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Ocracoke Pony Pen: Home of the Wild Horses of Ocracoke Island

Ocracoke Pony Pen: Home of the Wild Horses of Ocracoke Island

Photo: Trip Advisor

From the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Wright Brothers National Memorial to Jockey’s Ridge State Park and the site of the Lost Colony, the Outer Banks of North Carolina are brimming with attractions and activities for everyone in the family to enjoy—and when it comes to area wildlife you’ll have no shortage of opportunities to witness unique species in their natural habitat. While most people planning a vacation on the Outer Banks are familiar with the wild horses of Corolla, far fewer are aware of another herd of ponies that have called the barrier islands home for centuries: the wild horses of Ocracoke Island.

Photo: VisitOcracokeNC.com

Situated to the south of nearby Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island spans just 16 miles of land from one end to other, and ranges from three miles wide in some spots to only a half-mile wide in others. Because the narrow spit of sand is only accessible by air or water, Ocracoke Island has retained a laidback island vibe and experienced minimal development over the past several decades, making it a prime vacation destination for those in search of a relaxing Outer Banks vacation off the beaten path and away from many tourist attractions that dot the northern beaches from Corolla to South Nags Head. But if there’s one thing everyone traveling to Ocracoke Island should put on their to-do list, it’s taking a trip to the Ocracoke wild pony pen to check out the island’s most famous residents.

Photo: National Park Service

Following a 40-minute ferry ride from Hatteras Village to the port at the northern tip of Ocracoke Island, visitors who travel south along N.C. Highway 12 toward Ocracoke Village will discover a small paved parking area on the west side of the road. Upon pulling in to park, you’ll spot a wooden fence that sections off a 188-acre plot of land that extends along the soundside of the island and serves as the home of Ocracoke’s herd of wild horses whose story dates back several centuries. Although the herd that once freely roamed the island consisted of as many as 300 horses, the Ocracoke pony pen currently contains only 16 horses, the youngest of which is a female named Hazelnut who was born in February 2015.   

Photo: Britannica.com

Just like their neighbors to the north—the wild horses of Corolla—the wild horses that call Ocracoke Island home are the direct descendants of Spanish mustangs who swam to shore when the ships upon which they were traveling ran aground while attempting to navigate the shifting shoals that make up the infamous Graveyard of the Atlantic. Beginning in the 1500s, European explorers started to set sail across the Atlantic Ocean with their sights set upon North America, where they eventually landed and established colonies within what is frequently referred to as the “New World.” Before the explorers embarked on their long and arduous journey from Europe to the present-day United States, they loaded their vessels with an abundance of supplies ranging from food and clothing to a variety of livestock—including, in many cases, domesticated Spanish mustangs.

Photo: Sara Maglieaene

As the ships neared the coast of the Outer Banks, however, they encountered the dangerous Diamond Shoals—a series of underwater sandbars that begin near Cape Hatteras and extend outward from the shoreline for several miles in different directions depending upon the currents. Frequently hidden well beneath the waves and constantly shifting into new formations of varying sizes and depths as the currents flowed around them, the Diamond Shoals posed a considerable threat to sailors, who often didn’t know the treacherous sandbars sat in their path until their ships crashed right into them, causing them to run aground and remain stuck—or to take on water and slowly sink to the seafloor. An extreme challenge to spot from the surface of the water and virtually impossible to navigate, the Diamond Shoals were responsible for approximately 600 shipwrecks along the coastline of the Outer Banks, earning the region its nickname of “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Photo: National Park Service

Desperate to lighten their loads enough to free a ship that had become stuck on one of the sandbars in shallow water, sailors frequently tossed unnecessary and heavy supplies overboard. According to the Ocracoke Current, the herd of wild ponies that occupies Ocracoke Island are believed to be the descendants of Spanish mustangs unloaded onto the beach by Sir Richard Grenville, the captain of an English ship called Tiger, when the vessel ran aground near Ocracoke Island in 1585 during Grenville’s voyage in search of the missing settlers of the Lost Colony who had just mysteriously vanished from nearby Roanoke Island. Although this theory has never officially been proven, historic documentation indicates that the wild ponies of Ocracoke were definitely present on the island as far back as the 1730s, and in the years since they have played an integral role in the lives of many residents and visitors.

Photo: Pinterest

As the population of Ocracoke Island slowly grew, its residents began to see an array of opportunities in which they could use the herd of wild horses that roamed the area beaches and salt marshes to their advantage. After capturing and taming some of the horses within the 300-member herd, the Outer Bankers living on Ocracoke Island put them to work pulling carts that were loaded with heavy cargo and supplies that were otherwise difficult to transport from one location to another. The wild ponies of Ocracoke Island continued to be used for the residents’ benefits in the centuries that followed, with the men who served in the United States Life-Saving Service riding the horses during routine beach patrols and using them to pull heavy equipment to and from the site of shipwrecks in the late 1800s. This trend continued in the 20th century, when the United States Coast Guard rode domesticated members of the Ocracoke pony herd as they conducted beach patrols in search of the German U-boats that patrolled the waters just offshore from the Outer Banks during World War II.

