The Burmite Diaries: what’s all this about?

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Image from Xing et al 2016b, supplementary information.

If you’ve spent any time in the palaeo corners of the internet within the past week, you’ve probably heard at least a little bit about amber – perhaps some vague descriptions, perhaps accompanied by pictures – and in particular, some seemingly unbelievable specimens from the burmite mines of Myanmar. And when I say “the past week”, I mean it, because all of this has somehow flown under the radar until recently.

This is as good a time as any to disclose that I emailed Chris Meehan – the man responsible for the main website going around and many of the specimens themselves – this past Thursday regarding the pictures and the overall situation, with what I think was a healthy mix of curiosity and skepticism. Since this was a private email exchange between the two of us, I don’t see any good reason to share details unless a) it becomes necessary to do so at a later date to provide possible context and b) I get permission to do that. But at least you can get a better idea of where I’m coming from.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the topic in the past week, particularly on Twitter, but as several parties have pointed out, it’s not really the best medium to promote the longform, nuanced discussion that this issue probably needs. So I figured I’d post about it. I’ve tried to structure this as best as possible, but I’ve got a lot going on with university and work, so forgive me if this gets a bit disjointed and ramble-y. (EDIT 1/26/18: I’ve also just received permission to post pictures from the Living Amber website here – which is cool, since the second half of the post was looking a bit dry up until now.)

For the uninitiated…

The published works

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A military map of the Hukawng, created during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Public domain image.

The Hukawng Valley of northern Myanmar harbors one of the most productive amber localities in the world. From what I’ve been able to find, Cruickshank & Ko 2003 provides a good overview of the geological setting of the area – current consensus is that the amber is mid-Cretaceous (either Albian or Cenomanian).

Most of the amber mines are located near the village of Tanai in Kachin State. Aside from being extremely plentiful, the fragments of “burmite” often preserve inclusions of plant or invertebrate material – indeed, the specimens have been recognized as “the most important amber for studying terrestrial diversity in the mid-Cretaceous” (Guo et al. 2017) and “one of the most diverse Mesozoic microbiotas now known” (Grimaldi et al. 2002). Both of these papers provide excellent summaries of the flora and fauna collected from the region, as well as their significance to modern paleoecology.

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A wonderful collage of microphotographs from Xing et al. 2016a.

I first heard of the Hukawng Valley back in mid-2016, when the wings of a primitive enantiornithean bird were described in Nature Communications (Xing et al. 2016a). The images briefly took the internet by storm, and I remember being super excited. We had only dreamed about this before: real bits of dinosaur preserved in amber! And a little bittersweet – a find so rare that it could only be an isolated occurrence.

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Don’t touch that dial now, we’re just getting started. Image (photos and microCT reconstructions) from Xing et al. 2016b.

Except it wasn’t. Because only a few months later, news emerged of a small piece of theropod tail from the same locality and preserved the same way (Xing et al. 2016b). To reiterate: a small piece of nonavian dinosaur in amber. Once again, the internet is set alight with interest and enthusiasm. The comparisons to Jurassic Park are predictably beaten to death. And I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more down the pipeline.

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Spoilers: there was. Image from Xing et al. 2017.

And mere months later, we end up with the body of a hatchling enantiornithean, complete with soft tissue, plumage, and pigmentation (Xing et al. 2017). Which I think speaks for itself.

At the time, I made the same, somewhat ambitious (and perhaps overambitious) comment to myself and a couple friends: we’re looking at the future of modern paleontology. With each new photograph published, we gaze directly through the lens of deep time at soft tissue, feather development, taphonomic settings, and so much else in such a way that a scant few years ago, it would have been regarded as improbable fantasy. But the future was on its way, and it was only a matter of time.

I did not expect it to arrive so soon, and in such an unconventional manner.

“Living amber”

I seem to have a knack for getting interrupted from important assignments by odd and unexpected paleontological stories. Last year, it happened with Ornithoscelida. Now…it’s this. And in both instances, Twitter was the messenger of chaos.

