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Animal Insight

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Like any other close relative at the family table, chimpanzees may throw vengeful fits, but they also lend a helping hand.

A recent spate of experiments out of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has revealed that chimpanzees exhibit some of the same traits—altruism and vengeance—displayed in human society. Spiteful motivations and sophisticated social learning skills, however, appear uniquely human.

The new studies give insight into how and when such traits evolved. Most importantly they help answer the age-old question: What makes us lucky bipeds human?

"The most important way to ask these really hard questions—is human altruism unique, is human spite unique, is human fairness unique—is to ask non-human animals," says Laurie Santos, director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale University. This behavioral process of elimination defines humans as it progresses.

Since chimpanzees can't speak our language, researchers design experimental scenarios to detect the presence or absence of such traits. Recently, Felix Warneken, a developmental and comparative psychologist at Max Planck, and his colleagues conducted a series of tests to see whether chimpanzees were helpful—or, as they put it, "spontaneously altruistic."

To do this they compared the behavior of children with that of chimpanzees, one of the two closest relatives to humans (the other being bonobos). If chimpanzees engaged in helpful behavior, it would suggest that the trait went as far back as a common ancestor to chimpanzees and humans, some five to seven million years ago.

"If any animal or human passes this task, we have to assume that this organism possesses certain skills," Warneken says. "We're not just trying to attribute something to them."

In the first test, an adult human stretched for a baton that was out of its grasp but within the reach of the chimpanzee, or an 18-month-old infant. If the test subject passed the baton to the adult, the researchers considered it an act of "spontaneous altruism." In the end, chimpanzees and human infants were equally helpful, the researchers report in the July PLoS Biology. When the scientists made it a bit harder for the subjects to help, by erecting some obstacles, the results remained the same.

Image by Josefine Kalbitz. A chimpanzee named Frodo prepares to display aggression. In a recent study, Max Planck psychologist Keith Jensen and colleagues found that chimps sometimes exact revenge. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Keith Jensen. The chimpanzee Patrick observes food on a table. Given the chance, apes retaliated against food thieves by collapsing the bandit's table, ruining the stolen meal, Jensen reported recently. Despite these shows of vengeance, chimps didn't display spite in other tests. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of MPI EVAN. Esther Herrmann of Max Planck found that two-year-old children and apes performed similarly on simple math and spatial tests, but that infants outperformed apes in tests of advanced social skills. (original image)

In the final experiment, chimpanzees were given the opportunity to help out one another—and sure enough, they obliged. More often than not, the chimpanzees opened a door that allowed a fellow chimp access to some food. The results represented a breakthrough, as previous lab experiments had found the opposite. 

"It looks like, in certain situations, chimps are very helpful and as helpful as young children," says Brian Hare, a Max Planck psychologist involved in the study. "So probably whatever makes us human in terms of our helping and cooperative behavior … it didn't spring out of nowhere during human evolution."

On the opposite end of the behavioral spectrum, Keith Jensen, also at Max Planck, recently found that chimps are likely to exact revenge as well. Given the chance, chimpanzees retaliated against thieves by collapsing the bandit's table, thereby ruining the stolen meal, Jensen reports in the Aug. 7 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The idea is vengeance acting as a deterrent. In other words, you steal from me, I punish you enough to make you think twice before taking my banana the next time.

This type of vengeance, even if it takes the ugly form of punishment, is healthy in that it discourages freeloaders. So even if vengeance is considered bad, it can often serve the greater good.

Spite, however, doesn't appear to have any such obvious perks, which might explain why chimpanzees didn't exhibit it in Jensen's experiments. When an adult person took food away from one chimpanzee and gave it to another, the first chimpanzee didn't collapse the second chimpanzee's table, the researchers found.

"I'm not very surprised that we don't see a lot of spiteful behavior in the chimps," says Joan Silk, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who was not affiliated with the study. "In some sense it's a little bit irrational, because you hurt yourself to hurt someone else more."

