Readers’ wildlife photos

This may be the last dollop of photos for a while, depending on how much time I have on the road. But today we have a great series from Bruce Lyon, continuing his story of the Northern Harrier nest I posted about several weeks ago. Here are his pictures and notes; the photos are stunning, and be sure to read the text:

I have been following nesting Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus) north of Santa Cruz in California. This batch of photos is a follow up to photos and descriptions Jerry posted on June 7.

The male provided much of the family food, particularly during incubation and the early chick stage. Male harriers almost never go to the nest but transfer prey items to the female in the air. The next two photos show a prey transfer. The female (brown bird) chased the male (gray bird), who has a mouse (you can see it under his fanned tail). In prey transfers, the male drops the prey item when the female is close enough, and she then quickly snatches the prey item. In the particular transfer shown below, the male seemed to drop the mouse a bit early and the female had to go into a nose dive to get the mouse (second photo). It took me a lot of attempts to finally get a decent set of images of transfers because it is difficult to predict where the transfer will occur and they are not always very close. The two photos of the prey transfer were taken with my Canon 500mm F4 lens and are heavily cropped.



Female returns to the nest with the mouse. I was able to watch the female calmly coming and going to the nest simply by throwing some camo netting over myself and camera. As far as both the male and female were concerned, I disappeared once the camo netting was over me:


Female coming in to the nest with a lizard (a Western Fence Lizard [Sceloporus occentalis] I believe):


The harriers often had what I interpret as a ritualized copulation interaction. Often when the male returned to the nest area and the female was not on the nest but perched on a bush, he would land on her back for a second, crouch down and then take off. I saw this happen about a dozen times and watched carefully and never saw anything resembling a real copulation. I have no idea whether this serves any function, but in the old days this behavior have been interpreted in context of ‘maintaining the pairbond’. The next two photos show one of these pseudo-copulations:



The harrier nest had a fairly high rate of ‘brood reduction’ (chick death). Of the five chicks that hatched, only two survived. Often extreme brood reduction like this is associated with asynchronous hatching, where different eggs hatch on different days. David Lack, the influential English ornithologist, proposed that brood reduction is a mechanism that allows birds to adjust their family size to an unpredictable food supply (they have to choose the number of eggs to lay before they know precisely how much food will be available for the kids). He also suggested that asynchronous hatching provides the parents an efficient mechanism to trim the brood size to match food supply because the smaller, later-hatched chicks are the first to go if there is not enough food for all. The harriers seem to fit this pattern—two chicks hatched on the first day, two chicks hatched on the second day and the last chick hatched later (presumably the next day but I did not check the nest for a couple of days). Since the chicks were not tagged I don’t know which chicks perished but there was a very clear size hierarchy early on and I am pretty sure that the two survivors were the chicks that hatched on the first day. It is well known that female harriers, who do the actual chick feeding at the nest, do not preferentially feed the smallest chicks—the largest chicks would have a competitive advantage in grabbing food due to their larger size. Here is the first day of hatching:


When I next, checked the nest a week after hatch there were four chicks left. The chick on the right had recently swallowed a large mouse intact and the tip of the mouse’s tail is sticking out the chick’s beak:


When I next checked the nest, three weeks after the first eggs hatched, there were only two chicks left:


One month after hatch the chicks were developing the gorgeous rufous coloration of juvenile harriers:


Almost 50 days after hatching the two survivors are full grown and could fly very well:


After the chicks fledged I made a discovery that could explain the extreme brood reduction, and it also provides a an example of an idea I have been thinking about for awhile. I observed the male fly by the nesting area with a mouse. The female flew up to him and I expected a prey transfer, but it did not happen. Instead, the male kept flying. The photo below, of the male with a pocket gopher, illustrates what I saw but is not the actual event. Roughly a mile further south a second female flew up and got the prey item from the male—he had a second family!  I eventually found the second nest and it contained four large chicks ready to fledge. This nest was about three weeks behind the first one but since it had double the family size I suspect the male was bring most of his prey items to this nest.
Polygyny, where one male has several mates, is fairly common in harriers and individual males can have ‘harems’ of 2 to 5 females. Back to the issue of brood reduction, I now wonder if the first female laid a clutch size that would have been ideal had her mate invested only in her nest. David Lack proposed brood reduction to deal with ecological uncertainty but I have been wondering for some time whether social uncertainty—specifically whether feeding by the male is predictably or not—might play a role in some species. Then the harriers provided a possible example. Natural history at its best!
A couple of last photos—the female landing on a bush, backlit, from two different angles:


