Roe Deer × Sheep

Capreolus capreolus × Ovis aries

Hybrids out of History

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EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD GENETICS

     
roe deer
A female roe deer
(Capreolus capreolus)

Ram
Ram (Ovis aries)

Chromosome counts:

Ovis aries: 2n=54

Capreolus capreolus: 2n=70



A video of roe deer who voluntarily herds with sheep.

Video: A ram and a sika doe who have formed a mated pair (Yunnan Wild Animal Park). Neither is interested in sexual partners of its own kind.

A related cross >>
Chromosome counts:

A deer-sheep hybrid is pictured and briefly described on page 2 of the June 1, 1902 issue of the Richmond, Virginia Times. Access original article.

A Thank-you. The original reports of this cross are all in Swedish. So in connection with the translations for this article, I would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of Ulf Silfverling and Natasja Hoven. In addition, Ulf found an article (Hellenius 1801) reporting on this cross that had not yet been cited by any English-speaking author. Natasja translated that article for me and checked and corrected my own translation of two other articles. So thanks very much to both of you! Thanks also to Merv Sanders, who used his native English-speaking skills to polish one of these translations.

This rather distant cross, which represents a case of interbreeding between separate mammalian families (Cervidae × Bovidae) was reported in the last decade of the 18th century by the Finnish academic Carl Niklas Hellenius (1745-1820), also known as Carl Niklas von Hellens (or af Hellens). Hellenius began his higher education at Turku, Finland in 1765, where he became an associate professor in chemistry and zoology in 1772. Two years later, he went to Uppsala, in Sweden, where he continued his studies under Carl Linnaeus. There he received a degree in medicine in 1777. On Linnaeus’ recommendation, he was appointed in 1778 as a medical lecturer and botanical demonstrator in Turku, where he ultimately became a full professor. In 1788 he was elected a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences.

He gives the following account (Hellenius 1790, pp. 289-291) of a hybrid produced from a mating between a ram (Ovis aries) and a roe deer (Capreolus capreolus). The report originally appeared in the Swedish scientific journal Kongl. Vetenskaps Akademiens nya Handlingar, a publication of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences:


Report concerning a Hybrid Offspring produced by a Roe Deer (Femina Cervi Capreoli Linn.) paired with a Ram.

Five years ago, I became the owner of a roe deer brought here to Turku [Swedish: Åbo; a city on the southwest coast of Finland] from Cagliari [the capital of Sardinia] by a merchant marine captain. Tractable and well-tamed, and little affected by the change of air, she has always been fairly healthy.

In the middle of October, she began to show the usual symptoms of estrus (inflamed eyes, constant restlessness, etc.). As no mate of her own species was available, it occurred to me to couple her with a billy goat, since I thought that among our domestic livestock, this animal would be nearest akin to a roe deer. The effort, however, was unsuccessful. She continued to avoid him right up until the end of November, when her time of heat seemed to come to an end. The following year the experiment was repeated, but with the same poor success, as the billy chased her with such fury that I had to separate them.

Given that I thought it was the hot temperament of the goat that had been the problem, I took measures to prevent the same outcome the next time they were brought together. I seemed to me that it was the different timing of his rut and her heat that must have been the main hindrance. Therefore, in my next effort, I tried to adjust the timing of their mating. Just as the year before, I kept them together until the beginning of the goat’s rut, but then immediately separated them until she had come into heat. And his absence soon did, in fact, seem absolutely unbearable to her. But, as it turned out, when they were brought together again, she fled him with the utmost ferocity, and all trials during several days to reconcile them were in vain. So I had to separate them. And I tried to think of some more suitable mate for her. In the end, I chose a breeding ram because I thought such a pairing would not be fraught with the same problems that had thwarted my earlier efforts.

