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Tiny Cryptanthe


1.1  Description

Tiny cryptanthe (Cryptantha minima Rydb.) is an annual species in the Borage family (Boraginaceae). The bristly-haired stems are branched from near the base and grow up to 10–20 cm high. The leaves, also bristly-haired, are spatula-shaped and can be up to 6 cm long by 0.5 cm wide at the base of the plants, but get smaller as they proceed up the stem (Moss 1994). Tiny cryptanthe flowers from late May to early July (Smith 1998; Kershaw et al. 2001; Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004). The flowers are tube-shaped, with white petals and yellow centres, and are arranged along the top side of the branches (Figure 1). At the base of each flower is a small leaf, or bract. The flowers are up to 2 mm across and 3 mm long. Bristly, green sepals with thickened, whitish midribs surround the flower petals, forming a calyx (Figure 1). Within the calyx, four small nutlets (seeds) form, maturing in late July and August; one nutlet is larger and smooth, and three nutlets are smaller and covered by small bumps. The calices turn brown when mature (Figure 2). The plant eventually turns greyish in September before dying. 

Figure 1. Photo of tiny cryptanthe plant with flowers

Figure 1. Photo of tiny cryptanthe plant with flowers.

    Figure 2. Photo of mature tiny cryptanthe, showing the brown calices

Figure 2. Photo of mature tiny cryptanthe, showing the brown calices.

1.2  Distribution and Abundance

Tiny cryptanthe is native to North America. In Canada, its known locations are 28 populations [1] in Alberta and four populations in Saskatchewan (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004; C. Bradley pers. comm.; C. Elchuk pers. obs.; D. Nernberg pers. obs.) (Figure 3, Table 1). Tiny cryptanthe is associated with river systems, mainly the South Saskatchewan River valley in the eastern half of Alberta and near the western border of Saskatchewan. Tiny cryptanthe has also been found in the vicinity of the lower Bow and upper Oldman rivers in Alberta and the Red Deer River in Saskatchewan. The nearest location in the United States is in Montana, 450 km from the southernmost Alberta location (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004). The number of populations in the United States is not documented; it is not known what percentage of the species’ global distribution and abundance is currently found in Canada, although it is undoubtedly small (Figure 4). There are insufficient historical and long-term data collected for this species to allow a rate of population decline to be determined.

Figure 3. Known range of tiny cryptanthe in Canada.

Figure 4. Known range of tiny cryptanthe in North America (adapted from Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004)

Figure 4. Known range of tiny cryptanthe in North America (adapted from Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004).

In Canada, tiny cryptanthe is ranked S1 in both Alberta and Saskatchewan and N1 nationally, meaning that it is considered extremely rare, with five or fewer occurrences or very few remaining individuals (Vujnovic and Gould 2002; NatureServe 2004; Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre 2004).

In the United States, tiny cryptanthe extends through the central plains (Figure 4), but a rank has not been assigned for its national status. The status of tiny cryptanthe is not ranked or is under review in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. However, it is ranked as vulnerable in Wyoming (S3) and apparently secure in South Dakota (S4).

Globally, tiny cryptanthe is ranked as demonstrably secure under present conditions (G5) (NatureServe 2004).


Table 1. Summary of tiny cryptanthe populations in Canadaa
SiteRecent population estimatebLand tenureThreats
OldmanRiver>500ditch, privateroad maintenance, herbicides, exotics
3–8 km upstream>568leased Crownoil/gas activity, cultivation, invasive exotics
6 km upstream62c
9 km upstream5
11 km upstream3
South SaskatchewanRiverd   
Medicine Hat, Seven Persons Creek9municipaloil/gas
Medicine Hat, Gas City Campground1 100municipalhabitat degradation
Medicine Hat, Ranchlands40 000municipalurban development
Medicine Hat, Box Springs Road60municipalinvasive exotics
km 120–123, east side450private 
km 131, west side>1 000ditch, privateherbicides, exotics, road maintenance
km 136–141, west side>2 600privateoil/gas, cultivation
km 157, east side11 500eleased Crownoil/gas, seeding to non-native pasture, cultivation, exotics
km 158, east side40f
km 160, east side110
km 167–169, east side80g
km 174, east side0h
km 178, east side7 500
km 181, east side37
km 190, east side2
km 263, west side, valley20privateoil/gas
South Empress, east side900leased Crown 
South Saskatchewan River, CFB Suffield and CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area
km 156–175, south Fish Creeki172 174federal land (Department of National Defence – CFB Suffield)lack of grazing (some areas), oil/gas (all areas), military activities (some areas)
km 196–198, north Casa Berardi72 475
km 200–201, north Nishimoto Flats16 011
km 198–200, northwest Koomati1 390
km 208, north Mule Deer Springs1
km 230, Ypres399
South Saskatchewan River   
Estuary366leased Crown 
South of Ebenau Island45privatecultivation
Red Deer Forks14 363leased Crown, private 