Still if the chimpanzees don't display spite, then why do humans? Spite, which Jensen describes as "altruism's evil twin," might help motivate behaviors related to a sense of fairness, he says. "In the absence of punishment, at least in studies that have been done on human adults, cooperation falls apart, because it only takes a few selfish individuals … to ruin everything for everybody," Jensen says. "But if you give people the opportunity to punish free riders, they stop cheating."

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Other differences between human and chimpanzee behavior have been teased apart by testing infants, chimpanzees and orangutans in identical conditions. Esther Herrmann of Max Planck recently found that apes and two-and-a-half-year-old children performed similarly on tasks that tested their understanding of the physical world, such as space and quantities.

For example, chimpanzees were better than infants at detecting added quantities of food or toys, a rudimentary math skill. Their spatial relationships were similarly developed; both extracted food and toys from difficult places.

However, the similarities in their cognitive skills broke down when it came to Herrmann's social learning tests, she reports in the Sept. 7 issue of Science. Herrmann says these social cognition skills, which people display more often than chimpanzees, are the same skills that give us the leg up to perpetuate our culture and society.

"Human children have much more sophisticated skills dealing with the social world like dealing with imitating another's solution to a problem, communicating non-verbally and reading the intentions [of] others," Herrmann says. "These skills enable them to participate in the cultural world, and by doing so children become members of this cultural world."

Still, such studies cannot replicate one major linchpin of our evolutionary story, even if they can guess at it. For traits to evolve, they must be inheritable, and for them to persist, they must bestow reproductive success or increased survival to the individual.

This is why finding altruism displayed by chimps is a bit puzzling. After all, how could sacrificing your own life for that of an unrelated individual (the most extreme form of altruism) be a trait that would survive through the ages? In Santos' opinion, figuring out whether the chimpanzee or human is getting any reproductive benefit from its actions is the harder question.

"It really involves measuring and comparing reproductive fitness," she says. "That's going to be one of the harder questions from an evolutionary point of view, about why these animals might have these abilities and why they might not."

Anne Casselman is a science writer based in Vancouver, Canada.

Animals Use Medicine, Too

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Baby Names for Animals

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A Third of Animal Mummies Contain no Animals at All

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It’s a scandal thousands of years in the making: Recently, scientists at the Manchester Museum and University of Manchester discovered that a third of the museum’s collection of Ancient Egyptian animal mummies were empty.

 "We always knew that not all animal mummies contained what we expected them to contain," Dr Lidija McKnight, an Egyptologist from the University of Manchester, tells Rebecca Morelle for BBC News, "but we found around a third don't contain any animal material at all — so no skeletal remains." That the number of fakeries was that high, McKnight says, was a surprise. 

Scientists discovered the ersatz mummies while conducting a scanning project to document how well the remains were preserved. After analyzing over 800 mummies of all shapes and sizes, the team was stunned to discover that only a third contained intact remains. Another third of the animal mummy collection was stuffed with partial remains and the last third had no animal parts whatsoever.

While the Ancient Egyptians mummified humans in order to preserve their bodies for the afterlife, animal mummies were religious offerings, similar to lighting a candle in a church. And researchers believe they were in high demand: over the years, Egyptian excavations have uncovered around 30 catacombs stacked floor-to-ceiling with mummified animals, Morelle writes.Which means that mummifying animals was probably big money in Ancient Egypt and was likely done on an industrial scale. Scientists believe the animals were likely bred en masse specifically to be turned into mummies.

Mummy makers would have had a hard time keeping up with demand, and turned to other materials to fill out their quotas. However, as Dr. McKnight tells Morelle, the Ancient Egyptians might not have been bothered by buying animal-free mummies:

We think they were mummifying pieces of animals that were lying around, or materials associated with the animals during their lifetime - so nest material or eggshells. They were special because they had been in close proximity with the animals - even though they weren't the animals themselves. So we don't think it's forgery or fakery. It's just that they were using everything they could find. And often the most beautifully wrapped mummies don't contain the animal remains themselves.