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Down the rabbit hole. Image courtesy of Chris Meehan, livingamber.com.

At dinner on Wednesday the 17th, I’m linked the above image and a number of thoughts immediately cross my mind:

1. How in the hell have I not heard about this yet?
2. What’s this doing in Commons instead of a published journal?
3. Green????

A brief, frenzied episode of Internet digging later and I find the website that’s been the subject of much discussion lately: livingamber.com. Set aside some time and read through the pages yourself. If I could describe the site in one word, ignoring any connotations, it would be “fascinating”. And I think that’s an accurate description, regardless of whether the details presented are accurate or not.

It seems unbelievable in the most literal sense, and after the initial high wore off I started to look at things with a considerable dose of skepticism. Some of the pictures were good, and some of them were…not so good. If you squint at pixels for too long, the diminishing returns start to reveal themselves. So I sent a note over to Chris Meehan, the person seemingly behind all these images and fantastical claims.

As I said at the top of the post, this was a private exchange, but our discussion was (and remains) pleasant and good-natured, and worthwhile from my perspective. I have many thoughts.

This purported pterosaur is obviously the most provocative specimen to many people, but I don’t actually have too much to say about it. Meehan makes an effort to label the images and point out certain features of note – but I think this is a case where observing the specimens in person would be much more conducive than staring at pictures. Since Meehan and crew have done so, it seems worth giving them the benefit of the doubt, but I remain healthily skeptical, especially given the numerous nods to David Peters hypotheses. For those out of the loop, this Tetrapod Zoology article should serve you nicely. I remained so far unconvinced with the ideas of skin membrane morphology and pterosaurian ancestry presented by Meehan on the website – but I will at least concede that he and crew are working with actual specimens, instead of grabbing photographs and running them through various Photoshop layers in a methodologically questionable manner. CT scans of this one are apparently in progress so we’ll see where that goes.

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Closeup of the “pycnofibres”. Image courtesy of Chris Meehan, livingamber.com.

The same goes for the color of the pycnofibres – the image of a tiny green pterosaur covered in shiny fuzz is delightful in a number of ways. But as I understand it, green is a helluva color to try and pull off. If SVP 2017 taught me anything, it’s that structural coloration is a hot button topic right now, so who knows what the consensus in the near future will be, if one will actually exist at all (and this is completely ignoring pigments and melanosomes, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish that I have deliberately been trying to sidestep). Interestingly, according to a friend of mine who actually knows this stuff far better than I do, blue feathers/integument can actually appear green through varying amounts and qualities of amber, so I suppose that’s another possibility. In the meantime, I recommend this post by Matt Martyniuk about feather color. Although perhaps not quite as relevant for this purported pterosaur, it should come in handy when considering some of the other feathery structures seen and imaged.

It’s the “reptiles” that admittedly intrigue me the most – the ones with clear skeletal structure and CT data to go along with it. I imagine this is no coincidence, as the site seems to indicate that Meehan is working directly with Juan Daza, a herpetologist from Sam Houston State University who has published on Burmese amber before, on these specimens.

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Image courtesy of Chris Meehan, livingamber.com.

And that’s about it, really. I have very little else to say about these specimens until more/better pictures or more/better data appear (and ideally, of course, a paper).

And that, I suppose, is the paradox at the heart of the matter. As I understand things, the Living Amber website is deliberately intended to be a recruitment effort of sorts: to provide information to interested parties and encourage potential collaboration to study these specimens. But I haven’t seen many people do so, precisely because no independent party has seriously investigated these claims yet.

There’s really no easy answer for this. It’s quite the conundrum, and I’m still not happy with the above paragraph attempting to explain this conundrum after retyping it several times. The best conclusion I can offer is an honest one: Many of Meehan and co.’s claims are quite fantastical in nature, and based on what has so far been presented, I’m not convinced by all of them yet. But it IS clear that the horizon from which all this amber hails in the first place is a significant one. Incredible inclusions from the Kachin have been and continue to be published, and they all have fascinating implications for paleobiology and paleoecology. All identities aside – pterosaur or not at all – it may be worth taking a look.