So in the early spring I brought a fine ram of the Scanian race [from Skåne, the southernmost of the 25 non-administrative provinces of Sweden] to the doe, who from the outset got along with him well. Nor was he averse to her. With curiosity, I awaited the time of estrus, but October and November brought no change in their temperament, and I therefore feared an equally fruitless result. But at the end of March, I noticed the deer’s belly was clearly swollen and later saw quite certainly that she was pregnant. Early in May she gave birth to a kid, which was extremely quick and lively. It was a female and had exactly her mother’s posture and shape, with her same quick eyes, upright neck and ears, long legs and relatively short tail. Even the color was the same, though, given that roe deer and sheep are rather similar with respect to the sounds they make, the voice of this kid might be described as taking after both her parents. She was so closely similar to her mother, that in only one feature did she differ.…The single trait she did seem to have inherited from her father was her curly hair, which, though not so smooth and fine as his, yet was in fact just as curly.

Both parents cared for their offspring with great tenderness, and when anything caused her fright, her sire would stand in her defense, which he did with a zeal rare in a ram, since with females of his own kind males ordinarily live in polygamy. And so I was eager to see what form the young one would grow up to take, but she was barely a month old when she was unexpectedly killed by the kick of a horse, by which event my studies suddenly were interrupted, too, when I had been planning to spend yet more time in discovering what all-wise Nature might allow through the subsequent breeding of this animal. [Translated by E.M. McCarthy, with corrections by Natasja Hoven. (Original Swedish).]

Hellenius (Kongl. Vetenskaps Akademiens nya Handlingar, 1793, vol. 14, p. 327) later reported that this hybrid was stuffed and placed in the collection of a natural history museum in Söderfors, Sweden (the “Museum naturalium Grillianum Søderforssiense”). This specimen may still exist. However, according to the Swedish language version of Wikipedia (Internet Citations: SODOR), the museum’s entire collection was donated to the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm in 1829. Ulf Silfverling kindly made inquiries concerning the specimen's possible presence there but was told by the staff that they were unable to locate it.

Hellenius continued his breeding experiments, and described them in a subsequent report (Hellenius 1794), translated here:


Report of Fertile Offspring from a Roe Deer Paired with a Ram

My previous submission on this topic, Report concerning a Hybrid Offspring produced by a Roe Deer (Femina Cervi Capreoli Linn.) paired with a Ram, which appeared in this journal in 1790, was received with such favor, that I feel obliged now to submit for the Royal Academy’s enlightened consideration what I later learned concerning the offspring of this cross.

Since the roe deer was first mated with the ram in 1789, she has stuck with him faithfully, and during their life together every spring, between the 6th and 10th of May, she has given birth to a kid. The genders have alternated yearly, so that in the four years she has lived with the ram she has produced two kids of each sex. The females have been dark brown, like the mother, while the males, in contrast, have always remained entirely white, as is their father. These males have also, already in the first year, large, upright white horns, more like those of a goat than of a ram, though somewhat more cylindrical, and without the slightest trace of branching at the end, which they have retained, unchanged, to the present time, except for the annual growth in length. The females, however, like the mother have been hornless.

The first of the roe deer and ram’s progeny was killed in an accident so early in life that no investigation of her fertility, was possible. However, since the same deer gave birth the following year to a male kid, I was able at once, as soon as he was weaned (which with these animals ordinarily occurs towards the end of September) to confine him with a ewe of Finnish race, because I wanted additional young from the mother and her ram mate. This shut-in pair got on comfortably—almost better really than I expected—and they made no effort to get out. The result was that I was relieved of all suspicion of foreign intercourse. And on Midsummer’s Night, at the end of this period of confinement, the ewe gave birth to a male offspring, which in color and posture, as well as in the shape of the horns, is just like his father.

Thus, I convinced myself, with this reliable experiment that this male offspring of the roe deer had in fact been able to breed. But there was still the question of whether the hybrid offspring might be able to multiply by mating among themselves. I obtained my desired opportunity in 1792 when the roe deer was for the third time fruitful and gave birth to a baby female, and when this kid had left her mother early that autumn I paired her with the male hybrid produced by the roe deer the previous year, 1791, and which had already produced an offspring with a ewe the previous winter.

