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It Coulda Been a Contender: A Paleontologist Reviews Jurassic World

Jun. 23, 2015 by | Comments (35)


Ever since Jurassic World (watch trailer) came out two weeks ago (and is now the fastest movie ever to make a billion dollars), people have been asking me again and again what I thought of the movie as a vertebrate paleontologist, and someone who has written often about dinosaurs, and even done some research on them. My usual short answer is: “A big disappointment: it’s an OK monster movie, lousy science. And it could have been SO much better.” This has been the consensus opinion among nearly all the scientists and science bloggers (especially dinosaur paleontologists) who have commented on it, including John Long, Jim Kirkland and Thomas Holtz, Brian Switek, Kyle Hill, John Conway, Mark Loewen, Darren Naish, and many others.

Don’t get me wrong. I realize that it’s just another overblown summer blockbuster, a huge special-effects-driven monster movie that depends on thrills rather than thought or wit or complex characters or subtlety to win its audience. It’s clearly geared to the broadest possible audience (except little kids who might be traumatized by the gore and intensity), including many who don’t speak much English (as indicated by its huge overseas box office numbers). In that regard, it’s very similar to ridiculous monster movies like Godzilla and King Kong and Pacific Rim, or the abominably bad San Andreas which gets every bit of earthquake science completely wrong (earthquakes don’t last that long or do that much damage; California structures are built to withstand most quakes; fault lines don’t make huge chasms in the ground; the San Andreas is on land, so it won’t make a tsunami; and many other geological howlers too numerous to list). If it were only just another sci-fi fantasy movie, then I wouldn’t care one way or another.

But there’s a big difference between Jurassic World and other Hollywood blockbusters with bad science: the original Jurassic Park movie was so much more than just a monster movie. Thanks to Michael Crichton’s efforts to bring the science in the original novel up-to-date for that time (late 1980s), the original dinosaurs in the novel and the first movie reflected the latest research in dinosaurs. Instead of the sluggish, tail-dragging dumb lizards hanging out in swamps (as had been the image of dinosaurs for over a century), they were active, intelligent, with their tails held out behind them (not dragging on the ground, based on biomechanics and the lack of tail drag impressions in dinosaur trackways) and their bodies held horizontally and balanced over their hind legs in bipedal dinosaurs, not vertically and leaning on their tails like resting kangaroos. This picture of dinosaurs began to emerge in the late 1970s and 1980s, and Crichton’s book (and the first movie) made it canonical among anyone who was exposed to Jurassic Park. Now it’s almost impossible to imagine dinosaurs any other way, and older movies of dinosaurs as sluggish tail-dragging lizards (not to mention movies that used real lizards with prosthetic  horns and spikes) are comical to all of us.

This is not to say that the original movie got everything right. Actual Velociraptor was the size of a turkey. The “Velociraptor” of the movie is based on Deinonychus (whose discovery by John Ostrom in the 1960s led to the whole revolution in thinking about dinosaurs). Clearly the filmmakers opted for a name that was easier to spell and pronounce. “Raptors” could not hold their palms downward, but their palms only faced inward—in other words, they could grab a basketball, but they could not dribble it. The animal called Dilophosaurus in the movie did not have a frill and did not spit poison—the filmmakers deliberately made this up. Tyrannosaurus rex could not move as fast as a car, and probably could not even outrun a person, based on many different lines of biomechanical and anatomical evidence. T. rex almost certainly did not require motion to detect its prey, since it had excellent binocular vision and huge areas of the brain devoted to smell—it could sniff you out in total darkness. The idea of using frog DNA to fill in the gaps is ridiculous. If such science were possible, it should have been done with bird DNA, since birds are dinosaurs. The basic premise of recovering DNA from mosquitoes in amber is also completely impossible. Prehistoric DNA degrades extremely fast, so that even Ice Age mammals like freeze-dried mummified mammoths that lived only 10,000 years ago have almost no original DNA left. Mosquitoes in amber do not have any original tissues, since they have also degraded into just organic films by the time we find them. This list can go on and on. Finally, even the name is misleading. Almost all the dinosaurs in “Jurassic” Park are Cretaceous forms except for the brachiosaur and Dilophosaurus. When Crichton was asked about this, he confessed he didn’t realize that dinosaurs lived in different time periods—he just picked “Jurassic” because he liked the sound of it!