Happy“, written and performed by Pharrell Williams, was a huge hit all over the world, reaching #1 in many lands, including the US and the UK. (The YouTube video has over 681 million views!) Yet for some reason I completely missed it, probably because, as a curmudgeon, I no longer listen to music radio. I found the song last night and was amazed at how good it was. Although it’s considered “black music,” it’s neither rap nor soul, but it’s much closer to Motown (e.g., “My Girl”) than to rap.

Williams also co-wrote the infamous but wildly successful “Blurred Lines“, and was sued for plagiarizing Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” (note the resemblance). Nevertheless, he seems to be an enormous talent: on “Happy” he not only wrote the song and sang it, but also played keyboard, drums, and bass. And the music video is really nice, with a whole array of boogying people.

Williams’s falsetto, demonstrated in the chorus at 0:49, 1:37, 2:25, 2:49, 3:25, and 3:49, reminds me a lot of Smokey Robinson when he was with the Miracles. Anyway, this is a good start to the weekend:

Friday: Hili dialogue (and lagniappe)

And so we’ve reached the end of another week. Tomorrow I leave for the Big Road Trip, and posting will be light for six weeks or so.. The co-writers on this site will try to pick up some slack, we will still have Hili dialogues every day and perhaps some discussion threads, and of course there will be Caturday Felids. But bear with me until I return around August 8. Talk among yourselves, read H is for Hawk, and so on.  Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is thinking Deep Thoughts.  She is also sitting very cutely.

Hili: It’s a good place to think, under this apple tree.
A: And what are you thinking about?
Hili: Whether that salmon paste is still in the fridge.

P1020984 In Polish:

Hili: Pod tą jabłonką dobrze się myśli.
Ja: A o czym myślisz?
Hili: Czy w lodówce jest jeszcze ta pasta z łososiem?

As lagniappe, we have a VERY RARE photo: Andrzej put on a suit yesterday morning, apparel he hates to wear. He does this only once a year to go to the local school and award prizes to the children for achievement. At my request, Malgorzata snapped a photo of him in the suit, holding the Furry Princess of Poland. This could easily be a Hili Dialogue, so I urge readers to supply their own dialogue.  And be sure to tell Andrzej how spiffy he looks!



Your Thursday felid

Don’t expect much substantive today, except for tomorrow’s post on fish speciation. Now we’ll have a felid! Reader Matt sent me this lovely cat gif, and the laws of physics determined that I post it:


Good catch!

Here’s a pretty amazing catch by Josh Donaldson, the third baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays. At the time, Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada was working on a perfect game against Tampa (a game in which none of your opponents even reach first base), and Donaldson, dove into the stands to catch a foul ball, which put the batter out.

As the announcer said, “You know, if a guy is doing what he is doing on the mound, you gotta give up your body—and that’s exactly what Donaldson did: he’s determined on making this catch.”

See this video for another superb catch by Donaldson. This is a man with moxie.

Sadly, the next batter hit a slow roller to third base and beat the throw to first, ruining Estrada’s perfect game. But the Blue Jays still won in the 12th with a home run (Estrada had already been pulled from the mound).

Business Insider: Atheists are doing it wrong

Dear Lord, why do philosophers, who are supposed to be in the business of thinking analytically, rationally, and deeply, write such stupid stuff about atheism? The latest set of dumb lucubrations on the topic was published, in of all places, Business Insider, which becomes even weirder when you see the arguments about the impotence of atheism when dealing with the byproducts of capitalism. The piece at issue is “Atheism must be about more than not believing in God“, which was written by Patrick O’Connor, a lecturer in philosophy at Nottingham Trent University.