a Note that population sizes are difficult to quantify because of yearly fluctuations in population size and the use of different census techniques.

b   Based on 2004 survey unless otherwise noted.

c 2002 survey.

d   South Saskatchewan River kilometre values based on Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (2004) and maps from Dickinson and Baresco (1996).

e 2003 survey.

f >725 found in 2003.

g 17 500 found in 2003.

h 12 found in 2003.

i Site names (e.g. Casa Berardi, Ypres) refer to training area subdivisions in use by CFB Suffield (map: CFB Suffield Reduction – Navaids, Series GSGS 5826-N, Sheet 156, Edition 1-GSGS)


1.2.1 Specific Areas in Canada


Tiny cryptanthe is found in southeastern Alberta in the vicinity of the upper Oldman River, the lower Bow River, and the South Saskatchewan River from Medicine Hat east to the Saskatchewan border (Table 1).

OldmanRiver– The Oldman River site is located 11 km upstream of the confluence with the Bow River in the sandy upland of the Purple Springs dunes in a slightly disturbed area beside a road in sandy soil (Bradley and Ernst 2004).

BowRiver–The sites associated with the Bow River are on upland sandy terrain, some associated with side coulees running off the valley, between 3 and 11 km upstream from the confluence with the Oldman River. Sites associated with side coulees appear secure, provided grazing and small patch disturbances from mammals continue with no permanent loss of vegetation.

South Saskatchewan River – The first sighting of tiny cryptanthe at Medicine Hat was in 1894, with no relocations until large numbers of tiny cryptanthe were found on valley slopes and sandy uplands within the city limits of Medicine Hat in 2004. Three sites (Seven Persons Creek, Gas City Campground, Box Springs Road) are located along steep coulee slopes and, although near developments (e.g., golf course, campground), are considered secure because the terrain is not suitable for development. In the northern Ranchlands area, plants were on undulating uplands and mid- to upper valley slopes, although over half of the habitat has recently been lost to housing development and road construction (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004; Bradley 2004; Bradley and Ernst 2004).

Additional sites along the South Saskatchewan River, downstream from Medicine Hat, are located on valley benches, upper valley slopes, and adjacent upland areas on both sides of the river in areas used mainly for grazing and some oil/gas activities. These sites are likely secure, particularly the sites on steeper valley slopes, as long as grazing and only small patch disturbances continue and there is no permanent loss of vegetation or major shifts in land use that would negatively affect tiny cryptanthe (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004).  

South Saskatchewan River, CFB Suffield and CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area – The CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area is a federally protected wildlife area comprising 458 km2 on the east side of CFB Suffield adjacent to the South Saskatchewan River. A small portion of the CFB Suffield training area bisects the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area and straddles the South Saskatchewan River. Until 2004, only small numbers of tiny cryptanthe were found in CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area (Macdonald 1997; Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004). Surveys in 2004 located large populations of tiny cryptanthe in both the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area and the CFB Suffield training area adjacent to the South Saskatchewan River (D. Nernberg pers. obs.). Most of the tiny cryptanthe sites were located on mid-slope terraces and on the slopes of hills and undulations (D. Nernberg pers. obs.). Although the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area is a protected area and no motorized military training occurs within its boundaries, other activities occur in the national wildlife area, including cattle grazing and oil and gas activities. Sites outside the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area in the CFB Suffield training area may be subject to active military operations and oil and gas development; cattle grazing is not allowed in the training areas of CFB Suffield (B. Smith pers. comm.).  