Despite all those problems, most paleontologists loved the original Jurassic Park because it got the big issues right: it showed intelligent, active dinosaurs running with tails sticking out, not dumb tail-dragging lizards. Then came the sequels, and (as in the case of most sequels) the franchise went downhill both in scientific accuracy, and also in originality. Both “JP2” and “JP3” were basically rehashes of the same basic plot line: dinosaurs on an island chasing and killing people until the surviving humans escape with their lives. Meanwhile, the science of dinosaur paleontology went through another revolution in the late 1990s after the first three movies were made or in production: we discovered that dinosaurs had feathers! Not only do feathers occur in birds, but they are present in all the predatory dinosaurs for sure, especially smaller-bodied dinosaurs like Velociraptor, as well as tyrannosaurs, based on the Chinese Yutyrannus. Now there are fossils that suggest that all dinosaurs (even the ornithischians, including duckbills and horned dinosaurs like Triceratops) had feathers as well—or at least some kind of downy covering, especially when they were young. Pterosaurs had feathers or some kind of downy body covering as well. This is even more revolutionary than the changes in dinosaur posture and physiology discovered in the 1970s. Feathers not only further reinforce the importance of birds being survivors of the raptor lineage, but it is also a good example of how evolution often uses features already present and co-opts them for another function. Feathers evolved early in the history of dinosaur evolution as a body covering for thermoregulation, and only later did one lineage turn them into structures for flight.

So when the early word on Jurassic World came out two years ago, paleontologists were horrified when Steven Spielberg and Colin Trevorrow decided not to update their science, but fell back on the old model of dinosaurs that is demonstrably wrong. Some of the interviews suggest that the filmmakers once again made a decision that scaly dinosaurs are scary, feathered ones are not. But what better way to refresh a stale franchise that to give the dinosaurs a new look? I would submit that brightly feathered, eagle-eyed dinosaurs could be very scary. Heck, if Alfred Hitchcock could make ordinary crows and seagulls terrifying in his classic The Birds, why couldn’t modern filmmakers do the same with CG dinosaurs? Once paleontologists saw the movie, the list of other scientific gaffes was even more annoying. It’s all about making choices, and in most cases, the filmmakers made scientifically bad choices, when they could have gotten it right and not lost any of the excitement or suspense. No mosasaur got as big as the one in the movie. They reached a maximum length of 14 m (45 feet), but as they got larger they just got heavier with denser bone; there no reason to think that they exceeded this size. (Mosasaurs would have had a forked tongue because they are marine monitor lizards, which the movie showed incorrectly as well). But again, the filmmakers were lazy (or didn’t get good paleontological advice): they could have shown a huge plesiosaur like Kronosaurus or some of the larger pliosaurs, which did reach sizes like that of the creature in the movie. (Another plot hole: how did a mosquito bite a marine animal?). No pterosaur could have picked up people, as shown in the movie, because their feet were not strong enough to do so. I could list many more gaffes and scientific howlers, many of which the other paleontologists’ reviews (linked above) have already mentioned. In short, whenever the filmmakers had a chance to get the same effect with good science or bad science, they chose bad science, and either ignored (or were not told) what the good science was.

(I won’t even go into the issues with the women characters that other bloggers have noted. Suffice to say that Bryce Dallas Howard plays a throwback “weak defenseless woman who is bad for not wanting kids” character that is nowhere near as strong or modern as the ones played by Laura Dern or Julianne Moore in the first two movies. The character played by Tea Leoni in JP3 is just there to scream and be defenseless and stupid).

So what, you say? It’s just a movie! It’s making big money, which is all that movies are supposed to do. It’s not a documentary but a work of fiction. No one will care, and no damage will be done. But as an educator who has taught college geology and paleontology for 37 years, I know that is not true. Every lecture I give about earthquakes or volcanoes or tsunamis and waves must waste a lot of time debunking Hollywood myths. Every time I teach about dinosaurs, I spend a lot of time undoing the damage of previous Hollywood movies—and now the lazy bad science of Jurassic World means I’ll have a lot of new myths to debunk. Even though most movies are fictional, most people do get their perceptions about science and nature from movies, because they sure don’t get much in school and most don’t watch documentaries, either. After all, look at the myth of Chupacabra. As Ben Radford showed, it was largely due to a Puerto Rican woman who didn’t realize that the movie Species was fiction!