At the least, maybe it was the thought of Fluffy tagging along with you into the afterlife that counted.

What Animal Sounds Look Like

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The Top 10 Animal Superpowers

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Wild Animals Are Not Pets

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If People Flirted Like Animals

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Human courtship behavior can be pretty awful: lots of awkward eye glances, many purchased drinks, a bevy of corny pick-up lines. But between fending off “pick-up artists” and just generally fumbling our way through, we can all rest assured knowing that, if the rest of the natural world is considered, dating could be much, much worse. BBC's Earth Unplugged really brought that point home in the video above, which shows what flirting would be like if we did it like some of the world's more exuberant daters.

The film, shot in the vein of the viral How Animals Eat Their Food, may leave you wanting a little bit more, like visuals of the actual animal rituals portrayed. Fortunately, the Earth Unplugged team also offered this helpful explainer video, showing how the animals actually make these mating displays work. Except the porcupine one.

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Animal Traffickers Use Facebook to Boost Sales

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It’s the living room of the world, a place where friends can reunite, catch up on photos and plan events. But in Malaysia, the site is being used to illegally traffic animals—and is opening up new markets for the clandestine sale of wildlife, Matt McGrath reports for the BBC.

A new report from TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, shows just how widespread the issue is in Malaysia. The group spent half an hour each day monitoring 14 Facebook groups in Malaysia over a period of five months. They discovered the sale of over 300 wild animals during that time—80 species in all. Eighty-six percent of the “for sale” posts involved animals whose sale is forbidden under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  

Animals from otters to bearcats and sun bears could be found on these illicit Facebook groups, TRAFFIC reports, and 40 percent of the animals were birds. Most were closed groups, and the organization writes that they contained nearly 68,000 members during the monitoring period. The animals appear to have been sold as pets.

Now, writes McGrath, the organization is working with Facebook and Malaysian authorities to stop the illegal online trade. Forty-three seizures have already been carried out in Malaysia alone.

But Malaysia is just the tip of the illegal online animal trade iceberg. In 2014, the International Fund for Animal Welfare found over 33,000 illegal animals and animal parts on sale on 280 websites over the course of just six weeks. It’s hard to monitor these often shady, ephemeral marketplaces—but to preserve at-risk species, governments and the public will have to give it a go.

There’s another way to fight illegal animal trafficking on social media: awareness. Perhaps as more people realize that their social media “living room” is becoming a marketplace for endangered species, they’ll speak out on behalf of species at risk of being sold.

Is Animal Hoarding a Distinct Mental Disorder?

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For better or worse, hoarding has gotten a lot of attention in recent years due to the popularity of several TV shows, including “Hoarders” and “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” People suffering from the disorder collect objects, stuffing every available corner of their homes and cars with anything from clothes to old newspapers to bags of trash. The disorder can be serious, leading to unsafe living arrangements and social isolation. 

But the results are even more problematic for people who collect animals. A new study, published in the journal Psychiatry Researchexamines the motivations behind so-called animal hoarding, suggesting that the disorder is not actually as closely related to object hoarding as once thought, reports Michael Price at Science. Unlike previous approaches to the disorder, the latest study suggests that animal hoarding should be classified as an independent disorder with the hope of developing specialized treatments to help these people cope with the compulsion to collect critters.

Animal hoarders acquire and live with dozens or even hundreds of creatures in their homes, causing suffering for both the hoarder and animals. The people and their creatures often live in poor conditions; the animals often lack adequate food and medical treatment. And though this seems similar to object hoarding, the latest study addresses several differences that may influence treatments.

The study came from the work of Doctoral student Elisa Arrienti Ferreira at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, who was studying animal hoarding for her master's degree. At the time, it struck her how different object and animal hoarding seemed to be and she began to dig into the topic. 