To make the experiment reliable, I had the pair taken to town, where all the winter I kept them in the stable in a warm room excluded from all contact with other animals, which might cause an error in the verdict. Here they lived in perfect harmony, and thereafter the female, on the 22nd of May, produced a male kid, as the mother before had done, albeit 14 days later. … [some speculations omitted] … The male hybrid [ewe × (roe deer × ram)], which was born after the roe deer’s first male offspring’s mating with the Finnish ewe, was this same winter confined with his mother, and sired a white ewe which was delivered at the end of June. I have obtained seven descendants, then, from the original pair: four offspring from the roe deer with her ram (two of each gender), two from the roe deer’s first male offspring (the male produced with the Finnish ewe, and the female produced with his sister, which was the second female produced by the roe deer and her ram), and a female from the Finnish ewe mated with her own offspring from her mating with the roe deer’s first male offspring. From this it seems the Finnish ewe’s offspring are already eliminating any admixture to sheep kind, for she hardly can be distinguished from them, whereas the previously mentioned female [derived from the mating of the two hybrid siblings] is not only different from the sheep and a distinct type, both in body posture and temperament, but also obviously exhibits a detailed resemblance to deer. In agility and quickness they resembled her perfectly and in her company ventured up the steepest cliffs. Over ordinary fences they leapt with ease, so that they soon became pests in the fields, once they had tasted the growing grain, for it was not easy to exclude them. This I learned the following summer when through negligence these animals got into my crofter’s pea bed, from which they could not be kept out. For, although I managed to drive them home unharmed, a 50-fathom-wide swath had been removed from the bed: and when they were next out again, they were back at the crofter’s delicacies. There was nothing left for me to do, but keep them shut in for 14 days, and each day to drive them to a pasture a quarter mile away where an abundance of palatable pasture eventually obliterated their taste for growing crops. Accustomed in the warmth of the year to wide, rich pastures and mountains, they did not willingly abandon them, if not pursued away from them by wild animals. And they seemed to fear no such beast more than foxes: the mere skin of a fox caused them to flee in terror, whereas they only regarded wolf and bear skins with a certain amount of curiosity; probably because the roe deer, their leader, had at some point been a victim of an attack by foxes but escaped, which perhaps first created in her this fear. Roe deer tolerate our winter cold without the least inconvenience. Mine has been kept most of the time in the stables over the winters, since she exhibited a distinct dislike for the sheep shed where she was kept confined with the sheep during the most severe cold in her first years here, a treatment that left her with bare patches on the back. In the winter, the hybrids, too, when shut in with the sheep, seem also not to have been as comfortable as when kept in a cold barn. They eat much the same food as sheep and in the same measure. However, they seem to prefer tender twigs and buds to any other fodder. Thus, in winter whenever they eacape the stables, they steal into the forest, where they sometimes remain for several days, until they are driven home, which leads one to conclude that they could be kept outdoors at that time of year if provision could be made to protect them from wolves and other predators. Within a year they are nearly full grown and attain, too, sexual maturity (which is clear from what has been said), and in reproducing their race, they express their desires with a violence far surpassing that of sheep. Up to the present time, they have had no illnesses. Even while the rest of my livestock, and among them, the sheep in particular, have been troubled with every kind of disease, they have always been prosperous and healthy. [speculations as to the cause of their good health here omitted] They produce a lightweight wool, curly as that of a Spanish sheep, though somewhat coarser. Sheared at midsummer, they yield from three to five markers [0.6-1.0 kg] of wool, depending on the age of the animal. I also recently butchered the first male offspring from the roe female, which was in his third year. After the skin was removed, and the head and feet as usual were cut off, the carcass weighed 2 lispund [~17 kg] and 5 marks [~1 kg], and the meat was rather lean. The viscera were quite healthy, and so far as I could determine, free of liver flukes (Fasciola hepatica Linn.), though most sheep this fall were plagued by them. The meat, when cooked as a roast, was darker than mutton, with a strange, not unpleasant taste, which was said to be like that of the roe deer by those who know. The tanner, who took the skin to convert it to leather, said the finished product, in smoothness, density and toughness, compares with what is commonly made from reindeer skins.

I have not as yet been able to study these animals long, but an inviting future promises to teach me how far I may be permitted to propagate them. And yet, I hope my studies, though incomplete, will not be unworthy of scholarly notice. The researcher in probing Nature and her wonderful phenomena ever learns to revere her ubiquitous wisdom and versatility, which even the broadest human genius seeks in vain to attain. [Translated by E.M. McCarthy, with corrections by Natasja Hoven. Original Swedish.]