Here are O’Connor’s two main points:

1. Atheism is grounded in humanism, and humanism is impotent before many of the world’s most important problems. O’Connor:

Yet atheists – rather than flippantly dismissing the insights of theologians – should take them seriously indeed. Humans, by dint of being human, are confronted with baffling questions about meaning, belonging, direction, our connection to other humans and the fate of our species as a whole.

The human impulse is to seek answers, and to date, atheism has been unsatisfactory in its response.

Why is that? Because for some unspecified reason, naturalism and reason itself can’t deal with the world’s problems:

Atheist values are typically defined as humanistic. If we look to the values of the British Humanist Association, we see that it promotes naturalism, rational debate, and the pre-eminence of evidence, cooperation, progress and individual dignity. These are noble aspirations, but they are ultimately brittle when tackling the visceral and existential problems confronting humanity in this period of history.

When one considers the destruction that advanced capitalism visits on communities – from environmental catastrophes to war and genocide – then the atheist is the last person one thinks of calling for solace, or for a meaningful ethical and political alternative.

In the brutal economic reality of a neo-liberal, market-oriented world, these concerns are rarely given due consideration when debating the questions surrounding the existence or non-existence of god. The persistent and unthinking atheist habit is to ground all that is important on individual freedom, individual assertions of non-belief and vacant appeals to scientific evidence. But these appeals remain weak when confronting financial crises, gender inequality, diminished public health and services, food banks, and economic deprivation.

Seriously? Who can deal with issues like starvation, global warming, and population control better than scientists? And in Western countries, scientists are likely to be atheists. To suggest that we turn to theologians for answers about the disasters inflicted by capitalism is one of the dumbest claims I’ve ever seen. What do the goddies have to offer? Have Catholics helped us with population control? No, for they’ve helped create overpopulation. A lot of global-warming denialism, too, springs from religion.

O’Connor’s Big Problem, above and throughout his piece, is his total and abysmal failure to explain how theism, that is, the acceptance of deities who interact with the world, provides better answers and responses. In fact, some of the best responses to questions about how to deal with the inequities of capitalism come from philosopher like Peter Singer—a staunch atheist.

O’Connor again repeats his claim, but adds no evidence:

The writings of atheist poster boys Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett do not offer solace to the existential and political realities of our world. In some cases, they can make them worse. Calls for reason and scientific inquiry do not offer any coherent sense of solidarity to those who suffer. The humanist might argue the world would be a far more progressive place if scientific values guided our governments. But the reality is that humanism, together with its ethical correlate of individual dignity, remains ineffectual when it comes to offering a galvanising purpose, or inspiring a meaningful sense of belonging.

It’s not clear how atheist writings (and much of the work cited above doesn’t even attempt to offer solace, but rather to point out the evils inflicted on humanity by religion) make things worse. Presumably O’Connor is referring to Marx’s dictum that religion is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” But turning to a nonexistent God, while it may provide some solace or community, has done precious little to solve the world’s problems, particularly those inflicted by industrialization, capitalization, and overpopulation. For many, religion simply eliminates the drive to solve your problems because you’ll be fine in the hereafter. For real solutions to material problems we must turn to science. Purpose itself (and it’s not clear that religion has provided more altruistic “purpose” than nonbelief), won’t solve problems.

And seriously, are the largely atheistic nations of northern Europe and Scandinavia befeft of meaning, purpose, and a “sense of belonging”? I don’t think so. In fact, those countries have solved social problems much more successfully than have religious countries like the U.S. or Iran.

Then O’Connor argues, contra what he said above, that our most pressing concerns aren’t material but philosophical:

The most pressing concerns facing humans are philosophical, and sometimes even metaphysical. Humans have genuine fears that life is excessively cheap, a sense that the collective good is waning, that political action is equivalent to apathy and cynicism, and that any solution to any political problem is the ubiquitous idea of the entrepreneurial human.

I don’t think the poor, starving, and oppressive people of the world are that worried about philosophy. They’re worried about filling their bellies and having decent health care.  As for “metaphysical concerns”, O’Connor doesn’t specify any that haven’t been discussed by secular philosophers.