Ferreira and her colleagues visited the homes of 33 animal hoarders, assessing their living situation and interviewing them about their disorder. Of this lot, the average hoarder had 41 animals. In total, the 33 hoarders had acquired 915 dogs, 382 cats and 50 ducks—one house alone contained roughly 170 dogs and some 20 to 30 cats, reports Charles Choi at Discover Magazine

As Price reports, the demographics of the animal hoarders were consistent with what researchers know about object hoarders. About three quarters were low income, 88 percent were not married and two-thirds were elderly. But there were differences. Object hoarders are pretty much evenly split between men and women, meanwhile roughly 73 percent of animal hoarders are women.

Their motivations also differ. “When you talk with object hoarders, they talk about hoarding objects because they might need them some day—say, they might read those magazines,” Ferreira tells Choi. “But with animal hoarders, you hear, ‘They need me, and I need them. They are important to me; I can’t imagine how my life would be if they didn’t exist. I am on a mission; I was born to do this.’” Many of the animal hoarders began collecting stray animals after a trauma, like the death of a loved one, Ferreira adds.

And while object hoarders are often conscious of their condition and want to help to change their lives, animal hoarders seem to think there’s not a problem, even if many of the animals in their care are suffering. Many of them shun attempts to help.  “They are really suspicious—they keep thinking you are there to steal the animals,” Ferreira says. “So it’s really complicated to approach them—you have to establish trust with them, and that takes time, and I think it will be very difficult.”

The consequences are also harder to deal with than object hoarding, notes Price. Unlike object hoarders, whose homes can be cleared out by a junk removal service, an animal hoarder may need to have pets euthanized, put under veterinary care or adopted. Then there's the remediation required to clean a home covered in animal urine and feces.

Ferreira and her team are not the first to suggest animal hoarding is its own unique disorder, but the latest work is changing how researchers think about the issue. “It does not appear to be a single, simple disorder,” Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of Forensic Sciences and Anti-Cruelty projects for the ASPCA tells Tait. “In the past it has been seen as an addictive behavior, and as a manifestation of OCD. We’re also now seeing it as an attachment disorder where people have an impaired ability to form relationships with other people and animals fill that void.”

Graham Thew, who studies hoarding at Oxford tells Price the new research is a good start, but there’s not enough to classify animal hoarding as its own disorder yet. “This paper makes some interesting behavioral observations, but I think we’d need more evidence of a distinct underlying psychological difficulty before we start to think about animal hoarding as a distinct difficulty.”

Whatever the cause, hoarding will be with us for a while in countries around the world. In Japan, out of control breeding of pet dogs and cats owned by animal hoarders is a significant enough problem that the Environment Ministry will release guidelines next year for dealing with the animals and their afflicted owners. According to Amelia Tait at Vice, in the United States authorities discover between 900 and 2,000 cases of animal hoarding every year, impacting about 250,000 creatures. And as the U.S. population ages, hoarding is on the rise, Sara Solovitch reported last year for The Washington Post. 

But hopefully by better understanding the causes and motivations for the disorder, scientists can better help people cope with what is often a debilitating condition.

Feeding the Animals at the National Zoo

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It’s 6:00 a.m. and the pandas are getting hungry. Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub, Tai Shan, pad around their wooded pen at the National Zoo as a small truck, packed with 250 stalks of frozen bamboo, backs up to drop off their daily meal. A sticker on the pickup’s hood reads, “The Bamboo Never Stops.”

Behind the wheel is Mike Maslanka, the National Zoo's senior animal nutritionist. Wearing green overalls and a Georgia Aquarium hoodie to fend off the morning chill, he single-handedly pulls the stalks, each as tall as a lamppost, off the truck and into the panda shed.

Feeding the National Zoo’s three pandas is hands-down the most labor-intensive task for his nutrition staff, Maslanka says. Each week, the team must cut and prepare 1,200 pounds of bamboo to feed the bears’ voracious appetite for what is a rather inefficient meal. “Pandas are designed to digest something that’s not readily digestible,” Maslanka says. “It’s high in fiber. It’s low in protein. So the way they manage is to eat a whole lot of it.” The plant is so important for the pandas and other animals that after an unexpected shortage of the park’s supply in January, the zoo made a desperate request for local homeowners to donate their bamboo plants.