The following article, also by Hellenius, was translated by Natasja Hoven, with the assistance of Bengt Ellenberger (Original Swedish). Again, I thank them both very much for their kind assistance. I thank, too, Merv Sanders, a native speaker of English who gave this article a final careful going-over. It originally appeared in New Proceedings of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science (Kongl. Vetenskaps Akademiens nya Handlingar, pp. 105-116) for the months of April, May, and June of the year 1801 (Hellenius 1801).

Continuation of a report concerning the fertile reproduction of the offspring from a roe deer paired with a ram, as well as the changes occurring in the descendants of that cross

I have previously submitted reports [Hellenius 1790, 1794] to the Royal Academy on the contact between this pair and their mating habits, up to the point of four offspring being produced. From these, only two offspring remain, one male and one female. Of the four offspring the roe deer produced, the first, a female, died at six weeks of age from an accident. The second, a male, was slaughtered to ascertain whether the taste of the meat would reveal some unusual feature or whether it might be similar to one of the parents (see J.A.E. Götze: Europaiske Fauna, III Volume, page 72 [the article Hellenius refers to here is quoted in English translation below]).

Under the same conditions as previously described, at the usual time of the year on or around May 8, in 1794 the roe deer produced a fifth kid, a female. This followed the previous pattern of alternating between a single female and male offspring, as the year before she had given birth to a male kid. As for its color and markings, as well as its liveliness, this female kid was completely similar to the former female kids of the roe deer. The ram tended this baby kid with the same tenderness as all his other offspring with the roe deer. However, as autumn drew near, he returned home one evening, dragging the rear of his body behind him. On closer examination, he turned out to be completely lame, although the cause was unknown. The next morning the roe deer and her offspring were driven to their usual pasturage. Due to the ram’s demise she was now the lone leader of the flock, a responsibility of care and custody previously shared with the sire. The ram on the other hand could not be saved, despite the best of care, and he died within the fourth day of his illness.

Anxious to get further offspring from the roe deer, I wanted her to mate again, this usually happening during the autumn. However, I did not want to force her choice of male, as I had done previously, so at night I kept her together with all the sheep, among which I then owned many good breeding rams of Spanish origin. As was her custom, she kept to herself in the beginning away from the other sheep during the day. Before long, though, she became familiarized with them, to such an extent that afterwards she could not be separated from their flock unless with the use of some force. After first preparing a space for her offspring in the stable (together with the horses), I allowed her, according to her own inclination, to keep company with the sheep at night. She was let out a few times a day in order to get some fresh air and to gain strength by foraging on the fresh sprigs from the nearby forest. Here she felt quite at home, and displayed no particular predilection for any specific ram. However, during the first days of May 1795, she bore a male kid of color and looks similar to her other kids of this gender, albeit much weaker and more delicate. It quickly grew and by summer was the same size as her other offspring. During spring and the whole of the summer she and her new-born kid enjoyed, together with the rest of the sheep, the daily routine of pasturage in the fallow field, without any sign of her wanting to detach herself from them, or to leap over the fences towards the grain field.

Over winter, as in the previous winter, she was kept together with the sheep in the sheep shed and in the following spring of 1796, around the usual time, she gave birth to a kid. This one broke the established pattern, however, by being a second consecutive male kid. It turned out so weak and frail that it did not live past its second day, and it was of the same white color as her other male kids. As she had no surviving kid to suckle this summer, I attempted to express her in order to examine the quality of her milk. Even though I used the most mild and careful methods, she could not be made to stay still and became headstrong during this procedure, demonstrating a high degree of unruliness and wild behavior, and afterwards started to shun and become afraid of people. After several attempts, I had to give up trying to milk her. Still, from the small supply of milk I managed to obtain, I could see that it was more or less of the same kind as the milk we get from ewes. Maybe if deer from youth and onwards could be used to yield this kind of product, we could obtain as much from them and put it to the same use as milk from ewes. That summer she grew in size, soon shed her hair and seemed to be in a very good mood. The next winter she once more spent in the sheep-shed. Again she became pregnant, but on May 4th having produced a dead male kid, she died amidst strong convulsions.

