas—these are experiences that very few of us get to share. With Life in the World’s Oceans and the Smithsonian, you get an unprecedented chance to get up close and personal with the underwater world, so you can better understand and appreciate the magnificence of that environment.

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30 lectures
 |  Average 32 minutes each
  • 1
    Water: The Source of Life
    So much of what we take for granted about our world—from our body’s access to and use of nutrients, to our planet’s liquid oceans, to the ice floating in your glass of soda—is a direct cause of the structure and polarity of H2O. Learn how those specific properties make water the essential ingredient for life as we know it. x
  • 2
    Ocean Currents and Why They Matter
    No matter where you live, your climate, weather, and even available foods are determined to a great extent by ocean circulation. The uneven heating of the Earth by the Sun and the Coriolis effect result in vast circulation cells of air above the Earth, the movement of huge water masses in the oceans, and resultant “hot spots” of marine life. x
  • 3
    The Origin and Diversity of Ocean Life
    How and where did life begin on Earth? The existence of both photosynthetic and chemosynthetic food chains—along with experiments confirming the mechanisms of abiogenesis—points to the possibility that life could have originated through two different paths. While many questions remain unanswered, two things seem certain: Life began in the oceans, and bacteria are the most successful organisms on the planet. x
  • 4
    Beaches, Estuaries, and Coral Reefs
    Beach organisms exist with the constantly changing winds, waves, and tides—sometimes underwater, sometimes fully exposed to the air. Life in estuaries, where rivers meet the oceans, face constant fluctuations in environmental salinity. And hard corals are continually pummeled by wave action. Yet each of these physically challenging environments can be diverse and fecund ecosystems. x
  • 5
    Life in Polar and Deepwater Environments
    Tropical oceans are relative deserts when compared to the potential productivity of higher latitudes—and it’s all due to spring and fall blooms of phytoplankton. These microscopic photosynthetic organisms form the base of almost all marine food chains, including that of the blue whale, the largest animal known to have ever existed. But far below the penetration of sunlight a very different and only recently discovered food web relies solely on the chemosynthetic ability of bacteria. x
  • 6
    Phytoplankton and Other Autotrophs
    When we think of healthy marine ecosystems, we should be thinking about phytoplankton. In many ways, we owe our existence to these diatoms, dinoflagellates, green algae, cyanobacteria, and others. Not only do scientists believe they are the ancestors of terrestrial plants, but phytoplankton continues to produce about half of all the oxygen available in our atmosphere today. x
  • 7
    Invertebrate Life in the Ocean
    The vast majority of animals on our planet are the gloriously diverse invertebrates. From microscopic organisms to the crab with a three-meter leg span, marine invertebrates exhibit enormous variety in form and function. They include sessile and mobile organisms, free-living and parasitic. They live at the surface and within the ocean floor sediments, protected by hydrostatic endo- and exoskeletons. x
  • 8
    An Overview of Marine Vertebrates
    Only certain classes of vertebrates have a marine presence, while others are strictly terrestrial. Mammals are certainly represented in ocean life, but which species should be identified as “marine” when considering ocean productivity? The extremely complex marine food webs maintain long-term stability, even as they undergo natural perturbations over time. But when Homo sapiens enters as an apex predator, productivity can deteriorate, and systems can even collapse. x
  • 9
    Fish: The First Vertebrates
    Through 550 million years of evolution, fish have developed a wide variety of adaptations to the unique demands of living in a watery and mostly dark world. Learn how gills, swim bladders, bioluminescence, chemosensory glands, echolocation, and electrolocation have allowed fish to succeed in almost every type of ocean environment. Which fish are our ancestors? You might be surprised. x
  • 10
    Marine Megavertebrates and Their Fisheries
    While humans have been fishing for hundreds of centuries, we have only recently had a significant impact on marine food webs. Industrialization has led to problems with by-catch and overexploitation of resources. Today—since the megavertebrates we love to eat are often the apex predators of their natural food webs—we are creating trophic cascades with long-term impacts we do not yet understand. x
  • 11
    Sharks and Rays
    Are you afraid of sharks? Fish certainly have good reason to fear these top-of-their-game predators with their multiple rows of teeth, extraordinary sensitivity to smell, taste, and vibration, and ability to detect electrical current better than any other animal. But while four species have been known to assault humans with no provocation, almost 99 percent of the many hundred shark species would rather swim away from us than attack. x
  • 12
    Marine Reptiles and Birds