Making sure that all of a zoo’s residents are properly nourished is the top priority for an animal nutritionist. Once the responsibility of veterinarians or pathologists, the new and emerging specialty is slowly catching on. The National Zoo hired the world's first official animal nutritionist in 1978 and now has two: Maslanka and Karen Lisi. Their work is an important part of preventative health care. A proper diet has been shown to improve zoo residents’ activity levels, immune systems and mating successes. “There isn’t a single thing that impacts every single animal every day other than food,” Maslanka says. “It only makes sense to pay attention to it.”

One of the founders of animal nutrition was Ellen White, a young pathologist studying the diets of inner city children. In 1908 she paid a visit to the Philadelphia Zoo’s primate house and found the residents severely malnourished. She dedicated the next 20 years to developing better feeding programs for the zoo’s inhabitants. Using government dietary data, White created Zoo Cake, a wholesome blend of eight different grains drenched in oil and chicken slurry, for the Philadelphia Zoo.

For most of the 20th century, each zoo had its own way of feeding its residents. But a few decades ago, as zoos began to transfer more animals for repopulation efforts, zookeepers realized they needed to standardize animals' nutrition. “Animals need consistency in their diet when they move from place to place,” says Barbara Toddes, the first animal nutritionist at the Philadelphia Zoo. “It’s much better for them stress-wise and nutritionally.” When Toddes joined the zoo in 1984, she phased out Zoo Cake and adopted more commercial food that could be easily prepared anywhere in the country.

But not all zoos have standardized nutrition programs—and most institutions have no staff nutritionists—which can potentially lead to overfeeding. When Nikki the spectacled bear arrived at National Zoo in 2007 from a smaller institution in the Northeast, the 15-year-old was so obese that zoo staff couldn’t find his tail underneath the layers of fat. Through a diet and exercise program, nutritionist Karen Lisi helped Nikki lose 110 pounds. He will soon be mated with a female, Billie Jean, a match that wouldn’t have been possible at Nikki’s previous size.

Image by Jessie Cohen, National Zoo. Mike Maslanka is the National Zoo’s Senior Animal Nutritionist. One of his team’s most time consuming task is to cut and deliver lamppost-sized bamboo stalks to the Zoo’s three giant pandas. (original image)

Image by Jessie Cohen, National Zoo. The Zoo’s three pandas, here Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, require a constant supply of bamboo, a plant that is not very nutritious, especially for animals, like pandas, that are natural carnivores. (original image)

Image by Jessie Cohen, National Zoo. At the National Zoo commissary, employees cut, mix and measure each animal’s individual diet. (original image)

Image by Jessie Cohen, National Zoo. About 2,000 animals, from 400 species, are under the care of the National Zoo’s nutrition team. In the commissary are all kinds of produce, vitamins, biscuits, bugs, seeds and pellets for the residents to eat. (original image)

Image by Jessie Cohen, National Zoo. Maslanka works with the National Zoo’s veterinary and pathology staff to keep animals healthy. (original image)

Image by Jessie Cohen, National Zoo. When Nikki the spectacled bear first arrived at the National Zoo in December 2006, he was close to 500 pounds, so obese that handlers had trouble finding his tail underneath layers of fat. (original image)

Image by Joseph Caputo. With the help of nutritionist Karen Lisi, Nikki was able to reach a healthy weight and can now be found padding around his exhibit without trouble. He will be mated with a female, Billie Jean, next year. (original image)

Not all of a zoo’s residents can be satisfied by the same meals. Tastes differ not only between species, but between animals of the same species. Nutritionists must alter diets whenever an otter isn’t eating his biscuits or an armadillo has a peanut allergy. Nutritionists also keep track of Food and Drug Administration product recall alerts—animals can get salmonella poisoning, too. They have to calculate how much to feed an elephant that’s not walking as much as it could, either because of old age or health reasons. Then there are the large birds called kori bustards that won’t eat cantaloupe because, for some unknown reason, they avoid the color orange.