Comments and feedback appreciated. I didn’t cover nearly all that I wanted to, so there may be more on this topic from me in the future.

References

  • Cruickshank, R.D., Ko, K. Geology of an amber locality in the Hukawng Valley, northern Myanmar. Journal of Asian Earth Sciences, 21: 441–455 (2003).
  • Grimaldi, D.A. et al. Fossiliferous Cretaceous amber from Myanmar (Burma): Its rediscovery, biotic diversity, and paleontological significance. American Museum Novitates, 3361: 1–72 (2002).
  • Guo, M.X. et al. A catalogue of Burmite inclusions. Zoological Systematics, 42(3): 249–379 (2017).
  • Xing, L. et al. Mummified precocial bird wings in mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber. Nat. Commun. 7, 12089 (2016a).
  • Xing, L. et al. A feathered dinosaur tail with primitive plumage trapped in mid-Cretaceous amber. Curr. Biol. 26, 3352–3360 (2016b).
  • Xing, L. et al. A mid-Cretaceous enantiornithine (Aves) hatchling preserved in Burmese amber with unusual plumage. Gondwana Res. 49, 264–277 (2017).
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A tangled bank

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“We are threads in the tapestry of life on earth…”

Short post tonight. Much will be said about in the March in the coming years, and it will be said better than I could hope to do.

I’m happy with how many people came out today. Friends, colleagues, professors, and the city of Philadelphia. As of now (~6pm on Saturday night), initial estimates put attendance somewhere in the vicinity of twenty to twenty-five thousand. As only one march of 600+ around the globe – this feels good.

My day began at 5:30 this morning, partly to pack, and partly because sleep was out of the question at that point. Three months had led up to the next few hours, and it had to count. The world is watching.

One image I will never forget is that of the City Hall courtyard, before the rain arrived, filled with signs and people and a collective mission, as cherry blossom petals drift down upon the crowd, a calm before the storm…

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“As much as we want to believe that the value of science is self-evident, it seems we cannot take it for granted…”

As speakers came and went, the steadily growing drizzle started to thin the crowd, but there was a good crop of people who stayed it out until the end. Even those without raincoats braved the weather and cheered on. (If I keel over from pneumonia in the next few weeks, you’ll know why.)

There was an excellent, diverse, passionate group of people speaking for Philly. Scientists, teachers, organizers, House Representatives. From what I can see, there were similar lineups in DC and New York and Chicago and elsewhere. Antarctica was somewhat limited to the first two groups – but what can you do, eh?

Of course the TED (Daeschler) talk was the best from a totally objective and unbiased he’s-definitely-not-my-professor perspective, and a few highlights have been interspersed throughout the page. Video of it probably exists somewhere (EDIT: see this one, the official version posted by ANS). If I dare to say it, the paleontologists always have the best and most profound messages. (Astronomers, you’re free to argue. Come at me.)

To say the least – today was cathartic in the best way.

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“…Get out into the classrooms, the town halls, the corridors of democracy…”

Those who conceived of the March have said time and time again that this is nothing more than a beginning. Today was fun, despite the weather, but it’s pretty pointless if we all just collectively decided to walk home, take a nap, and go on with our lives as if this was just another day. Follow through. Back up your words. Get out there. Do whatever it takes. To hell and back again.

Don’t touch that dial now, we’re just getting started.

T-Minus: 48 hours

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Treasures from the ends of the earth. Photo creds: ANSP Instagram.

A couple weeks ago, I went to a pizza party. This in and of itself is not unusual – I’m in college, and you can find a pizza party somewhere every night without looking very hard. However, some of us like to party differently – which is how I ended up in a quaint study tucked away in the twisting hallways of the Academy, chowing down on slices with a good majority of Philadelphia’s paleontologist population and discussing salamander Terminators (among other things).

