Please read the following information carefully before leaving for your expedition.

 

COVID-19 Safety

You are strongly encouraged to test for COVID-19 before traveling to your expedition, particularly if you are experiencing symptoms. Do not travel if you have tested positive, and call Earthwatch right away for the next steps. Please see earthwatch.org/covid-19 for more information.

 

 

The Research

Despite Cuba’s importance as a biodiversity hotspot, long-term political complexities with the U.S. and other nations stymied collaborative international research. This is a critical moment in history for this island nation, under convergent challenges brought by climate change and a post-pandemic world (Boom 2011; Davalos 2004; Fritsch and McDowell 2003; Iturralde-Vinent and MacPhee 1999; Savage 1991).

The mountainous forests of Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER) are home to species only found in the Caribbean—including the vulnerable Cuban Parakeet and the near-threatened Cuban Amazon Parrot (Garrido et al. 2011; González et al. 2014; Cañizares-Morera et al. 2005; Cañizares-Morera and Berovides 2008). This region faces many conservation challenges, including habitat transformation in neighboring agricultural lands, illegal extraction of flora and fauna from protected areas (Muñoz 2014), and the impacts of climate change.

There is a great need to strengthen the management of LBER to better protect its biodiversity, better understand conservation threats, and integrate rural communities into natural resource protection schemes. By intensive monitoring of biodiversity with the help of citizen scientists, specifically birds, trees, and bat species that are indicators of habitat quality, scientists hope to better understand the overall ecosystem and how it could change in the future.

 

Cuban Wildlife and Tropical Forests

 

 

 

Research Aims

Researchers seek to merge scientific research, ecological teaching, and community outreach to establish a mid to long-term research and monitoring program in LBER to generate data and information critical to biodiversity conservation and sustainable management of the Banao River Basin.

With the support of Earthwatch volunteers in 2018, 2019, and 2023, researchers finalized baseline assessments of vegetation (including vegetation structure and composition), birds, amphibians, and reptiles in an altitudinal gradient and across seasons. Through these efforts, it became evident that significant differences in bird community composition were influenced by seasonality (migratory vs. non-migratory, breeding periods), vegetation structure, and altitude. Scientists determined that to maintain and improve the integrity of habitats within the forest, we need to increase efforts in the research and conservation of primary pollinators and seed dispersers—focusing on birds and bats. Little is known about bats at LBER, but most bat species in Cuba show a high degree of ecological specialization, which makes them sensitive to local extinctions.

The overarching research question focuses on the extent of changes in species composition and abundances of indicator taxa through time and space at the LBER and the linkages between these potential changes and the increasing human impact in this area of Cuba.

In alignment with this question, the researchers have five scientific objectives:

  1. Investigate the effect of altitude and temperature on the density of birds and bats of LBER.
  2. Evaluate the relationship between vegetation structure and composition and bird and bat diversity at two different altitudes and between seasons (winter vs. summer).
  3. Explore the effects of logging and nest destruction on the population density of royal palms and cavity-nesting birds.
  4. Evaluate the effectiveness of artificial nest boxes as a tool to increase the breeding density of cavity-nesting birds.
  5. Continue to implement a community outreach program with the rural community of Banao in LBER, where targeted species survive. 

Project research hypotheses will guide the research and monitoring of critical species and conservation threats and assist in the early detection of potential new threats. By directly involving community members in our research, our project will help strengthen local communities' participation in the management of LBER and contribute to reducing species extraction from these reserves.

 

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How You Will Help

Led by the scientists and a team of local experts, citizen scientists will:

  • Hike along prescribed transects through the forest to document bird species through sightings and audio recordings
  • Set mist nets, take measurements and place acoustic recorders in support of bat monitoring efforts
  • Record temperature and relative humidity at monitoring stations
  • Hike to designated plot locations to survey tree abundance, composition, and phenology
  • While hiking transects, record signs of human disturbance (e.g., logging, parrot nest destruction) and invasive species
  • Participate in ongoing conservation efforts, including the construction and placement of nest boxes for cavity-nesting birds and harvesting of target tree sapling species for reforestation purposes
  • Input data into datasets

Volunteers may also have the opportunity to:

  • Learn to use statistical analysis to test project scientific research hypotheses
  • Present survey results at the end of the expedition
  • Plant nurseries to aid reforestation efforts

 

Cuban Wildlife and Tropical Forests

 

 

 

Life in the Field

Fieldwork will take place at Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER). After two initial training days, teams will work together each day to conduct bird surveys in the early mornings, measure trees, and survey bats in the early evenings. Everyone will work on all surveys, but we will rotate schedules so each person focuses on one or two taxa per day (e.g., Group 1 will carry out bird and plant surveys on Day 2, then they will carry out plant and bat surveys on Day 3). The team will hike through the mountain and forest daily to conduct research tasks. We will have short lectures before lunch or in the evenings and have daily debriefings to review surveys and compile data in the late afternoons before dinner. Teams will have short talks in the evenings (about 20 minutes each) about the reserve, the community, target species, and staff research history.