Nutritionists sometimes learn about the natural history of zoo residents from preparing their meals. “We understand what livestock eat, but for exotic animals, there are peculiarities that are not known yet,” says Michael Schlegel, a nutritionist with the San Diego Zoo. For instance, when giant elephant shrews first arrived at the Philadelphia Zoo in 2000, a diet of insects and cat food alone didn’t suffice for the long-nosed critters. The adults looked healthy, but their offspring had bone deformities characteristic of a Vitamin C deficiency. The deformities made nutritionist Barbara Toddes realize that the shrews needed a more diverse diet. The problem was solved when seeds, nuts and leaf litter were added.

It's not possible to replicate the diets that animals consume in the wild, just the nutritional equivalent. “If you have a reptile that’s a free-ranging insectivore, it has access to thousands of different choices,” Maslanka says. “It’s going to get a broader nutrient profile from that diet than the one we’re feeding him, so we have to get it right.”

Inside the National Zoo’s commissary, a radio plays in the background as two young employees cut up bananas, lettuce, apples, carrots and corn and mix them with multivitamin-like biscuits that will later be fed to the orangutans. The chefs read from cookbooks detailing the individualized meals required for each animal. As Maslanka watches over the preparations, he notes some of the unique tastes of the zoo’s residents. “Our new spectacled bear, Billy Jean, loves biscuits,” he says. When asked how the biscuits taste, he holds one of the grainy, chicken-nugget-sized lumps in his hand. It smells of citrus. “How about we go with cardboard,” Maslanka says with a laugh.

Wherever possible, food is delivered in a way that stimulates an animal’s innate foraging behaviors—giraffes reach for alfalfa strung from trees, gorillas hunt for fruit hidden throughout their exhibit, and groundhogs dig for their vegetables. This tactic has helped Nikki, the now handsome spectacled bear, stay in shape. Visitors giggle as he perks up from his resting spot the moment the side gate to his exhibit at the National Zoo creaks open. The zookeeper walks out onto the cliff above Nikki and tosses fruit and biscuits over the edge. The spectacled bear spends the next half-hour walking around the back of his space, tracking down food and munching. Nikki may be on a diet, but he still likes to eat.

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Who’s Beheading Animals in Sacramento?

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You might think of Sacramento as California’s capital—a sunny town dotted with trees and dominated by two big rivers. But the city now seems to be vying for the dubious title of “mysterious mutilated animal capital of America.” A rash of decapitated animal carcasses have been turning up around the city for months, and the mystery is still unsolved.

KXTV reports that the discoveries started in January, when a dead goat was found near a bag of headless chickens. And the story has only gotten stranger from there, with multiple decapitated goats, boxes of headless chickens and blood-soaked dollar bills—even a mutilated rabbit in a brown paper bag with tea candles.

Gina Knepp, who heads up Sacramento’s animal control, tells UPI that “local cults [and] religious groups” are potential suspects, but admits that there are no solid leads. Knepp has linked the bizarre mutilations with Santeria or Chinese New Year celebrations in the past. She told BuzzFeed News that “even if it’s an animal sacrifice as a religious practice, though it may be legal, it’s still required that it’s done in a humane way.”

While officials scratch their head and the public tries to settle their stomachs, others are taking matters into their own hands. The Humane Society of the United States announced Thursday that it would offer a $5,000 reward for information leading to the identification and arrest of the responsible party.

It’s unclear if the rash of animal beheadings will continue, or if the mystery of who’s behind the decapitations will ever be solved. But if you need to clear your brain of the mental images elicited by this series of strange crimes, here’s a cute chaser—micropigs picnicking in the U.K.

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