Until 2004, tiny cryptanthe had been reported at two locations in Saskatchewan: one near Westerham and one near the border close to Empress, Alberta. Expanded surveys in 2004 relocated one of the historical locations as well as locating new sites for tiny cryptanthe along the South Saskatchewan River west of Leader to the Alberta border (Table 1). All sites are used for ranching and should be secure as long as there is no major change in land use. 

Estuary – The Estuary site is located east of the Estuary ferry on a sandy, undulating, and hummocky valley bottom terrace with stabilized sand dunes.

South of Ebenau Island – The locations that are south of Ebenau Island are on upland habitat near the valley breaks.

Red Deer Forks – This is a large tract of native pasture between the confluence of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan rivers. Tiny cryptanthe locations are along valley breaks or coulee slopes leading into the river valley.

Westerham – The Westerham site has not been relocated, despite numerous search attempts since it was reported in the 1970s. The site was reported to be an upland area on disturbed, cindery soil adjacent to an old railway bed and elevator. Fendler’s cryptanthe (Cryptantha fendleri) and Kelsey’s cryptanthe (Cryptantha kelseyana) currently inhabit the area. The specimen located in the University of Saskatchewan W.P. Fraser herbarium (Accession number 67852) is a young specimen in the flowering stage, and it is difficult to confirm if it is tiny cryptanthe.

1.3   Needs of Tiny Cryptanthe 

1.3.1   Environment

Tiny cryptanthe occurs in the Mixed Grassland Ecoregion of the Prairie Ecozone in Saskatchewan and mainly in the Dry Mixedgrass Natural Subregion, with some locations in the Mixedgrass Natural Subregion, of the Grassland Natural Region in Alberta (Alberta Environmental Protection 1994; Acton et al. 1998). Tiny cryptanthe grows in a steppe climate, which is characterized as being dry year-round as a result of low annual precipitation levels, high rates of evaporation, and fast surface runoff (Smith 1998; Fung 1999). In Medicine Hat, Alberta, annual precipitation is about 334 mm, with the highest precipitation occurring in June (Environment Canada 2004). In Saskatchewan, annual precipitation at Leader is 360 mm, with the peak precipitation occurring in June. These areas experience warm summers (mean summer temperatures of 18.5°C at Medicine Hat and 17.8°C at Leader) and cold winters (mean winter temperatures of −8.1°C at Medicine Hat and −11.4°C at Leader) (Environment Canada 2004). Soils in the areas where tiny cryptanthe is growing are Brown and typically formed in sandy fluvial or aeolian materials, described as Orthic Regosols or Rego Chernozems, with coarser soil textures of sandy loam or loamy sand to silty (Kjearsgaard and Pettapiece 1986; Saskatchewan Soil Survey 1990, 1993; Fung 1999; Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004; Bradley and Ernst 2004).

1.3.2   Habitat

Tiny cryptanthe appears to occur within a few kilometres of river systems and is typically located in three types of habitat: 1) sandy, level to rolling upland areas, and sand dunes near valley breaks; 2) valley slopes with up to 50% slope; and 3) level or gently sloping terraces in the valley bottom, particularly in meander lobes (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004). On a microhabitat level, tiny cryptanthe tends to occupy xeric to subxeric sites with slopes most commonly under 20 degrees, with varying aspects, but dominated by southerly to easterly directions. Tiny cryptanthe appears to need habitat with low litter levels and a minimum of 10% bare soil for establishment.