    While the reptilian evolution of the amniotic egg allowed animals to move completely from the sea onto land, some reptiles retained strong marine ties. These include sea turtles and sea birds whose wide variety of adaptations allow for drinking saltwater, remaining underwater for long periods, and flying great distances using very little energy. But wait . . . did we just classify sea birds as reptiles? x
  • 13
    The Evolutionary History of Whales
    Marine mammals did not evolve from marine species. Rather, they evolved from land mammals who found a plethora of “suddenly” open ecological niches when the dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago. Today’s marine mammals might resemble each other because convergent evolution has led to similar adaptation. But best as scientists can tell, they have five separate lineages and no single common ancestor. x
  • 14
    The Taxonomy of Marine Mammals
    Through tens of millions of years, evolution has resulted in a fascinating array of marine mammal adaptations. With the ability to process thousands of gallons of water each day or dive to a depth of almost three kilometers, and with numerous methods of locomotion or extraordinary social behaviors, these whales, porpoises, phocids, and more can thrive in varied environments around the globe. x
  • 15
    How Animals Adapt to Ocean Temperatures
    If you’ve ever jumped into frigid water, you quickly realize humans are definitely not adapted to life in the sea. What are we missing? In a word, it’s blubber—the thick layer of fat just beneath the skin of almost every marine mammal. In fact, blubber is such a successful insulator that marine mammals have evolved internal and external means for getting rid of all that heat, possibly even including planetary migrations. x
  • 16
    Mammalian Swimming and Buoyancy
    For all practical purposes, terrestrial mammals live on a plane. Marine mammals, on the other hand, navigate a more viscous, three-dimensional environment with all its opportunities and challenges. We understand their propulsion mechanisms fairly well. But how do they control their buoyancy to position themselves in the water column? We don't yet have the answers. x
  • 17
    Adaptations for Diving Deep in the Ocean
    Not surprisingly, deep-diving marine mammals have evolved a physiology very different than our own. Adaptations including those related to blood chemistry, the location of stored oxygen, a variable heart rate, and articulated rib cages support the ability to go deep and stay long. But what about rising back up to the surface? How do they avoid getting “the bends”—or do they? x
  • 18
    The Importance of Sound to Ocean Life
    Sound travels much better in water than in air. In fact, low-frequency waves, such as those produced by certain whales, can travel through water uninterrupted for hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, allowing the animals to be “in touch” with their group over vast distances. Other marine mammals produce and hear sounds at high frequencies perfect for echolocation. But what happens when human-generated sound gets in the way? x
  • 19
    Food and Foraging among Marine Mammals
    Trophic patterns are complex cycling webs, often difficult to completely decipher. But two things are clear: Almost all marine food webs are based on microscopic photosynthesizers, and only a small fraction of the energy available at any trophic level becomes available to the next level. Adaptations such as baleen, ventral pleats, and unique tooth morphology allows these large animals to meet their energy needs. x
  • 20
    Marine Mammal Interactions with Fisheries
    With plastic and nylon lines and nets becoming common in the last century, by-catch became an even greater problem for the marine mammals. When the media picked up the story in the mid-1960s, the public became engaged, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972. But whale entanglement remains a problem, and some argue that even whaling was far less cruel. x
  • 21
    Breeding and Reproduction in a Large Ocean
    Semi-aquatic marine mammals exhibit behaviors quite different than those who live fully in the water. In the former, an entire female community in one geographic area can come into estrus simultaneously and needs relatively few males—the strongest and “sneakiest”—to reproduce. In the latter, reproduction appears to be one of the driving forces of whale songs that can be heard over thousands of kilometers. x
  • 22
    Behavior and Sociality in Marine Mammals
    From individual whales that corral their confused prey to highly coordinated bubble-net feeding and aunts who “babysit,” marine mammals have developed an extraordinary variety of social and hunting behaviors—each with its own “cost/benefit analysis” developed over millions of years. If the energy expenditure does not support the goal of passing on genetic material, natural selection will eventually drop the adaptation. x
  • 23
    Marine Mammal Distribution around the Globe
    With sixty million years of evolution on their side, marine mammals have adapted to the widest possible variety of marine ecological niches. Some live only in rivers or lakes, others only in waters over the continental shelves, and some in the open ocean. A few—like the Weddell seal with exceptional blubber, diving skills, oxygen capacity, and ice-sawing teeth—are even adapted to live at the poles. x
  • 24
    Intelligence in Marine Mammals