But I disagree in another more important way. Great movies also teach us something, enlighten us, or make us see the world in a different way. If Jurassic World were just another movie from a no-name director who makes cheesy monster flicks (like Sharknado), no one would take it seriously. But thanks to the first novel and movie, the Jurassic Park franchise set the bar a lot higher, and was an important factor in driving the acceptance of the modern view of dinosaurs in the 1990s. They had the chance to do that again. Feathered dinosaurs and pterosaurs would have really surprised and challenged the audience, and maybe refreshed the tired old plot line with a new angle. We know that Spielberg can make historically accurate movies when he wants to—look at Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. That’s why I and so many other paleontologists came out of the movie with a profound sense of disappointment. The filmmakers had the opportunity to be revolutionary and groundbreaking once again—but they chose to be safe and conservative and gave us a tired retread of a tired franchise. To paraphrase Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (a great movie that opened people’s eyes), it “coulda been a contender.”

Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

35 responses to “It Coulda Been a Contender: A Paleontologist Reviews Jurassic World

  1. joyce says:

    I would like to say i love jurassic movies, but i think you missed the mark on the newest one….but i just guess i was expecting it to be better then the others…. in my mind it was not… i wished i had waited to see it when it came on TV because it was a waste of my hard earned money

  2. Andrew says:

    First of all, if moviegoers can’t separate fact from fiction, and some of them are taking classes in paleontology, then just start every year out with the disclaimer that says, basically: “Forget everything you know, or think you know, about dinosaurs.” That way, you don’t have to field Hollywood-inspired questions all year.

    Second, yes, Spielberg and Co. could have updated the science, but here’s the problem–they already established the look of the dinosaurs with the first 3 movies. If they suddenly came back with this one and redesigned everything to preserve the science updates, no one would have known what they were looking at, which means they would have had to spend valuable time explaining to the audience why the dinos they were used to seeing were suddenly and inexplicably different, like how dinos that spawned from the original park suddenly grew feathers, grew in size, shrunk, slowed down, etc. And they would have lost a good portion of their audience by doing so…and since they’re in the business of making money, not teaching paleontology, that would have been stupid on their part.

    Third, if the writer is so hung up on the science that he can’t enjoy a fictional movie, then I have two suggestions for him–either start watching only documentaries and science shows on TV…or pull out his wallet and make his own movie. Then he can spend all of his time “getting it right” to his heart’s content.

  3. benji townsend says:

    I thought of a idea for the next Jurassic park movie. you should shut down Jurassic park then you know the sea monster that ate the
    endominus rex it should escaped and eat all the ships and people on it
    people will try to kill it put they will be killed them sleves.

    The monster that escaped will get killed by a monster that was invented
    by the scientist that escaped Jurassic park four and they tamed it.

  4. Anthony R. says:

    It’s unfortunate that Hollywood had to be Hollywood and play it safe. It’s obvious that all some cynical Hollywood executive wanted was a thoughtless retread of the original that wouldn’t challenge the audience (and distract them from all the CGI of course).

    Unfortunately, the entire reason the original was so amazing is because most people thought of dinosaurs as the lumbering oafs of black and white monster movies. The stark contrast left a major impression that resonates to this day.

    If they had a little more faith in the audience, the timing was perfect to show that another huge change in our knowledge about dinosaurs, and make a lasting impact all over again. Heck, they could have even dispelled the myth that CGI feathers are impossible to animate.

    What is MOST unfortunate though, is thinking of the ways that accurate science could have made the movie better. Imagine how much cuter the dino petting zoo would be with them covered in down and soft feathers. How cool would it be if the Raptor squad had feathers, I can’t help but imagine a hunting scene of them coordinating their attack by silently puffing a bit of head plumage at one another to communicate before attacking.

