German Shepherd colors 101 (All colors & patterns)

red German Shepherds

Like any other dog breed, German Shepherds come in a variety of colors and color combinations/patterns. Apart from the black, cream, blonde, and ivory-white colorations, German Shepherds are rarely of single solid color as most have patterned coats.

Some colors and patterns such as sable and saddleback are common and desired. But not all colorations are desired by purists, kennel clubs, and in GSD conformation shows. Others are also considered faults and not accepted by major kennel clubs. This is because some colorations are associated with mixed breeds and the risk of certain health issues which is not always true.

However, none of the German Shepherd colorations are a result of crossbreeding or are known to cause any health problems. This includes the white, blue, and panda GSDs that some associate with health issues. These colors are disqualified in GSD shows.

Another great example is the brindle German Shepherd is considered a crossbreed but is not. The brindle coloration existed in the first GSD litters but was slated for elimination which made the brindle pattern rare.

For more on German Shepherd colors, Scroll on.

German Shepherd color genetics

The expression, relative amounts, and distribution of two melanin pigments, eumelanin, and pheomelanin, determine all German Shepherd color varieties.

  • Eumelanin (black, brown, blue, or lilac color): This pigment is black by default but can be modified to appear brown/liver, blue, or isabella/lilac. It is the pigment found on all parts of a GSD’s body including the eyes, skin, nose, bones, ears, nails, and sometimes on the coat.
  • Pheomelanin (red, tan, yellow, golden, cream, or ivory white color): This pigment is red or yellow by default but can be modified to appear tan, cream, golden, or even ivory white. Ivory white is an off-white color that appears creamish when put against a pure white backdrop. Pheomelanin pigment can only make up the coat pigmentation.

Pure white patches such as those in Panda GSDs are due to a lack of either pigment. Hairs follicles in areas of the coat and skin where the formation of either pigment is blocked due to a mutation of the KIT gene are filled with air causing them to appear white instead.

Whatever pigmentation/color a German Shepherd has is regulated by 4 primary genes. These are;

  • Agouti or ASIP gene (A-locus)
  • Extension or MC1R gene (E-locus)
  • CBD103 gene (K-locus)
  • KIT gene

However, there are modifier genes such as the TYRP1 gene (Brown/liver gene), MLPH gene (blue/Eumelanin dilution gene), and the intensity gene (pheomelanin intensity gene).

Each gene is found in a specific location on specific chromosomes/DNA chains. A locus is the specific gene location on a chromosome such as the K-locus on chromosome 16.

All dogs have 39 pairs of chromosomes (78 in total) containing several genes that also come in pairs. These genes contain information for all traits a dog exhibits including color, coat type, behavior, and so on. A certain gene can have different variations known as alleles forming a series of possible alleles.

These genes interact in complex ways to create the array of colors that all German Shepherds are known for. But of importance is that not all color genes have been sequenced or mapped yet. Further studies and mapping will give us more to work with.

Extension/MC1R gene (E-locus)

The MC1R gene (MelanoCortin 1 Receptor) mapped on chromosome 5 controls the type of pigment produced by the pigment-producing cells.

Eumelanin production is activated by the alpha-Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone (α-MSH) which is a ligand that binds to the MC1R gene. Once the gene is activated it triggers a chemical reaction that stimulates black/brown eumelanin production. If α-MSH binding to MC1R is blocked by ASIP or MC1R activation fails due to a mutation, red/yellow pheomelanin is produced instead.

5 known alleles form the Extension series (E-locus). These are;