In case you’re not aware, the team that brought you Tiktaalik was down in Antarctica last Christmas, hunting for fossil fish under a starless sky. Within the past month, the samples have finally made it back to the labs where preparation and cataloging can begin. Dr. John Long from Flinders University in Adelaide was here for a few days to take a look at the fossils he helped collect, so the decision was made to invite all manner of paleo professors, grad students, and undergrads from the Philly universities over to hang out for an evening. The night was enough of a success that it was decided this would be the first of many similar events (and it’s official too. There’s a mailing list and everything). All in all, six pies, various beverages, and a productive evening well spent.

I mention this because, as a group of scientists, we all do different things with similar interests and mindsets. We had plenty of fish workers there, some mammal workers, general geologists and stratigraphers. We had a couple people doing CT work. (Including, perhaps, yours truly. As always, stay tuned.) Some biomechanics. Preparators and curators and phylogeneticists. And we all came from a variety of backgrounds with different experiences and perspectives, over different amounts of time. There were real lineages representing themselves. People who had just started their academic careers, and people who had been at it for fifty years.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that each and every one of us could agree on a single thing: this Saturday the 22nd would be a very important day for all of us.

I’ll be joining many of them this weekend, convening at City Hall to kick off the Philadelphia March for Science. One will even be a keynote speaker. (It’s Dr. Daeschler, obviously. Because honestly, who else would it be?) The past three months have been building up to this very Saturday and I think it’ll be a paradigm shift of some kind.

I first joined the March for Science Facebook page back in January, when only a few thousand people had joined and there wasn’t even an official name yet. The spark was a tweet from the Badlands National Park account concerning climate change, which was swiftly and suspiciously deleted soon afterwards. It was a pretty big deal. But everyone was astonished when the movement literally grew tenfold overnight, and it was no longer a pipe dream. It was real, and it was huge.

Though I was there in its infancy, I haven’t contributed as much to it as I really wanted to, starting out. Winter term was pretty brutal and I wouldn’t have had the time to put in the work that it deserved. To be clear, I’m not working for the March in any official capacity, although I discussed volunteering possibilities. It never panned out though. Thankfully, others have stood up to the task, and two days out I am thoroughly impressed by what has been accomplished thus far.

Of course, it’s far from perfect. I’ve heard about multiple problems with the Washington DC and/or New York Marches – social discrimination and bureaucracy interfering with the organization process, and privacy issues regarding email consent of the participants (or lack thereof). Which I’m a bit peeved about, to be frank. Particularly regarding the question of politics, which I have previously touched upon – yes, in a perfect world, science would remain unbiased and apolitical, but guess what? We don’t live in a perfect world, and when your funding gets slashed by an incompetently hostile administration, that should be your wakeup call that science is not separate from the rest of the world. I’ve always been reluctant to use the “ivory tower” analogy, but I think it rings true in this case.

Aside from that, however, I’m happy. I haven’t seen/heard any issues with the Philly March. The Chicago March is shaping up to be a barnstormer. Within the past few days, the social media presence of the Marches seems to have skyrocketed again – you’ve got videos from Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye and Emily Graslie showing up. Our modern day Muses are speaking up about this. We’ve got geologists running for Congress. I see no signs of complacency any time soon.

My one major concern with the whole thing was that science is such a broad topic, with so many components that deserve equal attention – how do you communicate all that in a single movement? I was sure it could be done, but I had no idea how. Until this morning, when I found this quote by Hahrie Han, a UC Santa Barbara political scientist interviewed in The Atlantic:

“…we typically don’t think of scientists as a political constituency. Seniors are a constituency, or gun owners, or demographic groups. The March for Science is trying to develop scientists as a political constituency with a collective voice.”

If one were to impossibly boil down the March for Science to its most basic form, to a single & easily digestible sentence…I would be happy with that explanation.

We’re two days away from the main event. Hopefully, it will only be a beginning, a glimpse of what’s to come. And if you don’t see why it matters, well…

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More after the weekend.

Links

Thoughts on the future of things

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A tooth of Rutiodon sp. from the Triassic-age Bull Canyon Formation in New Mexico.