  5. Janice Muir says:

    Saw JW last night and found it mostly boring. Wish I could get my Scene points back.

  6. John Długosz says:

    I noticed that the “raptors” in JW were like that of the original JP, while the dinosaurs in the JP trilogy changed from movie to movie, adding (some) feathers and coloration. I think it’s a good (artistic) point to match the scary characters from the original movie with the “good” ones now.

    There was a voice-over in passing that was giving some techobabble excuse for how DNA was preserved. That’s good SF, addressing the known ways the fictional world differs from our own.

    I was distracted when the girl in high heels could outrun the T-Rex, which in the original movie could outrun a jeep at 35MPH. I guess this one is old, fat, and out of shape. And it’s not just dinos… there is NO WAY she could walk in high heels in the terrain she did, and probably could not even avoid damaging them.

    Having the pterisaurs able to carry off not only people but lift the petting zoo’s tiny triceratops (hundreds of pounds?) was just crazy. But so was the idea that they would immediately want to prey on humans. They would probably avoid unfamiliar prey, as normal predators do.

    I immediately doubted that their made-up monster could see in IR like a pit viper. Warm blooded animals would not be able to detect the IR from others with the same temperature. And how did it know to hide from the zookeeper’s IR?

    The original JP was a far better movie.

  7. Edie De Avila says:

    As a former editor of nationally known publications, I note that this piece by Dr. Prothero stands among the best persuasive writing I’ve read.
    His voice is confident, yet fair, friendly, and heartfelt, his points are well-placed and easy to follow, his language is clear.
    From an editor’s viewpoint, thank you, Dr. Prothero.

  8. randy says:

    Hi Guys Lets Watch Jurssic World Full Movie HD frre Streaming Online in ( ) Enjoy

  9. TheScream1999 says:

    I agree that some sort of feathers or dino-fuzz should have been present on some of the dinosaurs in the film, along with more color diversity, but there would be some inaccuracies that would simply be necessary to keep in order to make a plausible JP sequel, such as the raptor’s sapient intelligence and the T. Rex’s super-speed, to name two.

    Another thing, I think that changes such as feathers or dino-fuzz could have been explained by having the dinosaurs’ DNA be rewritten by nanobots. The reason for this would be new knowledge gained about the genomes of actual dinosaurs.

    Lastly, about the whole “you can’t recreate dinosaurs” thing. I think that in the future we’ll be able to rewrite the DNA of, say, an ostrich, or some other modern bird, in order to add the features of a particular dinosaur such as a Carnotaurus, Diplodocus, Compsognathus, Pachyrhinosaurus, Kentrosaurus, or what have you.

    Anyway, great article, Donald, and I hope you’ll be posting more on dinosaurs and prehistoric life in the future.

  10. Edward Greisch says:

    One good thing: They did not show dinosaurs being friends with humans as the creationists claim. Giving credit where credit is due, scaring the daylights out of people is a good thing with respect to young Earth creationism. The first dinosaurs did hunt most of the early synapsids to extinction. We are synapsids.
    An exhibit at the Creation Museum showing humans alongside dinosaurs
    Creation Museum, located in Petersburg, Kentucky, opened in 2007 and constructed at a cost of $27 million, includes exhibits of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden accompanied by dinosaurs.”

  11. Yelena B says:

    As a geneticist I just wanted to make a small correction that despite of the fact that ancient DNA does degrade and get contaminated, it is (and was) still possible to amplify some of it from ancient tissue such as hair and bones. In fact tremendous advances made in sequencing techniques (nest gen sequencing) allow significantly larger amounts to be determines. (for recent review: Shapiro, Hofreiter.A Paleogenomic Perspective on Evolution and Gene Function: New Insights from Ancient DNA. Science. Science vol. 343, no. 6169, 2014). And I also completely agree with Steve LaCasse – whenever you are an expert in the field that is being shown in the movies you realize how inaccurate their interpretation is. And I thought “Flight” crash sequence was believable. :):)