  • Em (Melanistic Mask): This is the most dominant gene variation in this series. It is responsible for the black mask on a dog’s muzzle and that may extend to its ears. This allele allows for the various agouti patterns to show but with restricted production of eumelanin production on the face forming a mask. The mask will not be visible on recessive black GSDs. Other genes can modify this mask’s pigmentation to appear liver/brown, blue, or lilac. Black muzzles are present on most German Shepherds.
  • Eg (Grizzle/Domino): This allele is only found in a few breeds such as the Saluki that is responsible for the grizzle or domino coloration. The allele is absent in German Shepherds.
  • E (Black): This is the wild type, “original” or unmodified form of the MC1R gene that promotes the production of black/brown eumelanin pigment. The E allele is recessive to Em and Eg but dominant to recessive red (e).
  • e (Recessive Red): This is the least dominant or most recessive variant of MC1R. It is caused by a loss of function mutation of the MC1R gene causing it to lose its ability to stimulate black eumelanin production. Red/Yellow pheomelanin pigment is produced instead while eumelanin production is blocked. German Shepherds with two copies of this gene have no black hairs but tend to be yellowish/blonde, cream, or almost white/ivory white. Due to its recessive nature, two copies should be present for pheomelanin to be produced and loaded onto the coat which will appear completely cream to almost white. The concentration of red pheomelanin is determined by the Intensity gene. As a pair, recessive red is dominant to genes on the A and K-locus which are masked and not visible.

Agouti/ASIP gene (A-locus)

Most agouti gene colorations show a mixture of eumelanin and pheomelanin on different sections of the coat. This gene interacts with the MC1R gene to control switching between eumelanin and pheomelanin pigment on individual hairs and specific regions of the coat.

The Agouti Series governed by the ASIP is responsible for most and some of the common German Shepherd colorations. This includes fawn also known as a clear sable, shaded sable, actual sable or agouti, saddleback, tan points, and solid black.

The agouti gene acts as an antagonist/a-agonist of the MC1R gene and controls the production of the Agouti Signalling Protein/ASIP (paracrine signaling molecule). This molecule binds to the MC1R gene and promotes the production of red/yellow pheomelanin pigment instead of black eumelanin protein.

Previously there were thought to be 4 alleles in the agouti locus but recent studies revealed that there are 6 alleles.

These studies also revealed that the ASIP gene is controlled by promoters in the gene that activates the ASIP gene in specific areas of the dog’s coat. They are known as Ventral Promoters (VP) and Hair Cycle Promoters (HCP).

The ventral promoter predominantly activates the ASIP gene on the dog’s ventral surface (the dog’s underside). There are 2 ventral promoter types: VP1 and VP2. VP1 is a much stronger activator while VP2 is a weaker promoter and allows for the production of some eumelanin pigment.

The hair cycle promoter activates the ASIP gene on the dog’s dorsal surface (upper surface). This promoter alternated between pheomelanin and eumelanin production during hair growth causing banded hairs. There are 5 hair cycle promoter types: HCP1, HCP2, HCP3, HCP4, and HCP5. HCP1 is a stronger promoter, and HCP2 is weaker causing less banding. HCP3, HCP4, and HCP5 lose their ability to activate the ASIP gene causing the production of eumelanin pigment only without pheomelanin bands.

These promoters are responsible for 5 of 6 agouti patterns. Black is caused by a loss of function mutation of the ASIP gene.

ASIP alleles and patterns

The 6 agouti alleles include;