    Within their own species, marine mammals have developed sophisticated communication. In captivity, we know they can be trained to learn rules, which indicates higher cognitive function. And even in the wild, we have documented some extraordinary instances of learning and cultural transmission of information. But is their intelligence comparable to our own? Maybe the question itself is meaningless. x
  • 25
    The Charismatic Megavertebrates
    Are marine mammals to be exploited as a resource? Or are they intelligent creatures to be revered with an almost religious admiration? Your answer might depend to some extent on your country and culture of origin—and the truth is probably somewhere in between. Our relationship with these impressive animals continues to evolve as we increase our understanding of their biology, cognition, and sociality. x
  • 26
    The Great Whale Hunt
    Over and over, humans have behaved as if a given resource were inexhaustible. That was certainly the case with worldwide industrial whaling of the early 20th century when six species of whales were hunted to dangerously low numbers. In the near future, as their populations continue to recover, some countries are expected to promote a resumption of the commercial whale hunt. x
  • 27
    The Evolution of Whale Research
    Although the irony is unmistakable, our understanding of marine mammals increased tremendously by having access to carcasses during the years of industrial whaling. Today, we focus on species protection while learning as much as we can via SCUBA, SONAR, tagging, biopsy darts, photo-identification, studying animals in captivity, and examining stranded individuals when available. x
  • 28
    Marine Mammal Strandings
    Most of us seem to have a natural instinct to want to help a stranded marine mammal, but it requires very specific skills to render aid without causing further stress and harm. Even with the best intentions and professional assistance, not all animals can be saved. What can we learn from these strandings—no matter how they end—and where are they most likely to occur? x
  • 29
    The Urban Ocean: Human Impact on Marine Life
    Our high-tech use of the ocean for food, transportation, and energy has far-reaching effects, particularly on certain species. Focusing on issues from noise pollution to microplastics, we can mitigate our impact to provide better futures for ourselves as well as for marine life. The work begins with understanding the extent of our true impacts. x
  • 30
    Our Role in the Ocean's Future
    Although there was a time when we treated the oceans as if they were too vast to feel our impact, we now know the truth: we have contributed to global climate change, ocean acidification, and overfishing. The results are potentially catastrophic—both to marine life and to our own health. But there is a bit of light at the end of this tunnel, and it depends in part on our own daily actions. x

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Your professor

Sean K. Todd

About Your Professor

Sean K. Todd, Ph.D.
College of the Atlantic
Sean K. Todd holds the Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Sciences at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Professor Todd received a Joint Honours undergraduate degree in Marine Biology and Oceanography from Bangor University in the United Kingdom and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Biopsychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. He joined the College...
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Life in the World's Oceans is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 38.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Spellbinding Coverage of All Ocean-Related Matters This Great Course is one of the best courses of many that I have viewed. Dr. Todd demonstrated the most command of the exhaustive subject matter he presents than any professor I have studied under in person or viewed on a Great Course. He shows a proficiency in knowledge of sea life and oceanography at least equivalent to a brain surgeon's knowledge of human anatomy and the intricacies of the mapping of the human brain. In viewing individual lectures on DVD I often marveled at how much information and terminology one has to assimilate and understand to be a true expert in this multi-faceted, fascinating field of study. And besides book knowledge, Dr. Todd has hands-on experience as a frequent participant and guide on Antarctic expeditions, and in directing responses to marine mammal strandings, especially those involving dolphins and whales. The course itself is very interesting; the professor thoroughly organized; and the visuals colorful and sometimes breathtaking in beauty, besides being well integrated into the body of applicable lectures. Dr. Todd also shares his passion about preserving the oceans and its many inhabitants for future generations, and is persuasive in strongly advocating that all humans should advocate and take positive action to clean up our ocean environs and protect their ecosystems, besides seriously addressing the harm caused by climate change before it becomes irreparable.
Date published: 2020-11-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Whereas most Courses are determinedly focused on one discipline, this course crosses many disciplines, which I will not attempt to delineate. The result is a superbly comprehensive multi-disciplinary course which I rate among the highest of my many Great Courses courses.