POLICIES

Smoking is not allowed inside the accommodations.

DAILY ACTIVITIES

Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding. In addition, there will be breaks between surveys and sometimes waiting times before going to the next survey.

ITINERARY
  • Day 1: Arrival at the field station in Jarico, in the lowlands of the Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER). Introductions and orientation. Short afternoon hike. You will have time to rest, adjust, and get comfortable.
  • Day 2: Training, brief lectures on methods and target species, and a review of field guides. In the first half of the day, you will practice surveying, bird recognition, and the use of recorders. After lunch at the field station and a short rest, you will learn about bats and be trained on data entry.
  • Days 3–5: Fieldwork is based at the field station in Jarico, and it involves hiking several nearby transects. In the evenings/early nights, you will do bat monitoring work.
  • Day 6: The team will pack their luggage and hike approximately three hours up the mountain, through the forest, to the second field site for a few days of research in the highlands. For those who prefer not to hike, we will have mules available to move up to the second field station, La Sabina.
  • Days 7–8: Hike various transects at the second field site near La Sabina field station in the highlands of Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve.
  • Day 9: Team wrap-up and review of accomplishments, completion of outstanding data entry, and return to Jarico Field Station. Depending on scheduling and other factors, teams may have the opportunity to visit the colonial village of Trinidad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, two hours’ drive away) for a final meal.
  • Day 10: Departure
MONEY MATTERS

LOCAL CURRENCY: Cuban pesos (USD are widely accepted). USD exchange rate fluctuates dynamically.

PERSONAL FUNDS: U.S. credit cards do not work in Cuba; cash is required for all purchases. Participants should carry sufficient cash to cover the sanitation fee upon arrival ($35 USD). Extra spending money may also be useful for laundry services and extra drinks at Banao or for souvenirs should the team have the opportunity to visit nearby colonial Trinidad. Participants may be responsible for the costs of off-site accommodations in the event of respiratory illness, including COVID-19 infection ($60–100 USD/day).

 

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Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or singles’ accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check availability before reserving your space(s) on the team.

Teams will stay at two different field stations. For the first half of your time in the field, you will stay in Cabanas in Jarico Field Station. The cabanas are in the lowlands of the Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER), in the middle of a hotspot for parrot nesting—you may see them around the station. For the second half of your time in the field, you will stay at La Sabina, a more remote field station in a mountainous cloud forest area of the reserve at a high elevation (650 meters above sea level). The field station at La Sabina is a remote cabin in the mountains with no internet and very limited power. Solar panels generate the energy. You are welcome to bring headlamps, batteries, and power banks. You may bring your entire luggage to the second field station (carried up with mules) or pack a smaller bag for the second part of the expedition to La Sabina if you prefer (suitcases can be safely stored at Jarico Field Station). There is a beautiful view of the Caribbean Sea from the mountaintop when the view is clear.

SLEEPING

* Earthwatch will respectfully and without judgment honor each person’s assertion of gender identity. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant Form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.

At Jarico and La Sabina, rooms will be shared by two or three people. All rooms will be separated by gender. Couples’ rooms can be accommodated depending on team makeup and size. Single rooms are difficult to accommodate because the capacity at both accommodations is limited. Single rooms are not available on fully booked teams. For more privacy, you can request a tent from the PI.

Volunteers are advised to bring their own mosquito nets (staff can assist in hanging them). The type with one center hook at the top is best (see the Packing List for specific recommendations). The windows at the La Sabina site do not have screens.

BATHROOMS
  • Jarico: There are showers, toilets and hot water available.
  • La Sabina: Showers and toilets are available, but no hot water. 

Both locations have one shared bathroom per shared room.

ELECTRICITY

At Jarico, electricity is relatively stable and constant. However, power cuts do occur. A backup generator is available (note that the air conditioner does not work with the generator). At La Sabina, electricity works with solar panels, so it can be intermittent.

The majority of outlets in Cuba are 110-volt current, with standard U.S.-style two- or three-pronged outlets. However, some outlets are rated 220 volts, particularly in hotels that cater to European clientele.

PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS

There is no Internet available at either site. While there is no cellular service within the rooms, there is service in the areas surrounding the accommodations. Service may be spotty at some field locations. PIs and staff will have cell phones and regular phone access.

Please note: Personal communication with outsiders is not always possible during an expedition. Earthwatch encourages volunteers to minimize outgoing calls and immerse themselves in the experience; likewise, family and friends should restrict calls to urgent messages only.

FACILITIES AND AMENITIES

The sites are remote, but we encourage volunteers to bring binoculars and enjoy the nature around them.

DISTANCE TO THE FIELD SITE

LBER is 73 miles from the town of Santa Clara, which is the largest town in the area. All research sites are reached by hiking. The hike between the two accommodations in LBER, from Jarico to La Sabina, is about three hours up the mountain (7.5 miles). Mules will be available, primarily for transporting field equipment and luggage, but can also be used to ride should the hike prove difficult for some participants. The mules will also be used for emergencies. The team will hike back down the mountain at the end of the team one day before departure.

FOOD AND WATER

All meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) will be typical Cuban fare prepared by a local cook and eaten at the accommodations. The availability of food products changes daily in Cuba, and sometimes there are shortages, and certain foods will not be available. In addition, there is limited use of spices in Cuban cuisine, so you are welcome to bring your spicy sauce or preferred spices if you wish to add them to your meals. You can also bring snacks and protein bars for between meals if preferred.

TYPICAL MEALS

The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: Eggs, toast, cheese, plantains, fruit, fruit juices, coffee
  • Lunch: Rice, beans, plantains, pork, chicken, vegetables, soup, fresh fruits
  • Dinner: Chicken, pork, fish, vegetables, rice, beans, pasta
  • Dessert: Flan, fruit, syrupy fruit dessert
  • Beverages: Fresh juice, water, sodas, coffee
SPECIAL DIETARY REQUIREMENTS

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible and note them in the space on your volunteer forms.

We will be able to accommodate vegans, vegetarians, lactose-free and nut allergy diets, but not gluten-free diets. Food variety and availability in Cuba can be limited and can change unexpectedly from day to day.

 

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Project Conditions

The following information is as accurate as possible, but please remember that conditions may change.

Cuba is a hotspot for biodiversity, with 17% of its lands and 25% of its marine platforms protected. The average annual temperature is 79°F (26°C), and the average precipitation is 39 in (978 mm), with most rain occurring during May and June. The field site at La Sabina can experience cooler temperatures and more wind at higher elevations. Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER) comprises low, karstic hills in the Sancti Spiritus, Fomento, and Trinidad municipalities. It includes the uppermost part of the Banao and Higuanojo river basins. The landscape is one of canyons, valleys, and sinkholes. LBER supports 72% (77 species) of Cuba’s breeding resident birds.

GENERAL CONDITIONS

Please visit wunderground.com and search your project location for weather and region-specific information.

 

Cuban Wildlife and Tropical Forests

 

 

 

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Hike on hilly and/or steep slopes in densely wooded forest on uneven, muddy, and rocky terrain for three to six miles daily, many days in a row.
  • Be comfortable hiking and conducting fieldwork at night.
  • Be willing to walk in/through the shallow rivers in the valley as often as instructed to conduct surveys.
  • Enjoy being outdoors all day in all types of weather and the potential presence of wild animals and insects. You should bring bug repellent.
  • Endure tropical (hot, humid, and rainy) work conditions.
  • Be comfortable around mules and/or riding mules in the event you need assistance.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Take an active role in your safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Always comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Be comfortable surrounded by a language and/or culture different from yours.
  • Be willing to wait and relax in between fieldwork sessions.

 

Cuban Wildlife and Tropical Forests

 

 

 

Health and Safety

EMERGENCIES IN THE FIELD

The project and protected area staff will have mobile phones for communication while conducting fieldwork.

Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.

IMMUNIZATIONS & TRAVEL VACCINATIONS

Please be sure your routine immunizations are up to date (for example, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella) and that you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and their doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or regions where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

  • Rabies: Though participants will never handle bats, bat monitoring work, including capturing live specimens, will be a core part of the research on this expedition. Rabies is present in the region and can be transmitted by bats, stray dogs, and other mammals. Participants should speak with their doctor or a travel health clinic about pre-exposure vaccination against rabies. Pre-exposure vaccination does not eliminate the need for post-exposure medical attention and treatment, but it does provide additional protection against the disease in the event of a delay in treatment. The pre-exposure vaccination can be costly (upwards of $1,000) and may not be covered under personal health insurance. Participants should plan for this cost should their medical provider recommend vaccination. The nearest hospital that can support post-exposure treatment for rabies is in Sancti Spíritus, though the availability of needed vaccines can vary. It can take at least 4–5 hours to reach medical care while in the field, likely longer at the La Sabina field site.

Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and their doctor. For guidance on immunizations, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization.

 

Cuban Wildlife and Tropical Forests

 

 

 

Project Risks and Precautions

TRANSPORTATION

We may encounter poor road conditions, including landslides. Only qualified, experienced drivers will transport volunteers in project vehicles; we ensure project vehicles are well maintained. Seat belts must be worn at all times. Volunteers are not permitted to drive. Driving after dark will be avoided, except in cases of emergency.

HIKING

Almost all research activities on this project involve hiking. Some of the hikes are up to 6 miles long. The terrain is mountainous, uneven, and can be muddy. It can be slippery, so good shoes are necessary. Both rubber boots and hiking boots are required for all participants. The hike from Jarico to La Sabina is about four hours up the mountain (8 hours round trip). If requested, participants could ride mules to La Sabina. All fieldwork will involve walking up to 6 miles/day (10 km), possibly uphill in rainforest covering, sand, rough terrain, or high altitude, on and off trails; carrying equipment weighing up to 10 lbs. (5kg) on and off trails. River crossings are part of the hikes.

ANIMALS

There will be mules present on this project that will be used to transport luggage and field equipment. They may also be used to transport people should the field research prove too difficult or if someone sustains an injury. Helmets must be worn when riding a mule and will be provided for volunteers. Snakes are present in the field research locations. Volunteers should remain in designated work areas and listen to field staff instructions for avoiding snakes and bites. There are no venomous snakes in Cuba, but if you have a phobia, please inform our project staff so we can make sure we manage the situation.

  • Bats & Rabies: Though participants will not handle bats, bat monitoring work, including capturing live specimens, will be a core part of the research on this expedition. Rabies is present in the region and can be transmitted by bats, stray dogs, and other mammals. The pre-exposure vaccination does not eliminate the need for post-exposure medical attention and treatment, but it does provide additional protection against the disease in the event of a delay in treatment. The nearest hospital that can support post-exposure treatment for rabies is in Sancti Spíritus, though the availability of post-exposure vaccines can vary. It can take at least 4-5 hours to reach medical care while in the field, likely longer at the La Sabina field site. Animal bites or scratches should be immediately and thoroughly washed with soap, clean water, and a topical povidone-iodine solution or ethanol. If you feel ill once you return from your trip, inform your doctor that you have recently returned from a tropical region.
INSECTS AND DISEASE

Mosquitoes are present in Cuba and at research locations and can carry diseases such as chikungunya, dengue, and the Zika virus. Volunteers will be reminded to wear protective clothing, such as long sleeves and pants, and insect repellent. They are also advised to bring mosquito nets for personal use (there are no window screens at the higher elevation La Sabina site). Volunteers with bee sting allergies should carry two Epi-Pens with them and be sure to describe their allergy/reaction on their medical forms.

CLIMATE/WEATHER

Sun exposure and heat exposure are possible on this expedition. Volunteers will be reminded to use sunscreen, wear protective clothing, and maintain hydration by drinking plenty of water. There is also the possibility of rain and hurricanes. LBER experiences intense rainfall during the rainy season (May–October). Hurricane season is from June to November, when landslides, mudslides, and flooding may occur. Research sites are located inland, away from the coastline. Field staff will monitor local weather and plan activities accordingly. If local authorities or field staff deem it necessary to evacuate the location, follow all instructions. Because of the high humidity, people who use a hearing aid device may find it doesn’t work properly. Consider purchasing a hearing aid dehumidifier. You must be able to stay outside in the rain for extended periods.

PERSONAL SECURITY

Petty crime, including pickpocketing, bag-snatching, and theft from vehicles or guest houses (‘casas particulares’), is prevalent in urban centers and major tourist areas. We advise volunteers to be vigilant with personal belongings in Havana to avoid potential thievery.

SWIMMING AND/OR WATER CROSSING

Research activities may require volunteers to cross rivers and streams. Teams will practice thorough water crossing safety procedures, such as using spotters, crossing at low points in the river, using ropes or harnesses if necessary, and only crossing in designated areas. Recreational activities may include swimming in natural pools and possibly the Caribbean Sea.