  • Ay (VP1 + HCP1): This is the most dominant allele responsible for the Clear Sable or Fawn coloration. These German Shepherds are almost solid red to yellow with little dark hair banding on the dog’s back, tail, head, and ears. This is because the dogs have a high and uniform pheomelanin concentration in all parts of the coat with some dark shading in the dog’s dorsal surface. Some fawn GSDs may have a melanistic mask covering the muzzle and sometimes extending to the ears.
  • Ays (VP2 + HCP1): This allele is recessive to clear sable but dominant over the other allele and is responsible for the Shaded Sable coloration. These GSDs are predominantly red to yellow with moderate to heavy dark shading on the dog’s back. The dark shading can extend on dogs with melanistic masks. GSDs with two copies of this allele tend to have more dark shading than those with one. One unique feature of shaded sable GSDs is a “widow’s peak” above the eyes where the light red, tan, yellowish, or cream hairs meet the dark hairs.
  • Aw (VP2 + HCP2): This allele is dominant over Asa, and At but recessive over Ay and Ays. It is responsible for the Agouti, Grey Sable, Wild Sable, or Sable coloration. GSDs with this allele have banded hairs on the dog’s dorsal surface, top of the head, and ears. The dog’s underside remains red to yellow with a few dark hairs. Although shaded sables and agoutis tend to look similar agoutis have spectacles around their eyes instead of a widow’s peak.
  • Asa (VP1 + HCP4): This allele is recessive over Aw, Ays, and Ay but dominant over At and a. It is responsible for the Saddleback, Blanket Back or Creeping Tan coloration. German Shepherds with this allele are born with tan points that expand as the dark eumelanin hairs extend to the dog’s back/saddle. The dark hairs on the dog’s saddle are mostly solid-colored hairs with no banding but may be intermingled with some light eumelanin hairs.
  • At (VP2 + HCP3, HCP4 or HCP5): This is the second most recessive allele responsible for the Tan Point coloration. These GSDs are almost solid black, blue, liver, or lilac with tan points on restricted areas on the sides of the muzzle, eyebrows, throat, chest, belly, under the tail, and the lower and inner legs. The tan points on the face may be covered on dogs with a dark melanistic mask.
  • a: This is a mutation of the agouti gene responsible for the Recessive Black coloration. These GSDs have no markings on their coat but can also be liver/brown, blue, or lilac depending on modifying genes.

CBD103 gene (K-locus)

The CBD103 or Canine Beta-Defensin 103 gene also known as K-locus is a gene that affects the interaction of the Agouti and Extension locus. This gene has been mapped on chromosome 16.

In its wild-type or unmutated form, this gene allows for the normal activity and expression of the Agouti locus. However, mutations of this gene have been shown to block the activities of the ASIP gene to various degrees by preventing the binding of the paracrine molecule to the MC1R gene.

For these reasons, there are 3 known alleles on the K-locus;

  • Kb (Dominant black): This is the most dominant allele on the K-series responsible for the dominant Black coloration. It is caused by a mutation of the CBD103 gene that prevents the agouti locus from blocking black/brown eumelanin production. This allele thus leads to the synthesis and production of eumelanin pigment only resulting in solid black, liver, blue, or isabella coats. While the effects of this gene are similar to those of recessive black, it is not been found in any black German Shepherds. All black GSDs have been sequenced as recessive black (a/a genotype) on the Agouti series. As of now, this allele is not prevented in any GSD.
  • Kbr (Brindle): This seems to be the most dominant allele on the German Shepherd’s K-locus. It is responsible for the alternating and irregular dark and light-colored “tiger” stripes (Brindled Pattern). This is because the brindle allows for the expression of the agouti locus but with dark eumelanin stripes on pheomelanin sections. However, the brindle gene has not been mapped and is currently non-testable, and cannot be revealed through genetic testing. It is believed that this is a mosaic allele that causes some sections of the coat to be dominant black while others are Ky allowing agouti activity to be visible as alternating stripes. Brindle is very a rare German Shepherd coloration.
  • Ky (Normal Agouti expression): This is the least dominant gene in the K series but the wild type or unmodified CBD103 gene. It allows for agouti patterns such as fawn, sable, black and tan, and recessive black to be visible but requires two copies of it to be present. Most German Shepherds have two copies of this allele allowing for normal agouti expression.

KIT gene

The KIT gene is a crucial gene involved in essential cell functions and development including the migration of pigment-forming cells during embryo development.

However, a mutation of this gene restricts proper cell migration. It also prevents the pigment-forming cells (melanocytes) from the neural crest from reaching their intended areas on the skin and coat.

Sections these pigment-forming cells fail to reach appear white due to a lack of either eumelanin or pheomelanin pigment.

In German Shepherds, this mutation is responsible for the Panda coloration. Panda GSDs can be of any color or pattern but with random pure white sections on their coats. This mutant KIT gene on GSDs is denoted as capital “P” and is a dominant gene.

Since the panda gene is dominant, only one copy is required for the panda coloration. The gene cannot be hidden or carried without being visible on the coat coloration.

All panda GSDs have the genotype “P/p” as at least one copy of a working KIT gene is required for a GSD pup to be born. Two copies of the Panda genes are deemed as embryonic lethal where the pup dies before birth.