I attended two lectures in the past week that were of exceptional interest, and I need to tell you about them.

On Thursday night I was over at the Academy for a Delaware Valley Paleontological Society meeting. It was quite fun, and I ended up acquiring a Rutiodon tooth from New Mexico (picture above). But the main event of the evening was a talk by Jason Schein, formerly of the New Jersey State Museum, and his work in the Bighorn Basin. I was already well acquainted with this – the current project had been running for several years, and I followed the team’s progress pretty regularly. But it’s taken a new life of its own: the project is now a wholly independent organization called the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute. Go check out their website and support them if you can. I’ll explain why in a little bit, and hopefully convince you why it matters.

On Friday morning, we had a guest lecturer in our earth history class: Dr. Ted Daeschler (Devonian paleontologist, Academy curator, and official Best Dude Ever™). He gave an overview on stem tetrapods, the Red Hill site, and his work on Tiktaalik. Once again, the content is especially familiar to me, as well as the people behind the content. But all this served as a reaffirmation of sorts that I needed for a few reasons.

This should hopefully provoke a number of questions from you, the reader:

Q: Hang on, hold the phone, where the hell have you been?

A: Yeah, about that. Been a while. As a matter of fact it’s been nearly a year, which is a bit disappointing given that I’d only written two posts before sodding off somewhere else. It’s been long enough that dead links have already started showing up in the immediately preceding post to this one. My half-written Atopodentatus overview has been shelved somewhere in the inner echelons of my hard drive, and my planned overview of paleontology in 2016 is two months late to be of much use. So an update should be helpful.

  1. College. It’s a thing, and I’m doing the thing. As previously stated, I’m at Drexel for geoscience, and I’ve emerged from the first quarter with appreciable grades and a GPA that keeps the scholarships coming (for now) – which is, frankly, what matters most at this point. The stats aren’t particularly exciting…but the discussions with students and faculty have been. I can’t tell you about most of them yet. Further bulletins as events warrant, though.
  2. I’ve mentioned the Academy of Natural Sciences numerous times – I work there now. Not volunteer there. I get paid to show up there and teach people about science. I’m not just over the moon, I’m sailing through the asteroid belt at faster-than-light speed en route towards the Oort Cloud. I’m coming for you, Voyager. You can’t hide forever.
  3. There was an election, apparently.

So I’ve been a bit busy. And these three things, combined with the aforementioned lectures, meld together into this complex, wide-reaching, yet ultimately necessary discussion about the future, and our role in it – as scientists, as educators, and as citizens of Planet Earth.

Q: How do all these things fit together?

A: Bear in mind that from this point forward, my points may be quite scatter-brained – I want to talk about a lot here, and frankly I should think about it for a few more days before committing to writing it down.

Let’s turn back to the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute for a bit. Stop what you’re doing and go read their mission statements (more specifically, the second section on the page). Go on. Do it right now. I’ll wait.

Everyone on the team is quite proud of these, and I share their sentiments. On Thursday night, hearing it all laid out was a glorious, punch-the-air moment for everyone in the room. It’s a joy to see this feeling articulated so well, especially by an organization with such a wide audience. As you may be aware, the BBPI runs week-long expeditions out west to collect fossils from a number of different time periods, and opens them up for members of the public to join (for a fee to cover costs). It’s a surprisingly effective model, and perhaps a pioneer example of what Schein calls “entrepreneurial academic paleontology”. And the world at large is starting to notice. Outlets as huge as CNN and Discover Magazine have recently covered the project. It was also the first (and so far only) time when targeted advertising did its job and worked beautifully to get my attention. Imagine my surprise, scrolling through Instagram this past summer, when suddenly the Jasons showed up and started talking bones. (The video is here, by the way – it’s very well made and gives you a good look into the goings-on at the Basin.) If only that would happen more often. Despite Apple’s best efforts, I remain unfazed by the new iPhone.