Photo: Ocracoke Island Journal

In the 1950s, the wild ponies of Ocracoke were cared for by the Ocracoke Boy Scouts, who earned the distinction of being the only mounted troop in the United States. In 1957, N.C. Highway 12 was paved, resulting in a dramatic increase in the numbers of vehicles traveling along the island—and ultimately leading to ponies being accidentally injured or killed. When it became evident that the ponies’ presence was contributing to an increase in traffic accidents on the island and causing issues related to over-grazing, a law was passed in 1959 that required the ponies to be permanently penned for their own safety as well as that of the island’s residents and visitors. The nearly 200-acre soundside pen in which the herd of horses is free to roam was constructed that same year by the National Park Service, who has been in charge of caring for the ponies since the 1960s.

Photo: Crystal L. Canterbury

Today, visitors can stop by the pony pen to see the 16 horses that comprise Ocracoke’s herd of wild ponies up close and personal. Although the herd is free to roam the soundside beach and the salt marsh that sits within the confines of their protective pen, the ponies often spend time around the stable and paddock, making it easy for them to be spotted from the parking area along the fenced enclosure. An elevating viewing platform and pathway alongside the pasture offer additional opportunities to view the wild horses, and the National Park Service offers a variety of programs at the pony pen to teach visitors all about the herd of Spanish mustangs who have called Ocracoke Island home since their ancestors first swam ashore from shipwrecked vessels several centuries ago.  

The Top Dog-Friendly Attractions Along the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Photo: Stephanie Banfield

With more than 200 miles of seashore stretching along the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean to the east as well as the Currituck, Roanoke and Pamlico sounds to the west, the Outer Banks of North Carolina offers something for everyone to enjoy—including the four-legged members of your family. From the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills to Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head and the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the northern tip of Hatteras Island, you’ll find dozens of pet-friendly Outer Banks attractions that welcome your furry friend to tag along on your adventures.

If you wouldn’t dream of leaving your four-legged family members at home while you spend your summer vacation on the barrier islands, be sure to scope out the following dog-friendly places on the Outer Banks the next time you visit:

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Photo: Pinterest

Stretching 100 feet into the sky and covering a 420-acre area along the shores of the Roanoke Sound in Nags Head, Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest “living” sand dune system in the eastern United States. The colossal mound of sand that makes up this popular state park is best-known for providing a prime spot for outdoor adventurers to take to the air while hang-gliding down from the top of the ridge. But hang-gliding isn’t the only form of outdoor recreation Jockey’s Ridge has to offer.

Photo: WAVY TV

The park comprises three unique ecosystems—the sand dunes, a maritime thicket and an estuary at the edge of the sound—which are home to a wide array of native species of wildlife. Leash up your four-legged friend and go for a hike along one of the three self-guided nature trails that weave through the scenic parklands. During your journey you’ll have the chance to spoteverything from white-tailed deer and red foxes to raccoons, luna moths and six-lined racerunner lizards.

Pet rules in Jockey’s Ridge State Park: Dogs are permitted throughout Jockey’s Ridge State Park, with the exception of inside the buildings. Dogs must be on a leash at all times, and leashes should not be longer than 6 feet. Learn more about Jockey’s Ridge State Park here.

Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve

Photo: Outer Banks This Week

Another must-visit dog-friendly Outer Banks attraction located within the oceanside community of Nags Head is the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the busy beaches, this hidden gem boasts 1,400 acres of maritime forest, sand dunes and saltmarshes just waiting to be explored by you and your furry family members. The Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve was established in the 1970s when area conservationists came to the realization that the vast majority of land on the barrier islands was undergoing massive development to accommodate the booming tourism industry on the beaches of the Outer Banks.

Photo: The Nature Conservancy

In 1974, the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve was designated as a National Natural Landmark, guaranteeing the forever protection of the unique series of ecosystems it encompasses and the assortment of wildlife that call the confines of the preserve home. This unspoiled natural area—which lies along the shoreline of the Roanoke Sound on the western side of the island—is bordered by Jockey’s Ridge State Park to the south and Run Hill State Natural Area to the north. Visitors can traverse the park via seven marked nature trails, each of which winds its way through the lush maritime forest, over the rolling sand dunes and past a series of freshwater ponds. While you’re hiking, keep an eye out for the more than 50 species of birds, 15 species of amphibians, 30 species of reptiles, 50 species of butterflies and 550 species of plant life that make up this one-of-a-kind ecological preserve.

Pet rules in the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve: All dogs much be on a leash at all times, and leashes must not exceed 6 feet in length. Leashed pets are permitted on trails 4, 5, 6 and 7. Learn more about the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve here.

Wright Brothers National Memorial

Photo: National Park Service

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are famous for being the site upon which an array of historic events have taken place over the years. From the mysterious disappearance of the Lost Colony in the 16th century to the spot where the infamous pirate named Blackbeard met his demise, the barrier islands are brimming landmarks and attractions that highlight the area’s rich history. But perhaps the most significant historic event to ever occur on the Outer Banks was the world’s first powered flight, achieved by brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright on Dec. 17, 1903.