The mutant KIT gene affects both eumelanin and pheomelanin pigmentation.

TYRP1 gene (B-locus)

The TYRP1 gene (Tyrosinase Protein 1) allows a GSD to produce unmodified black eumelanin pigment. It is a dominant gene denoted as upper case “B”.

But a mutation of the gene causes the pigment-producing cells to produce eumelanin pigment with a modified structure. This modified pigment appears liver/brown instead of black to our eyes. Because of this, the mutant TYRP1 gene is denoted as lowercase “b”.

The brown mutant TYRP1 gene is recessive and thus two copies (b/b) should be present to turn all black eumelanin pigment Brown or Liver as it is known in German Shepherds. All black eumelanin pigment is turned liver including on the coat, skin, nose leather, lips, and eye rims that will appear brown. The eye pigmentation is also affected causing them to be yellowish/amber/hazel-green.

GSDs with two copies of this mutant gene are referred to as Liver-colored German Shepherds.

The brown gene only affects eumelanin pigmentation.

MLPH gene (D-locus)

The MLPH or Melanophilin gene leads to the production of a normal concentration of eumelanin pigment. This is a dominant gene denoted as capital D.

However, a mutation of the gene leads to the dilution of black/brown eumelanin pigment. In other words, less eumelanin pigment is produced (eumelanin is produced in lower concentrations). For this reason, the mutant gene diluted black to appear blue while brown appear lilac or isabella.

Diluted black or Blue is also known as Silver-grey, Ash-colored, or Slate while Isabellas or Pale Browns are also known as Lilacs.

The mutant MLPH or dilution gene is a recessive gene denoted as lowercase “d”. Two copies of this gene (d/d) should be present for dilution to occur.

With two copies of the dilution gene, all eumelanin pigment in all areas is diluted including the skin, nose, lips, eye rims, paw pads, bones, ears, eye iris, and so on.

Blue GSDs have bluish skin and hazel-blue eyes. Isabella GSDs have pale brown skin with sky or light blue eyes.

Dilution only affects eumelanin pigmentation.

Intensity genes (I-locus)

The intensity gene alters the appearance of red pigmentation by affecting how much red pigment is produced.

High pheomelanin concentration causes any pheomelanin sections to appear deep red. Lower concentration causes pheomelanin coat sections to appear tan. If the concentration is reduced further, the coat will be cream, blonde (golden), or almost white (ivory white) on extensive pheomelanin dilution.

The intensity genes affect all pheomelanin sections of the coat including on fawn, shaded fawn, banded sable, saddleback, tan-point, and recessive red German Shepherds. Any pheomelanin section can range in shade from deep red, tan, yellow, cream, light cream, or ivory white.

The intensity gene is recessive and is denoted as lowercase “i”. Two copies of the gene (i/i) should be present for pheomelanin dilution to occur.

Of importance is that all recessive red German Shepherds have two copies of the intensity gene which causes their coats to have golden/blonde, cream, light cream, or ivory white coats. None of the recessive red GSDs has a red or tan coat due to the presence of the intensity genes.

Intensity genes only affect pheomelanin concentration which is only present on the coat. Only pheomelanin coats or sections are affected.

As of the time of writing, a lot is yet to be discovered about what causes the various degrees of shading. The cream-to-white range in pheomelanin concentration or any possible modifiers is yet to be explained.

Coat colors

Recognized & Desired colors

Accepted German Shepherd colors include;

  • Types of sable– Clear sable, Shaded sable and agouti. They include red sables, tan sables, and, cream/silver sables
  • Bicolors- Saddle backs/blanket backs and Tan points. They include black and red, black and tan, and black and cream. Black and cream are also known as black and silver where German Shepherds are involved.
  • Recessive black– Undiluted solid black.

Diluted or modified shades are considered faults for showing. You should note desirable or undesirable colorations only matter where conformation shows are involved. Undesirable colors lead to a loss of points and an almost zero chance of winning or disqualified.