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I just heard Shapiro, an expert on extracting ancient DNA (“How to Clone a Mammoth”) give a talk at SKeptic Society. She confessed that nearly ALL the early DNA studies of Ice Age mammals and older fossils were just contaminants. They are just now getting the first reliable DNA sequences of mammoths and other Ice Age mammals, as well as Neanderthals and Denisovans and other early humans–and these DNA strands are very short and chopped up, so there is no possibility of reconstructing the entire DNA of an extinct animal. She was very clear that the rate of DNA degradation was so fast (even in ideal circumstances) that no DNA older than the Ice Ages could ever survive

  12. TomPlanetaryScientist says:

    Shannon, that’s a good idea. And it’s a great opportunity to introduce very young minds to an important concept that even many adults seem to miss: not everything you hear on TV or in movies is true! (Gasp!) Excellent review, Don, thank you.

  13. sittingbytheriver says:

    fascinating article. i love reading reviews and i love reading science . i am happy.

  14. Shannon Eckert says:

    Great article Dr. Prothero! I very much enjoyed your enlightening criticisms about Jurassic World. You have inspired me to put a lesson together for my second and third graders explaining to them the scientific problems in JW. Using Jurassic World will be a great way to get their attention on good science and reinforce the newer discoveries regarding dinosaur evolution. Thanks again!

    • Donald Prothero says:

      You’re welcome! But it’s pretty intense for 2nd or 3rd graders. It’s PG-13, so even my 4th and 6th grade sons can’t see it. ALthough some of the kids in our theater seemed a lot younger than 13….

      • Shannon Eckert says:

        You’re right it was intense, but you’d be surprised at how many parents will take their kids to see it this summer. I’m not showing them any of the movies, I’m just building on their interest as a way to talk about evolution and the fossil record.

  15. Janice Muir says:

    I work in a technical field with people who have post-secondary education. I’m often startled by how many of my colleagues accept movie scenes as fact. It’s kind of scary sometimes.

    My daughter and I intend to watch JW. We’re going primarily to watch people be stupid and get eaten and to mock the less than stellar science. We’ll be disappointed about the dearth of feathers.

  16. Bob Pease says:

    The most important goof has been ignored entirely or I missed it in the movie.

    Who could finance such a project which would cost many billions of bucks?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I expect it’s supposed to be the billionaire who is the boss of Jurassic World when the movie starts. But if you want to go into plot holes and problems with the story, the list could go ON and ON!

  17. Steve LaCasse says:

    I do understand where Dr. Prothero is coming from. As a commercial airline pilot I get the same feeling when i watch any movie with some flying scene or movie about flying. Take the movie “Flight” with Denzel Washington, it was probably the worst with regard to accuracy ever. There was not one scene that was accurate from what we say, do, aerodynamics, cockpit displays. The airplane he flew during the flight was different depending on the scene. My point is this, we do notice inaccuracies if we are subject experts and oblivious if we are not. If they can’t get flying right or paleontology or geology right what makes of think it is different on any other topic we are not subject experts on.

    • Sandra Marrujo says:

      It is difficult when you KNOW what is or is not correct. As a life-long equestrian (darn, that sounds pretentious), hunter, jumper, dressage, eventing and a little western riding, I’m alternately appalled and amused at how WRONG the movies get it with regard to something as well known and studied as the domestic horse. And they have technical advisors, as I am sure the Flight movie did, and yet…… Seabiscuit got it fairly right (with some historical liberties), but anything else from the Flicka remake on back….AAARRGHHHH!!!!

  18. craig gosling says:

    The purpose of the movie was to make money and entertain, not to educate. Too bad. It could have done all three.

  19. George Tzindaro says:

    So many people depend on monster movies for their scientific education that conservationists have a hard time selling them on the need to protect sharks, for example, or that wolves are not dangerous to humans. Trying to get protection for any endangered species is hard enough when only economic vested interests oppose it, but added to that problem is the usual public misconception that if some thriller movie has shown some animal as a menace, that animal should be exterminated for the public safety.

    When reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone was being proposed, a lot of effort had to go into trying to convince people living hundreds of miles from there that wolves were not going to hunt humans for their daily food. Today, with most of the more than 200 species of sharks down to less than 10% of their historic numbers, and some less than 2%, thanks to Jaws, there are still a lot of people who seem convinced they should all be wiped out regardless of their vital importance to oceanic ecology as top predators who keep the whole marine ecosystem from unraveling.