Her stay with me lasted, then, for 12 years. If supposing that she was aged two when I got her (which is quite plausible, remembering that when I bought her from the merchant marine captain Claeson midsummer 1784 she was already fully grown). You will find that even after moving to a colder climate, or having mated with a different species, her life span had not been shortened, which for deer in their free and natural status is said not to exceed 15 years. Those assuming that deer, even though easily domesticated when young, in this tame state do not live long, are probably wrong. (See J. A. E. Gotze Europeiske Fauna III Volume, page 72). Such thinking may be due to some faulty manner in taking care of them, unless, of course, you would venture to think that our air here in the North, being cleaner and more invigorating, might contribute to prolonging the lifespan of domesticated roe deer.

At the death of the roe deer, I had from her own offspring two fully grown couples: viz. the female kids born in the years of 1792 and 1794 and the male kids born in 1793 and 1795, whose own reproduction I wished to study in great detail. The offspring from the Finnish ewe [Mentioned in Hellenius's 1794 article translated above, in which he says one of the F1 hybrid males produced offspring with a Finnish ewe.] deviated to such an extent in fact from the normal deer that it could not be distinguished from a sheep.

As already noted in my previous report, the elder of the two female kids of the roe deer, at the end of May of 1793 brought forth a male kid, after having paired with the roe deer’s male offspring which was born in 1791. This older male was slaughtered in the summer of 1793, after which she was espoused to the male kid born by the roe deer that same spring. This female on May 28th 1794 bore a female kid. The roe deer over-wintered with the sheep. The rest of her flock, however, were kept over the winter with the horses in the stable. This flock comprised of the two male kids produced in 1793 by the roe deer and by her older female offspring, and three female kids, namely the elder female kid of the roe deer and the two female kids born that year. These female kids had no resemblance to each other as the male kids born the previous year had. The kids of the roe deer quite resembled her former female kids. But those were only brown from the neck and the upper part of the body or the back, whereas head, feet, belly and tail were now light-colored or rather snow-white.

Only the eldest female kid of those born that year became pregnant, and on June 1 1795 brought forth, just as the year before, a female kid, and thus broke the pattern of her mother’s alternate births of male and female. This kid differed from the offspring of the year before by not having a brown but a grey back, similar to the color which ewes usually have in domestic care. However, on the whole island there is no breed of sheep that one could suspect may have something to do with these characteristics. On the neck and the front there remained some of the rust-brown markings of the deer.

As they deviated so much from the roe deer, not only with regards to color, but also in the pattern of the genders being produced, this caused me to want to avoid their being together with the sheep. Therefore I had them brought to a pasture that I had had surrounded with a fence on a promontory of the island. However, in order that they would not get confused, in the nights they were brought home. By this method I gained an insight into these animals with regards to their agility and lively temper which much surpassed that of the sheep and even the roe deer. The latter, by always being with the sheep, had acquired their calm ways and peaceful temperament. When winter arrived my flock consisted of altogether seven animals, increased this year by three, that is, the male born from the roe deer and the female born from his female [sic?], and just as I had done other winters I kept them in the stable.

In the month of May when they were let out to their pasture, the three older females were pregnant but the fourth, the youngest, was not. On May 27 of 1796, the elder female from the roe deer produced a male kid. The younger, which was now having her first baby, also produced a male kid eight days later, and the elder of the 1794-born females on June 23 bore a female kid. In this kid the dark-brown color over the back, which is the characteristic of this race, was so light and diluted, that the only trace to be seen was over the neck and the front shoulders. The rest of the back was similar to unwashed or soiled white wool. They were cared for and tended in the same way as the previous year, and you could see they were physically thriving. Now they were so numerous, it was difficult to find enough space for them all in the stable. Therefore, towards autumn I had two of them slaughtered, namely the two male kids produced by the elder female offspring of the roe deer. The meat from the older male had a somewhat strange taste, a taste similar to the meat of the male that I had slaughtered in 1793. The meat from the younger one however tasted just like good lamb meat.