Color Description
Black German ShepherdEye color: Dark Brown
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Black
Nail color: Black
Coat color: All black
These German Shepherds are entirely solid black
They are bred by mating two black GSD or recessive black carriers. Both parents must at least carry the recessive gene for the possibility of black pups
Clear Sable/Fawn/Ay sable/Dominant yellow German ShepherdEye color: Dark Brown, Amber, Hazel Blue, or Light Blue depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Black, Bluish, Brown, or Pale Brown depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Nail color: Black to light-colored
Coat color: Red, tan, yellowish, cream to almost white with minimal to moderate dark shading/dark overlay on the dog’s back, top of the head, ears, and sides of the body
Dark shading is caused by the presence of banded hairs or light-colored hairs with dark tips
Most tend to have a melanistic muzzle mask
Shaded Sable German ShepherdEye color: Dark Brown, Amber, Hazel Blue, or Light Blue depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Black, Bluish, Brown, or Pale Brown eumelanin pigmentation
Nail color: Black to light-colored
Coat color: Red, tan, yellowish, cream to almost white with moderate to heavy shading due to the presence of dark hair tips on the dog’s back, top of the head, ears, and back of the tail
Dark shading can be black, brown/liver, blue, or lilac
The dark shading tends to extend on the face of German Shepherds with melanistic masks
Shaded sables look similar to agoutis/wolf sables but have a widow’s peak above the eyes where the light and dark shading meet
Grey Sable/Wolf sable/Agouti Sable German ShepherdEye color: Dark Brown, Amber, Hazel Blue, or Light Blue depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Black, Bluish, Brown, or Pale Brown depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Nail color: Black to light-colored
Coat color: Red sable, tan sable, yellow sable, or cream sable
Sable is caused by the presence of banded/multicolored hairs (light-colored hairs with dark tips) covering most of the German Shepherd’s coat but concentrated on the dog’s dorsal surface. The dark shading can be black, brown, blue, or lilac
The underside (ventral surface) on sable GSDs tends to be predominantly red, tan, yellowish, or cream with some dark banded hairs peppered across
Most sable GSDs have dark coloring/mask around their muzzle that may extend to the ears
Although shaded sables and agoutis look similar, agouti/wolf sables have spectacles around their eyes instead of a widow’s peak
Grey (tan sables) and silver (cream sables) GSDs are all sables
Bicolor Saddleback/Creeping tan/Blanket back German ShepherdEye color: Dark Brown, Amber, Hazel Blue, or Light Blue depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Black, Bluish, Brown, or Pale Brown depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Nail color: Black to light colored
Coat color: Black and red, black and tan, black and yellow, or black and cream. Others can be blue, brown, or lilac, and red, tan, yellow, or cream to almost white. Black and tan are the most common color combination
Saddleback is one of two bi-color German Shepherd colorations consisting of dark hairs (black, blue, liver, or lilac) concentrated on the dog’s saddle/back.
The concentration of dark-colored hair is shaped like a saddle on a horse’s back. If the saddle extends to cover most of the dog’s back and extends to a portion of the limbs or top of the head, it is known as Creeping tan or Blanket back
The rest of the coat is light colored (deep red, tan, yellowish, cream to almost white).
Unlike sables, the dark hairs are not banded but solid colored
Most saddlebacks have a muzzle mask covering the face that may extend to the ears
Bicolor Tan Point German ShepherdEye color: Dark Brown, Amber, Hazel Blue, or Light Blue depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Black, Bluish, Brown, or Pale Brown depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Nail color: Black to light-colored
Coat color: Black and red, black and tan, black and yellow, or black and cream. Others can be blue, brown, or lilac, and red, tan, yellow, or cream to almost white. Black and tan are the most common color combination
Tan point German Shepherds are almost black with light red, tan, yellow, or cream markings above the eyes, cheeks, throat, chest, underbelly, feet, inner legs, and under the tail
The tan points/markings on the face may be covered on dogs with melanistic masks

Off-Colors & Undesired colors

Undesired, faulty, or unacceptable colors do not mean that these are not purebred dogs. It is just that they do not meet the accepted coloration by the breed standard for showing.