    This same ignorant attitude is found in demands to “save lives” from bad weather. People who want to try to prevent hurricanes, for example, fail to realize how important these strong tropical storm systems are to the distribution of tropical heat toward the poles and in many other ways. Disrupting them would be fatal mistake. But thanks in large part to Hollywood and the paperback thriller industry, there are calls to attempt just that.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Agreed. I thought it was particularly ironic and tone deaf that they offer a huge great white shark as bait for the mosasaur leap, when sharks all over the world are endangered thanks to overfishing for shark-fin soap and random killing because of movies like “Jaws”

  20. Malcolm Goodson says:

    I agree with Stephen. Although Bakker was postulating feathered raptors as early as the mid-eighties in a ‘popular science book’ (The dinosaur heresies, 1986), audience expectation is still locked visually into the image of dinosaurs which goes back to the early days of the movies and which JP1 did little to dispel. “Feathered dinosaurs and pterosaurs would have really surprised and challenged the audience” is most likely true but I am inclined to think that a goodly proportion of that audience would have come away thinking that it was a silly notion and had little place in a ‘monster’ movie, however ‘true-to-life’ it might have been. I doubt that the ‘creative team’ during preproduction were completely unaware of the idea of ‘feathered raptors’ and the decision to go with the tradtional ‘view’ was likely a conscious one. JW had but one intent; to make shedloads of money not unfortunately to educate Joe Public. Sad and a lost opportunity but that’s the movie business for you or at least the big budget Hollywood movie business.

    • David Sirrine says:

      There’s also the issue of animating all those feathers — the studio wanted to 1) not give all their profits to ILM, and 2) get the move into theaters before 2025. Feathers would have been cool though.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Actually, as the spate of recent movies with both fur and feathers show ( and my CG animator son confirms), doing feathers is easy now with the new software–not much different than scaly skins. Again, this was a conscious choice to ignore science and not changed what they had showed the audience 22 years ago

    • Donald Prothero says:

      There were indeed suggestions that some dinosaurs had feathers back in the 1980s, but not enough evidence that paleontologists would have insisted on it, so Crichton and Spielberg could ignore it. But in 1996, the discovery of the first feathered non-bird dinosaurs changed that story forever, and as more and more specimens emerged from all over the dinosaur family tree, it became impossible to ignore by 2000, when JP3 was in production. So they had at least 14 years to catch up with the science, but chose not to

  21. StephenMeansMe says:

    I don’t know if it makes things better, but in JW they make a point (several times IIRC) of saying that the “dinosaurs” in the park are pretty much nothing like actual dinosaurs, and that it’s all based on customer (read: audience) expectation. I think it was B. D. Wong’s character (Henry Wu, the head geneticist) who says it at least one of the times.

    That said, oh man it would have been so much freakier if the raptors and T. rex had feathers. I’ve seen some of the newer illustrations and yikes.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      That’s just a copout–it’s an admission they KNEW what dinosaurs should have looked like, but chose not to do so

      • Josh says:

        Clair was the hero of the movie. She kicked ass. You watched a different movie than I did apparently. As stated, they addressed the inaccuracy. The whole movie is a self aware commentary on the state of society. It’s not aMEANT to be scientifically accurate. The lack of it is pretty much the point, actually. Wu actually says that if they were real dinosaurs, they would look much different. “But you didn’t want real! You wanted bigger, louder… Cooler I believe is the word you used…”

        • Donald Prothero says:

          ANd you apparently didn’t read my post!
          Clair was nowhere near the ass-kicker that Laura Dern’s character or Julianne Moore’s character were–she has far too many moments as the “weak damsel in distress”
          ANd all those statements about them not being real dinosaurs are just cop-outs, showing that the filmmakers DID know what real feathered dinosaurs could look like but chose not to follow real science. IF you read my post carefully, my point was that the FIRST JP movie WAS quite scientifically accurate, and that benchmark COULD have been followed in this movie. Instead, they made a stupid monster movie that ignores science, just like the rest of Hollywood

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