Associated vegetation communities are dominated by needle-and-thread (Stipa comata) and blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis). They commonly include prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha), Pursh’s plantain (Plantago patagonica), goosefoot (Chenopodium pratericola), pasture sage (Artemisia frigida), thread-leaved sedge (Carex filifolia), low sedge (Carex stenophylla), peppergrass (Lepidium densiflorum), Indian rice grass (Oryzopsis hymenoides), alkali blue grass (Poa juncifolia), and two non-native plants, Russian thistle (Salsola kali) and bluebur (Lappula echinata) (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004; Bradley and Ernst 2004; C. Elchuk pers. obs.; D. Nernberg pers. obs.).

1.3.3   Limiting Factors

Tiny cryptanthe appears to require some element of disturbance. Habitats that contain tiny cryptanthe have occasional natural disturbances in the form of deposition, caused by the action of water (terraces in meander lobes), gravity (valley and upland slopes), wind (sandy, upland plains and dunes), and soil-disturbing animals that open up bare soil patches (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004). Areas that have repeated intense disturbances, such as cultivated fields or active sandbars, and areas with actively eroding slopes and cutbanks do not appear to support tiny cryptanthe populations (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004).

Tiny cryptanthe is an annual plant, with a large portion of its life cycle spent dormant as seed. The continued existence of tiny cryptanthe populations is reliant on the seed bank. Incorporating seed bank counts with the estimation of population size has not been carried out to date in Canada. Counts of plants and their distribution, if done over a number of years, can give an estimate of the distribution of the seedbed, suitable habitat, and disturbance regimes, as well as weather-related population trends or germination requirements. Numbers of plants can vary greatly from year to year (e.g., zero to over 50 000 plants at one site) because of factors such as the amount of rainfall, the timing of rainfall, seed production from past years, and germination conditions. Different surveying techniques can also result in varying counts within or between years (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004). Therefore, although in some years there may not be any plants growing at a site, these populations should not be considered extirpated, as there is likely viable seed in the seed bank. Similarly, areas that appear to have suitable habitat but no tiny cryptanthe plants should be resurveyed in years of favourable growing conditions. It is not known how long tiny cryptanthe seeds remain viable in the seed bank or what proportion of seeds are deposited into the seed bank, but annual plants often depend on seed longevity to buffer against environmental unpredictability (Harper 1977).

Dispersal of tiny cryptanthe seeds may be limited. The majority of tiny cryptanthe seed dispersal is likely passive, with seeds falling close to the parent plant, although there may also be dispersal by animals. Bristles on the calyx, which contains the seeds, may catch on fur, or the animals may drag the plants to their burrows for food (Bradley and Ernst 2004). Some seeds may also be dispersed through wind, rain, or snowmelt. Once seeds are on the ground, however, animals, wind, and water do not appear to move seeds significant distances (Primack and Miao 1992). In general, most seeds usually move only a few metres, with anything beyond a few hundred metres being rare (Harper 1977; Primack and Miao 1992; Cain et al. 2000). Therefore, seed dispersal to other populations and establishment of new populations may be unlikely. Specific pollinators are unknown, as is the distance between plants for cross-pollination to occur.

1.4   Protection

In addition to the protection afforded to tiny cryptanthe under the federal Species at Risk Act, it is protected by provincial legislation. Tiny cryptanthe was declared endangered in Saskatchewan under Part V of The Wildlife Act in 1999, and it is therefore protected on private, provincial, and federal lands. In Alberta, tiny cryptanthe has been proposed for listing as an endangered species by the provincial Endangered Species Conservation Committee; the development of protective regulations under the provincial Wildlife Act isin progress (R. Gutsell, pers. comm.; L. Matthias, pers. comm.).

1.5   Threats to the Survival of Tiny Cryptanthe and its Habitat

The threats to tiny cryptanthe relate ultimately to alteration of habitat, including loss of habitat from changes in land use, such as cultivation or urban development (see Table 1 for site-specific threats). Some proximate causes of habitat alteration include decreased or no grazing, fire control, climate change, and encroachment of invasive vegetation. These are discussed in more detail below.

Adaptive management will be an important component in managing threats to tiny cryptanthe. In addition, obtaining information on species biology and life history traits will be crucial to understanding where the demographic bottlenecks are, what stages of tiny cryptanthe are most vulnerable, and the long-term viability of populations.