The one point on which O’Connor and I agree, is this: if you’re an anti-theist atheist (and not all of us are), and want to actively promote the demise of religion, that requires us to embrace the kind of liberal social reforms that remove the inequities and suffering that undergirld religiosity:

. . . atheism, if it is to be relevant, must shed its humanism. The future vitality and relevance of atheism depends on its ability to broaden its focus away from on the validity of god’s existence and narrow concerns over individual freedom. Instead, it must turn to address questions about economic causality, belonging and alienation, poverty, collective action, geo-politics, the social causes of environmental problems, class and gender inequality, and human suffering.

Obviously, the best person to consult on the rapidity of climate change is the scientist. But these kind of appeals to science as a way of understanding the world around us must be supplemented by the core philosophical considerations of humans existing in the world, who grapple daily with the enormity of undeniable problems. Atheism needs to renew itself if it is to be considered relevant for the new century.

What O’Conner is talking about here is not atheism but antitheism. Atheism itself is simply the refusal to accept the existence of gods. Anti-theism implies a program of action: getting rid of religion. One can do that in two ways: by attacking religion itself and pointing out both its theological and evidential weaknesses as well as its tendency to do bad stuff, or by undermining the social conditions that promote religion. Regardless of which kind of atheist you are, though, atheism will remain relevant “for the new century” so long as people make unsupported statements based on faith.

Finally, O’Connor gets to his second Big Point. This one is familiar to us all.

2. Modern atheists aren’t as serious as the Good Old Atheists like Nietzsche and Camus, who realized the nihilism and despair that atheism truly entails.  Dear Lord, how many times do we have to hear this? This is really a call for modern atheists, who of course have thought about the implications of their rejection of gods (yes, I am worm food when I die, and that’s all), to become more dolorous and miserable. But beyond that, O’Connor implies, wrongly, that New Atheists are less concerned with human welfare than were Old Atheists. I see no evidence that this is the case. The bolding in the bit below is mine:

But this is not to say that atheism must embrace an insipid, watered-down spiritualism. Instead, we can look to a different breed of atheism, found in the work of continental, anti-humanist philosophers. For example, we can turn to Nietzsche to understand the resentments generated by human suffering. Meanwhile, the Marxist tradition offers us the means to understand the material conditions of unsustainable capitalism. Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus allow us to comprehend our shared mortality, and the humour and tragedy of life in a godless universe.

There is a whole other philosophical vocabulary for atheism to explore. Both Nietzsche and Sartre observe a different atheism, one embedded in the context of genuine questions of cruelty, economic alienation, anxiety and mortality.

Atheism needs to be attentive to what it means to live with the consequences of violence, senselessness and suffering. The trouble with atheism in its more conventional guises is a nerdish fetishism for all things that work: what is accurate, the instrumental and the efficient. The trouble is, many aspects of our world are not working. Because of this, the atheist is in danger of being perceived as deluded and aloof from the violent mess of the real. Atheism, if it is to be vital, needs to reconnect itself with the more disturbing, darker aspects of the human condition.

Thank you, Dr. O’Connor, for telling us how we should believe and behave. But you’ve provided not a scintilla of evidence that atheists aren’t “attentive” to the world’s problems. In fact, scientists, who by and large are nonbelievers, are working hard at solving many of them. What has the church done lately about economic alienation and mortality? Has the church helped cure disease, or extend our lives? Hell no: what it does is tell us that we needn’t worry about mortality because, if we embrace Jebus or Allah, we’ll live forever.

The three paragraphs above are arrant nonsense. In fact, the bold parts seem incoherent and unintelligible. How else do we fix what is not working without “a fetish for things that work”?

O’Connor is a philosopher who has wasted his time on a mess of word pottage that is not only poorly written, but, when one can dimly discern a point, is wrong.  And people tell me that you can’t do good philosophy without a philosophy degree! O’Connor demonstrates the converse: even a philosophy degree—and a philosophy professorship—is no guarantor that you’ll produce good philosophy.

h/t: Ginger K

Cameroon lake cichlids probably did not speciate sympatrically: Part 1

I will break up my discussion of the paper below into two parts that will appear today and tomorrow. This is because I want to avoid a single long post that may put off readers. I give references to all the papers mentioned at the bottom of the post.