Date published: 2020-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating, but Unbalanced Towards Mammals This was an outstanding course in every way, with the one significant exception that close to three fifths of the course is devoted to marine mammals, the specialty of our professor, with a predominant focus on whales. Like some other reviewers, I would have preferred far more information on non-mammalian ocean life, otherwise known as fish (as well as more on plants and other ocean animals). But if you approach the course with an appreciation for its mammalian focus, you will find it deeply rewarding. For those, like me, who know little of ocean life, all of the material is truly fascinating. Before we begin our study of marine mammals, we are provided a broad, though brief, overview ranging from the big picture of ocean currents, geology, ecology, and relationships between species to important lessons in aspects of the biology and evolution of individual organisms. And the visuals are wonderful - they are as numerous as could be wished, and often wonderful to behold. Professor Todd is excellent. He is organized and focused, and speaks clearly and with emphasis; I had no difficulty maintaining my attention. When he does speak about non-mammalian topics, in the first twelve lectures, he is just as knowledgeable and engrossing as when he hits his stride on whales and other mammals later on. And I was deeply affected by his profound concern with the mostly negative human effects on the marine environment and the urgent importance of our changing our approach to prevent even more irreplaceable losses. So - This course has my highest recommendation, as long as you are fine regarding the unbalanced emphasis of the subject matter. Enjoy!
Date published: 2020-09-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good course on the ocean Good info, lot of good video, shares experiences, very good science base. This is a great complement to the other GC's ocean course. Highly recommend getting the video course.
Date published: 2020-08-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Course So happy I bought this course. Very informative & Professor Sean Todd does an excellent job of explaining all aspects of Life in the Ocean. He makes me want to move to Maine & be one of his students.
Date published: 2020-05-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Life in the world's Oceans All of the five Great courses I have recently purchased have been excellent. I would highly recommend your courses to any of my friends. Especially students who need to brush up or like myself someone who still has an interest in learning more about particular topics or hobbies.
Date published: 2020-03-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unexpected delight I was absolutely delighted to discover Professor Sean Todd's course “Life in the Oceans”. I knew very little about sea life; however, my granddaughter is majoring in marine biology at College of the Atlantic where Todd teaches. My background is in Liberal Arts and Psychology. Professor Todd is a Biopsychologist; therefore, his approach emphasizes the behavior of the animals. I found this approach intriguing. I had an opportunity to meet Sean Todd when I was in Bar Harbor recently and he is even more interesting in person. I highly recommend this wonderful course.
Date published: 2020-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Nurturing Waters of Our Planet “Life in the World’s Oceans” is an important course with many memorable strengths. Highlights for me were: 1) extensive content, beyond even what might have been expected from the course title, including insights into biological taxonomy, evolutionary history, conservation, physical oceanography, geology, the science of wind and water currents, international policy issues, ethics, general problem solving, and appreciation of Nature. 2) Dr. Sean K. Todd’s in-depth explanations and evident passion for his subject. 3) the professor’s ability to discuss disturbing information in a matter-of-fact manner, without melodrama. 4) comparison and contrast of top-down and bottom-up approaches to resource management. 5) stories of amazing individual humans and animals. 6) a closing lecture on “Our Role in the Ocean’s Future” that inspired mindful planning re: my own behaviours as a consumer, citizen, and voter. Trappings accompanying these thirty lectures were just a bit disappointing. For one thing, if ever a course ought to have included a glossary in the guide book, but did not, this was the course! Also, the busy, busy studio background, crowded with a bubbling flask, views of large creatures apparently swimming in tanks, and lots of unidentified equipment amounted to an unwelcome distraction. Lectures usually began with the professor turning aside from unexplained lab tasks to resume speaking to his students. That sort of contrived staging sometimes introduces programmes made for television, but is less welcome in one of The Great Courses, which are most worthwhile, in my opinion, when they appear to be made for the classroom. The plentiful audio and visual extras accompanying this course were fine, for the most part, though some were too often repeated and, on occasion, may not have correctly illustrated what was being described at the time. Dr. Todd impresses me as an extremely knowledgeable scholar and as a person of great integrity. His lectures were so organized, logical, informative, warm and engaging that I have rated his presentation as Excellent despite still feeling an obligation to prospective purchasers of the course to mention verbal concerns that might be important for some students. I found the professor’s English accent/pronunciations occasionally hard to decipher. It was a good thing that this set of DVDs came with a closed captioning feature. Some date references were confusing, as when “this century” seemed mistakenly to mean “the 20th,” or when “the turn of” a particular century implied its beginning but “the turn of the first millennium” implied its ending. Some acronyms and esoteric terms were defined only belatedly, or not at all. Still, in a university setting, I would gladly seek out this professor again.
Date published: 2020-01-16
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