1.5.1   Habitat Loss or Degradation


In general, the sandy areas and soil type that support tiny cryptanthe are not considered suitable for agriculture because of low soil moisture, low water-holding capacity, low soil fertility, and susceptibility to wind erosion (Saskatchewan Soil Survey 1993; Geological Survey of Canada 2001). However, some sites may be suitable for cropland, perennial forages, hayfields, or potato crops. In Alberta, some sandy upland areas have been converted to potato crops, and it is possible that areas inhabited by tiny cryptanthe may be affected in the future (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004; Bradley and Ernst 2004). In addition, areas containing tiny cryptanthe are often surrounded by mixed prairie grasslands, which are commonly converted for cultivation, creating islands in a landscape dominated by crops. Only 54% of the Dry Mixedgrass Natural Subregion in Alberta and 31.3% of the Mixed Grassland Ecoregion in Saskatchewan are estimated to remain in native vegetation (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2000; Gauthier et al. 2002). Cultivation is mostly a threat to those populations occurring on the upland habitat or in the river valley terraces that are often seeded to non-native pasture or cultivated and irrigated. Habitat adjacent to valley breaks or on valley slopes is thought to be secure, as the topography of these areas does not facilitate cultivation. However, irrigation and the use of some chemicals (e.g., herbicides, fertilizer, pesticides) on adjacent converted upland areas have the potential to alter the habitat on nearby slopes (e.g., change species composition, canopy cover, hydrology, soil stability, degrade pollinator populations).

Residential Development       

In 2004, over 40 000 tiny cryptanthe plants were found within the municipality of Medicine Hat on valley slopes, upland areas, and benches. Parts of this area have been developed for residential housing and roads since the 2004 survey. Some plants located on steep valley slopes would likely not be disturbed directly by development but could suffer as a result of loss of a large portion of the adjacent population and the seed bank, as well as potentially being affected by invasive species from development and increased vegetation growth resulting from increased water runoff and fertilizer from residential landscapes. 

Oil and Gas Activities

Some tiny cryptanthe habitat has been lost to oil and gas activities, including road building, well sites, pipelines, and other actions related to active exploration and oilfield development. In some areas, these activities occur without any rare plant surveys being conducted. Tiny cryptanthe has not been observed in areas where there are repeated disturbances or heavy compaction, such as on roads. Although some of these disturbances may create temporary habitat for species such as tiny cryptanthe, these areas are not good quality habitat in the long term, as plants often get destroyed. Moreover, in some areas, non-native plant species are still being used to reclaim disturbed areas along access roads and well-sites, although this is no longer allowed on provincial Crown lands (Saskatchewan Agriculture, Food and Rural Revitalization 2000; Government of Alberta 2004). Nevertheless, even when native seed mixes are used in reclamation, invasive species often still colonize these areas. These non-native species have the potential to invade and outcompete native species (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004).

Sand and Gravel Removal

Sand and gravel removal for road building or personal use and the levelling of dunes are potential threats to tiny cryptanthe populations. Gravel extraction is known to have occurred at one site and is present at areas that contain potential tiny cryptanthe habitat (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004). The removal of sand or gravel may destroy portions of the tiny cryptanthe seed bank, which could have substantial implications for the future survival of the populations at these sites. 

Military Activities

It is not clear how military activities may affect tiny cryptanthe. Tiny cryptanthe occurs in large numbers within CFB Suffield (Bradley and Ernst 2004; D. Nernberg pers. obs.). The potential exists for road creation, use of heavy machinery, and military operations to damage tiny cryptanthe plants or populations. Some minor disturbance may enhance populations by opening habitat and suppressing competition from other plant species.