All evolutionists agree, and the data show, that nearly all new species form as descendants of what were populations of a single ancestral species. (Occasionally new species, especially in plants, form after hybridization of two pre-existing species.) One of the biggest controversies in my own field of speciation is this: can new species form in one area without any geographic isolation of populations (“sympatric speciation”), or is a period of partial or full geographic geographic isolation necessary (“parapatric” or “allopatric” speciation, respectively)? (I’ve simplified the meaning of these terms a bit.) While theory shows that geographic isolation facilitates the development of reproductive isolating barriers between populations (sexual isolation, hybrid sterility, and so on) that are the sine qua non of speciation for most biologists, some theory also suggests that geographic isolation is not necessary: under special conditions, new species can form in one area in situ.

The data, summarized in my book Speciation with Allen Orr (now a decade old), suggest that geographic isolation is usually necessary, but there are a few cases implying speciation without any geographic isolation. These are hard to demonstrate unequivocally, largely because closely related species that now live in the same area could have speciated in allopatry (different areas), and then come into secondary contact after the reproductive barriers evolved in isolation. Since it’s harder to form species sympatrically, to demonstrate this process one must rule out that ancestral populations were ever isolated geographically. Since that’s hard to do (speciation takes thousands to millions of years to complete), convincing cases are rare.

In Speciation (pp. 142-143), Allen and I laid out criteria for showing convincing cases of sympatric speciation. They include the presence of sister species (each other’s closest relatives) in the same area; the demonstration that these are indeed “good” species (i.e., they are distinct groups that never or rarely exchange genes); the demonstration that their status as each other’s closest relatives does not come from hybridization between more distantly-related species (this would homogenize their genomes and make them look closely related when they really aren’t); and the hardest bit: showing that these those sisters species descend from populations that were never geographically separated. That’s the biggest issue, because when you see two closely related species living in the same area, how can you convincingly show that their ancestors always lived in the same area?

Allen and I decided that one of the best situations for meeting these criteria occur on islands: either oceanic islands (islands like Lord Howe or St. Helena that were formed without life on them, usually as volcanoes that rose above the sea), or “habitat islands”: isolated patches of habitat that have existed for a long time. (Landlocked lakes are one example.) If you could show, for instance, that on one such island you find two or more sister species that do not occur elsewhere (i.e., are endemic to that island), then that would be pretty strong evidence that those species had formed sympatrically on the island, descending from a common ancestor that invaded the area long ago.

Trevor Price and I tested this theory by looking for endemic sister species of birds on oceanic islands.  In a paper published in Evolution in 2000, we found not a single such case on 46 isolated oceanic islands, implying that sympatric speciation was rare in birds. (If it didn’t occur on islands, it is unlikely to occur on continents.) Further work by Yael Kissel and Tim Barraclough in 2010 showed the same situation in several other groups, including lizards, mammals, and flowering plants. Sister species on islands were observed only when the islands were so large that geographic barriers were likely to have been present. This further implies that sympatric speciation is rare, at least in those groups studied.

In contrast, though, work by Papadopulos et al. on the flora of Lord Howe Island (a small oceanic island between Australia and New Zealand, with an area of about 15 square kilometers) shows the existence of sister species in about nine groups of plants, most notably two species of endemic palm trees that are wind pollinated. Since the sister species in these groups are found nowhere else, they likely formed on the island. This, too, seems a pretty good case of sympatric speciation.

But in vertebrates we have only a couple of cases—all involving fish—that point to sympatric speciation. These cases involve species living in small lakes that fill the craters of extinct volcanoes—”crater lakes”.  In 1994, Ulrich Schliewen and his colleagues described groups of closely related cichlid species, each group descending from a single common ancestor, that inhabited crater lakes in Cameroon. (Such cases have since been described in lakes in Nicaragua as well). Lake Barombi Mbo, only 2.3 km across, contains a group of 11 “monophyletic” cichlid species (descended from a single invader), while Lake Bermin, only 0.7 km across, has a monophyletic group of 9 cichlids. Here are the two lakes:


Lake Bermin


Lake Barombi Mbo

And here are the putatively monophyletic species flocks, shown in the paper of Martin et al. mentioned below. (There are only 10 species shown for Lake Barombi Mbo because the authors sampled only 10 of the 11 for genetic markers.)