In 1797 the members of the flock gave birth in the following order:

On May 29 the elder female of the roe deer gave birth to a male kid. On June 4th the younger female offspring of the roe deer, gave birth to a female kid – her first female kid. Its color was very much like that of the elder female kid born in 1794, except the brown marking on the upper part of the body was less pronounced and smaller. The female born in 1794 from the elder female of the roe deer produced a white male kid, and the female born in 1795 bore a male kid, whose fur on the upper part of its body was dirty white. It also had a light brown ring around the eyes and had two similar tufts on each one of the front legs.

This flock, now consisting of five males and seven females were let out to their usual pasture, where they felt very much at ease. Unfortunately, a she-wolf who had stayed with her cubs over the summer in this archipelago, in September attacked the flock and took away the 1795- born female kid of the elder female offspring of the roe deer, along with its still suckling female kid. She also bit the elder female offspring of the roe deer so hard in the neck that even though not taken away by the wolf, it died the day after. Its little orphaned male kid had to be slaughtered, due to the loss of its mother.

In this way my stock, bred from the original roe deer, was to such a degree diminished that I now only had eight left, four of each gender: the eldest daughter of the roe deer; the youngest female of the roe deer with its new-born female kid; the kid born in 1796 from the first female of the elder female of the roe deer; two males from the roe deer born in 1793 and 1795; one from the elder female of the roe deer born in 1796, and a male born of the eldest female of the roe deer this year.

Thus ends Hellenius's third and, apparently, final report on these hybrids. Unfortunately, the original Swedish of Hellenius (1801) cannot be included here because no text file is available. This report, translated by Ulf Silfverling and Natasja Hoven (as mentioned above), apparently exists only in the form of either image files or hard copy.

The following is the brief account, cited above by Hellenius (1801, p. 109), of a sheep × roe deer hybrid. The material quoted here appears within a much longer article discussing roe deer in general (Goeze 1793, vol. 3, pp. 72-73).

While on the of the topic of reproduction, I must give one striking example, which I would not even believe if I had not seen it with my own eyes. On March 10th 1790, I received from Krebs, a physician in Blankenburg—certainly not a gullible person, but rather a gifted man of very keen observational abilities—a roe deer that was truly the offspring of a ewe. The mother was of an imported, foreign breed.

The animal’s shape, its feet, its head, mouth, and ears were entirely like a roe deer’s, but the tail, eyes and sexual organs were those of a sheep. So for the most part it resembled the father, the roebuck. Is this not clear proof that roe deer are related to goats and sheep?

And how did it happen? The mother sheep had been grazing with the rest of her herd at the zoo. The only roebuck in the zoo, had been seen associating with the ewe several times, and finally actually mated with her, which produced this birth. But she came too soon into the world, and lived scarcely two days. I was unable to keep the original specimen since I could not obtain the necessary alcoholic spirits to preserve it, which I regret, but I did have a detailed drawing of it made. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original German).]

The following is a copy of the drawing mentioned by Goeze:

sheep-deer hybrid
Illustration of an alleged roe-deer × sheep hybrid (from Goeze 1793).


Finally, two brief mentions of a different but closely related cross, cow × roe deer (Bos taurus × Capreolus capreolus:

One appears in the July 20, 1911 issue (p. 7, col. 3) of the Salzburger Volksblatt, a newspaper published in Salzburg, Austria:

Passau, July 19. The meal dealer Feicht has an eight-week-old male calf that lacks one of its forefeet. In addition, this monstrosity has the hind legs and hindquarters of a roe deer. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original German.]

Passau is a town in Lower Bavaria, Germany near the Austrian border.

Another appears in the April 16, 1905 issue (p. 4, col. 4) of the L'Ouest-Éclair, a newspaper published in Rennes, France:

A FREAK. — At this time, in Châteaubriant there is an extremely odd animal there at La Jandelays, the farm of a M. Peluet, residing there. This animal, born of a cow and which is nearly naked has the head of a roe deer and the feet of a roe deer doe. The hair on its back is like that of a horse.

This singular creature is in good health and can be viewed at La Jandelays.

[Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original French.]

Châteaubriant is a town in western France, about 350 km (220 mi) southwest of Paris

Other cervid × bovid crosses: Axis Deer × Himalayan Tahr, Reindeer × Cow, Moose × Cow, Red Deer × Cow, Mule Deer × Sheep.

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Bibliography >>

Internet citations >>

Biology Dictionary >>

Deer diet >>

By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).


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