These German Shepherd colors do not win prizes and are often disqualified as faults in conformation shows. Some colors such as the white GSD are not permissible and cannot participate in dog shows.

As AKC states, although most colors are permissible, vibrant and rich colors are preferred while washed-out colors such as blue and liver are considered faults.

ColorsDescription
Blue German ShepherdEye color: Hazel Blue
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Bluish
Nail color: Light blue
Coat color: Steel/deep blue, charcoal blue, pale blue, blue fawn, blue sable, blue bicolors, and blue panda due to black eumelanin dilution
Liver/Brown German ShepherdEye color: Hazel green/Yellowish brown/Amber
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Brown
Nail color: Light brown
Coat color: Dark brown/liver, brown, light brown, liver fawn, liver sable, liver bicolors, and liver panda due to black eumelanin modification
Cream German ShepherdEye color: Dark Brown, Amber, Hazel Blue, or Light Blue depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Black, Bluish, Brown, or Pale Brown depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Nail color: Black to light-colored
Coat color: Cream to light cream due to pheomelanin dilution
Blonde German ShepherdEye color: Dark Brown, Amber, Hazel Blue, or Light Blue depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Black, Bluish, Brown, or Pale Brown depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Nail color: Black to light-colored
Coat color: Cream with a yellowish hue due to pheomelanin dilution
White German ShepherdEye color: Dark Brown, Amber, Hazel Blue, or Light Blue depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Black, Bluish, Brown, or Pale Brown depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Nail color: Black to light-colored
Coat color: Light cream to almost white/ivory white/off-white due to pheomelanin dilution
Panda German ShepherdEye color: Dark Brown, Amber, Hazel Blue, or Light Blue depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Black, Bluish, Brown, or Pale Brown depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Nail color: Black to light-colored
Coat color: Any color or pattern with random pure white markings/patches 
Brindle German ShepherdEye color: Dark Brown, Amber, Hazel Blue, or Light Blue depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Black, Bluish, Brown, or Pale Brown depending on eumelanin pigmentation
Nail color: Black to light-colored
Coat color: Alternating and irregular dark and light-colored stripes (tiger stripes). Brindle stripes only occur on light-colored pheomelanin sections of the coat
Isabella German ShepherdEye color: Sky blue/light blue
Skin, Nose, Lips, Eye Rims, and Paw-pad color: Pale brown/Pinkish
Nail color: Light colored
Coat color: Dusty pale brown

Rare & common colors

Common ColorsRare Colors
Black and TanBlue
Black and CreamLiver/Brown
Black and SilverFawn
Red and BlackWhite/cream/blonde
Black and RedPanda
Solid BlackBrindle
SableIsabella/Lilac
Dark Sable
Black Sable
Bi-Colour / Bi-Black

Rare German Shepherd colors are not necessarily pricier as they do not always get on most fanciers’ radars. But this does not also mean that a rare coat color will be cheaper.

Price is dependent on many factors such as demand, location, the specific breeder, pedigree, and so on.

Nose, Skin & Eye colors

Nose, skin, and eye color are determined by eumelanin pigmentation. This is because apart from coat color, eumelanin is the only pigment that can be found on all other parts such as the skin, eyes, bones, ear structures, liver, and all inner body structures.

The skin includes nose leather, lips, eye rims, and paw pads.

Recessive red GSDs such as cream, blonde/golden, and white GSDs have entire pheomelanin coats instead of eumelanin. You can tell their eumelanin pigmentation by looking at the skin, lips, eye rims, paw pads, and eye colors.

German Shepherds with black eumelanin pigment have black skin and dark brown eyes. Those with brown eumelanin pigment have brown skins and hazel green/amber eyes. Blue eumelanin GSDs have bluish skins and hazel blue eyes. Isabella eumelanin GSDs.

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There you go, WOOF!

GG

As a dog lover, George understands how they behave and how to best take care of them. He is also well versed with various dog breeds and loves writing about them.

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