These types of project matter because it is essential that, more than ever, we as scientists must be able to

  1. convey our findings to a general audience and
  2. ensure that information is accurate and rigorous.

As a new museum educator, I have a lot to say about this, to the point where I have literally written essays about it in my freshman year. (Maybe I’ll post one eventually.)

During my time at the Academy so far, I’ve interacted with thousands of individual museumgoers with various different backgrounds and levels of foreknowledge about scientific topics. Some of them know nothing at all, and are eager to learn. Some of them are exceptionally well versed, and not only do they keep up with a conversation about the melanosomes of Sinosauropteryx – they initiate it. (That was an excellent day.) They too are still eager to learn.

And we need to support that hunger for knowledge, more than ever – both for the enthusiastic folk and for those who are perhaps less hungry, because it is no less important for them.

I was first witness to the crap that went on with the Badlands National Park’s Twitter feed, and I’ve remained engrossed with the developments that have spiraled out from that at an exponential rate. I still remember a time, about a month ago now, when the March for Science was just a Facebook page of only a few thousand instead of a massive organization with the support of major agencies such as the AAAS and the various departments in the American government muzzled by the new administration. Some people have been saying that, in an ideal world, science should remain apolitical out of respect for its objective nature and processes.

Unfortunately, this is far from an ideal world.

I sort of understand where those people are coming from, though. In the past, I tried not to get too involved with politics, or indeed voice much of an opinion about anything. Yes, I was still eager to teach people about cool stuff in the natural world, but I wanted to do it independently of any societal issues or pressures. There are people who can handle that kind of thing, I thought. Let them sort it out. The sun still rises every morning.

And then within the past few years I realized that I’m one of the people who can handle that kind of thing. Which was a little bit of a wakeup call.

So we need to speak up for a number of reasons: so that science is supported by the governments of the world, so that we can continue to further our work and the scientific process, and so that people can hear what we have to say over the rest of the bullshit ringing in our collective ears from all directions.

Q: What do we do to accomplish this, and how?

A: Good question for many reasons. It doesn’t have an easy, clear-cut answer.

On the political side of things, plenty of people are taking action. I’ve already mentioned the March for Science (if things go as planned I’ll either be at the main event in Washington or at the sister march in Philly), and enough information exists that you hardly need me blathering on about it when you can find the information presented elsewhere in an exceptionally better manner than any attempt of mine. I can only hope the results will be fruitful, and that the efforts of hundreds of thousands will be worthwhile.

But much more will happen on a smaller scale. Simple outreach events may do wonders to promote reason and the phenomena of our world. New and innovative programs like the BBPI can provide people with a fresh and exciting perspective on the work scientists do, and give insight into how we know what we know. And of course we must never underestimate the power of the museum to captivate and inspire the next generation.

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#WeirdThingsInJars. Get it trending.

I had the opportunity to play with dead frogs the other day. More specifically, they were frogs from the Academy’s extensive collections, and we had them out for a weekend as part of “Froguary”, born out of the traveling exhibit that is currently in residence at the museum and our intense obsession with silly puns. There were the usual suspects – the bullfrog, spotted salamanders, the American toad. But we also had some really cool, seldom-seen stuff – a handsome goliath frog, two hellbenders chillin’ in an ethanol bath, the excessively gigantic tadpoles of the paradox frog shown alongside their diminutive parents. And the visitors that walked by were enthralled. They marveled at the specimens, asked some excellent questions – and most even knew the jars were not footballs to toss around. Which is always a win in my book.

Talk to any museum professional around the world and you’ll hear similar stories. This stuff works. And it’s just one form of science communication out there – I could talk about educational television programs, stories in the press, blogs very much like the one you’re reading right now.

So the question isn’t necessarily “how do we communicate science to people”. As ever, the devil is in the details, but by and large we know the answer because we’ve been doing it for years. Basically, we know the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything Really – we just need the proper Question.

Q: What about them Tiktaaliks, then?

A: Stay tuned.

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(and for the love of god don’t take that literally, you’ll be stuck here for months like last time)

Links