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 7.43.51 AM

Because the lakes are no longer connected to rivers that could carry in fish (lake Bermin has an outflow but no inflow); because they are small and uniform (so that raising or lowering the lake levels would not create isolated pools that could facilitate allopatric speciation); and because each small lake harbors a group of species from one putative invading ancestral species, this situation fulfills all four criteria we proposed for sympatric speciation. When we wrote our book, Allen and I considered this perhaps the best case of sympatric speciation in nature.

But that’s now in question. A new paper in Evolution by Christopher H. Martin et al. (reference and link below) genetically examined the radiations in these lakes and finds that sympatric speciation isn’t that likely after all. Today I gave you the background; tomorrow I’ll show you the results.


Coyne, J. A. and H. A. Orr (2004). Speciation. Sunderland, MA, Sinauer Associates.

Coyne, J. A. and T. D. Price (2000). Little evidence for sympatric speciation in island birds. Evolution 54(6): 2166-2171.

Kisel, Y. and T. G. Barraclough (2009). Speciation has a spatial scale that depends on levels of gene flow. Amer. Natur. 175: 316-334.

Martin, C. H., et al. (2015). Complex histories of repeated gene flow in Cameroon crater lake cichlids cast doubt on one of the clearest examples of sympatric speciation. Evolution 69(6): 1406-1422.

Papadopulos, A. S., et al. (2011). Speciation with gene flow on Lord Howe IslandProc Natl Acad Sci U S A 108(32): 13188-13193.

Schliewen, U. K., et al. (1994). Sympatric speciation suggested by monophyly of crater lake cichlidsNature 368: 629-632.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

If you’ve been around here for a while, you’ll remember that reader Mark Sturtevant raises lepidopterans for a hobby. We get the benefit in the form of developmental information and lovely pictures. Here’s the latest batch, with his notes:

As you may recall I had raised a large batch of cecropia moths (Hyalophora cecropia) last summer. Earlier this month I was kept pretty busy with the adult moths that had eclosed [hatched] from cocoons that were hidden in our family refrigerator over the winter. Here are four photos.

One of the newly emerged moths. This has pretty much expanded its wings, but is too soft yet to fly around the house.

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A close up:

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Moth incest!

It is easy to mate cecropias, even if they are siblings. They do not care. Some other species do not do this so readily. I obtained about a hundred eggs from these matings, and I am now rearing a small number of larvae from them. The rest I had humanely put down by freezing them. I have released this species into the wild (it is native here, and I see larvae and cocoons on occasion), but I have opted to not do that for many years.

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Cecropias are the largest native moth in North America. Here are a male and a female.

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Finally, here are two pictures of soaring hawks that Stephen Barnard sent me on May 20. I’ve lost the notes: I believe they’re red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), but their tails don’t look very red to me. Readers?RT9A5279 RT9A5287



Thursday: Hili dialogue

Two more days until the Big Road Trip; I am mostly packed, though it was hard to decide what to bring along. In one week I’ll be in Aspen, barring my premature demise in a car crash. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is SOOOOOO tired:

Hili: I’m so very sleepy.
A: Would you like some coffee?
Hili: No, I’m going to take a nap.


In Polish:
Hili: Strasznie mi się spać chce.
Ja: Chcesz kawy?
Hili: Nie, prześpię się.

Rabbit of the day

My visitor Adam has departed, but not until I took him to Wrigley Field, where he went to see the Cubs last night (they beat the Dodgers 1-0). I didn’t catch the game, as I had to pack and stuff, but I did go to Wrigleyville with him, where we hoisted a brew and downed a superb bratwurst at the Goose Island Brewery. Adam ordered “chips” with his brats, not realizing that in America chips aren’t fries! (I wasn’t thinking.)


A low quality iPhone selfie, but LOOK AT THOSE BRATS!

And on my way home today to take Adam to the subway (bound for O’Hare), I saw a lucky rabbit munching greenery:


It was just a juvenile, and not very spooked, but it did eventually trot off. The photo below shows you where the phrase “high-tailing it” comes from!




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