DISTANCE FROM MEDICAL CARE

Depending on where the team is when medical care is required, it may take up to 4–5 hours to reach care—even longer if you are on a transect near La Sabina. The closest clinics are in Sancti Spiritus (30 minutes by car), Trinidad (50 minutes by car), and Santa Clara (60 minutes by car), but departing the field may require a long hike or mule ride to access the road.

RISK OF COVID-19 OR OTHER RESPIRATORY ILLNESS

Earthwatch strongly encourages you to take precautions to help protect yourself and others from common viral respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, flu, and RSV: stay up to date with your vaccinations; wash your hands frequently; take steps to improve air quality, for example, by increasing ventilation indoors or gathering outdoors; and use preventative measures to limit the spread if you are sick. 

Persons with a higher risk of severe respiratory illness should consult their healthcare provider before participating.

 

Cuban Wildlife and Tropical Forests

 

 

 

Travel Planning

RENDEZVOUS LOCATION

Cafe de la Esquina, Havana, Cuba

Your Earthwatch Expedition Logistics Document will provide specific travel planning details. Once you enroll, you can find this document in your MyEarthwatch Portal. Please do not book travel arrangements—such as flights—until the Expedition Logistics Document matching the current year has been published to your portal account.

ABOUT YOUR DESTINATION

Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.

COUNTRY AND PROJECT ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

You are responsible for reviewing and abiding by your destination's entry/exit requirements.

Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and again 90 days before travel.

CUBAN ENTRY CARD

A Cuban Entry Card is required to enter Cuba. Currently, the Cuban Entry Card is the only ‘visa’ requirement for U.S. passport holders entering Cuba to participate in this environmental project. Typically, entry cards can be purchased at the airport when you check in for your flight if traveling from the United States but double-check with your airline. The entry card costs range from 50 USD to 100 USD, depending on the airline you travel with. Some airlines allow you to purchase the entry card in advance online. You can purchase your ticket online under the Humanitarian Projects category of authorized travel to Cuba. Travel restrictions to Cuba from the United States have changed over the past few years. This information is accurate from the time of printing this expedition briefing. Please double-check Cuba travel requirements with your local embassy before traveling, as requirements are subject to change.

To enter Cuba, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry, and a return ticket is required.

 

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Resources

ARTICLES
BOOKS
  • “Cuba Travel Guide” by the Lonely Planet
  • “A Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba” by Orlando H. Garrido, Arturo Kirkconnell
  • “Endemic Birds of Cuba: A Comprehensive Field Guide. Including West Indian endemics residing in Cuba” by Nils Navarro

The staff will provide a limited but concise library on Cuban biodiversity.

LITERATURE CITED
  • Boom B (2011) The Case for Enhanced Environmental Cooperation Between the Republic of Cuba and the United States of America. 2011. A Tinker Foundation White Paper. Updated as: Biodiversity without Borders: Advancing U.S.-Cuba Cooperation through Environmental Research, Science and Diplomacy. http://www.sciencediplomacy.org/article/2012/biodiversity-without-borders.
  • Cañizares-Morera M, Berovides V, González BVP, Suz CLR (2008) Situación actual de las poblaciones del periquito cubano o catey Aratinga euops (Aves: Psittacidae) en el centro de Cuba. La Ceiba, Honduras 22–23 de noviembre 2005: 49.
  • Davalos LM (2004) Phylogeny and biogeography of Caribbean mammals. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 81: 373–-394.
  • Díaz LM, Cádiz A, Chong A, Silva A (2007) First report of chytridiomycosis in a dying toad (Anura: Bufonidae) from Cuba: a new conservation challenge for the island. EcoHealth 4: 172–175.
  • Fritsch PW, McDowell TD (2003) Biogeography and phylogeny of Caribbean plants—introduction. Systematic botany 28: 376–377.
  • Garrido OH, Kirkconnell A, Compañy R (2011) Aves de Cuba: Comstock Publishing Associates; Cornell University Press.
  • González VR, Schettino LR, Mancina CA, Iturriaga M (2014) Amphibians of Cuba: Checklist and Geographic Distributions: Division of Amphibians & Reptiles, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Inst.
  • Iturralde-Vinent MA, MacPhee RD (1999) Paleogeography of the Caribbean region: implications for Cenozoic biogeography: American Museum of Natural History.
  • Muñoz AH (2014) Loros de Cuba y su conservación, Lulu Press, Inc.
  • Savage JM (1991) Biogeography of the West Indies. Past, Present, and Future. Systematic Biology 40: 110–111.

 

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