1.5.2   Modification of Natural Processes

Altered Hydrological Regimes

Altering the hydrological regime of an area may be detrimental to tiny cryptanthe. Because tiny cryptanthe appears to be limited to xeric–subxeric habitat, changes to the moisture regime could adversely affect its growth and survival. Its association with river systems means that any developments that restrict natural periodic floods, cause unnatural flooding, inhibit channel migration, or divert water could alter the disturbance regime beyond the range of natural variability, potentially negatively impacting the creation and maintenance of tiny cryptanthe habitat (Smith 1998; Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004). Dams in general result in numerous impacts to habitat; native rangeland is often converted to irrigated cropland, and floodplains and valley bottoms become flooded from reservoir inundation, both resulting in habitat loss and fragmentation. Downstream of dams there are reduced flooding events, reduced water flow, and reduced sediment deposition on floodplains, resulting in changes to species richness, species composition, and vegetation structure (Golder Associates 2002). Damming of the South Saskatchewan River near Outlook, Saskatchewan, in 1967 resulted in flooding of a considerable area; it is not known if tiny cryptanthe populations were present in the area (Smith 1998). The Meridian Dam project, proposed to be located along the South Saskatchewan River near the Saskatchewan–Alberta border (Government of Alberta 2002), would have undoubtedly impacted tiny cryptanthe habitat had it been approved. Other anthropogenic alterations, such as roads, urban developments, and irrigation, can also change the hydrology of habitat by modifying drainage patterns and water flow in an area.

Lack of Grazing and/or Fire 

The occurrence of tiny cryptanthe in habitats that have periodic depositional processes by wind, water, gravity, or animals suggests a reliance on disturbance. These disturbances shift the soil and can open up the canopy and create spaces for germination and establishment. Fire and grazing assist these disturbance processes by destabilizing sand hills, opening up areas of bare soil, and keeping canopy vegetation and litter levels lower (Hayes and Holl 2003). Grazing can also create trails or small blowouts that may be important for tiny cryptanthe establishment. Studies have shown that grazing can help maintain or increase populations of annual plants in mesic grasslands (Collins 1987; Hayes and Holl 2003). There have been no observations of animals grazing on tiny cryptanthe.

1.5.3   Invasive Exotic Species

Tiny cryptanthe appears to require an element of shifting soil, relatively low vegetation and litter cover, and open patches of soil for successive germinations and growth. Invasive exotic species such as crested wheat-grass (Agropyron cristatum), which can stabilize sand hill areas and produce higher levels of canopy cover and litter, would likely outcompete tiny cryptanthe and create unsuitable habitat. Tiny cryptanthe has been found only in native pastures and has not been found in pastures converted to, or heavily invaded by, exotic species. Some areas along the South Saskatchewan River valley, particularly the meander lobe terraces, have been converted to crested wheat-grass, while other areas are adjacent to pastures of crested wheat-grass, which can invade native pasture (Bush 2001; Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004). There is the potential for tiny cryptanthe plants to be killed or for the species’ habitat to be negatively altered by indiscriminate use of herbicides intended to control invasive species.

1.5.4   Climate and Natural Disasters 

Climate Change 

Tiny cryptanthe appears to prefer hotter, dry climates in the Canadian prairies, as indicated by its current distribution. If there is a shift towards a warmer climate within its Canadian range as a result of global warming, as predicted by climate change projections (Government of Canada 2004), this may favour tiny cryptanthe and potentially result in an expansion in its range, provided there is suitable habitat remaining. If there is a shift to a cooler climate within its Canadian range, this could be detrimental to tiny cryptanthe, decreasing its range and possibly leading to extirpation (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004). However, the potential effects of climate change on this species are only speculative.

[1] Using the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) definition , populations are geographically or otherwise distinct groups within a species that have little demographic or genetic exchange (typically one successful breeding immigrant individual or gamete per generation or less) (COSEWIC 2005). This is equivalent to the term “subpopulation” employed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN 2001). NatureServe considers sites within 1 km of each other, or within 2 km if there is appropriate habitat between the sites, to be from the same element occurrence (population) (NatureServe 2004). In the case of annuals, a few hundred metres may constitute separate populations, as long-distance dispersal of seed is rare (Cain et al. 2000; Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2004). As knowledge about the basic ecology and boundaries of tiny cryptanthe populations increases, this number may change. The Canadian population, or total population, is the total number of mature individuals in Canada (equivalent to the term “population” employed by the World Conservation Union) (COSEWIC 2005).