Photo: Trip Advisor

Situated in the heart of Kill Devil Hills, the Wright Brothers National Memorial pays homage to the unprecedented achievement and the pair who forever altered the world of aviation well over a century ago. When you visit the site you’ll discover an enormous monument that sits atop a huge hill in the middle of the park, as well as a visitors center, a series of exhibits and the “flight line” that shows the landing spots along the path where the Wright Brothers attempted several flights that day before finally reaching success with the fourth. If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, leash up your dog and head up the hill to the base of the monument overlooking the memorial grounds. From here you’ll enjoy stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Roanoke Sound to the west and the town that stretches out below.  

Pet rules at the Wright Brothers National Memorial: Pets are permitted on the grounds of the Wright Brothers National Memorial but not inside any buildings. Pets must be on a leash at all times, and leashes must not exceed 6 feet in length.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Photo: REAL Watersports

When it comes to the best beaches in the United States, nothing can compare with the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And if you’re searching for wide expanses of sandy shoreline, windswept sand dunes topped with sea oats, uncrowded and undeveloped beaches, and scenery that is unmatched by anywhere else on the East Coast, be sure to check out the area’s crown jewel: the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Extending more than 70 miles from South Nags Head and Hatteras Island to the southernmost tip of Ocracoke Island, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore encompasses nearly 25,000 acres of preserved and protected natural habitats. along the sea and sound. Whether you explore the national seashore by boat, bicycle, kayak, car or on foot, you’ll have the chance to enjoy a wealth of activities including kiteboarding, surfing, swimming, fishing, crabbing, shell-hunting, wildlife-watching, sightseeing and so much more.

Photo: Dhinoy Studios

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is also home to one of the most iconic landmarks in the country: the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Built in 1803 and standing 210 feet tall, the structure is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and has served as a navigational aid that has helped mariners to safely navigate the constantly shifting diamond shoals off the coast of Cape Hatteras for centuries. For an unforgettable Outer Banks experience, climb all 257 steps to the top of the lighthouse to take in the spectacular 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean, Pamlico Sound and surrounding villages below. 

Photo: Surf or Sound Realty

When your climb is complete, leash up your dog and venture south toward Cape Point via the pristine stretch of seashore that is commonly referred to as “Buxton beach.” Here you’ll find the spot where the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse originally stood—before it was moved farther inland in 1999 in an effort to save it from falling into the sea—as well as unparalleled opportunities for spotting wildlife, finding seashells and simply enjoying a leisurely stroll along one of the most beautiful barrier island beaches in the entire world with your four-legged friend.  

Pet rules for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore: Pets are welcome along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but are prohibited inside any marked closures (such as bird and sea turtle nesting areas) and inside buildings. Pets must remain on a leash at all times, and leashes must not exceed 6 feet.

**Stay tuned to our next blog to discover the many dog-friendly restaurants on the Outer Banks of North Carolina!

 

The Move of the Millennium: Moving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Photo: Photography Life

When it comes to landmarks along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, none are as well-known or frequently visited as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The iconic lighthouse—which stands 193 feet in height—is the tallest lighthouse in the United States and attracts approximately 200,000 visitors each year, making it one of the most popular attractions from Corolla to Ocracoke Island. Situated in the heart of Buxton on Hatteras Island, the famous black-and-white spiraled structure has stood watch over the Graveyard of the Atlantic for centuries, warning sailors of the treacherous sandbars and shifting shoals that lie just off the coast of barrier islands.

Photo: National Geographic

However, in 1999—nearly 200 years after the construction process was complete and the lighthouse was lit for the very first time—the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse found itself threatened by the ever-encroaching Atlantic Ocean. Decade after decade of converging currents, strong surf and storms ranging from minor nor’easters to massive hurricanes caused the ocean to slowly but surely swallow up stretches of the sandbar on which the lighthouse stood, leaving the tower increasingly vulnerable to the white-capped waves and the threat of imminent destruction.

Photo: National Park Service

In 1893, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was recorded as standing 1,500 feet from the shoreline, but less than a century later, in 1975, only 175 feet stood between the structure and the pounding surf. When cracks were found in the walls of the tower, the lighthouse was closed to the public. Five years later, when the lighthouse stood just 50 feet from the ocean, U.S. Senator Helms and North Carolina Gov. Hunt teamed up with others who feared the damaged structure would be lost to the sea if left in its current condition, and the Save the Lighthouse Committee was formed. The National Park Service requested an independent study of the lighthouse’s precarious position be performed, and the results included the recommendation that the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse eventually be moved to a spot farther away from the sea.

Photo: Pinterest

Attempting to buy some time before the structure had to be relocated, the National Park Service called for restoration of the cracks in the tower that had forced the closure of this Outer Banks landmark. The restoration process began in 1990, and once the cracks were fixed and visitors could once again safely climb the 257 steps inside the lighthouse to reach the top, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse reopened to the public in 1993. In the years that followed, the erosion continued, and the epic waves that attract so many surfers to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore each year had stripped away all but a small sliver of sandbar that separated the base of the tower from the Atlantic Ocean.

Photo: Lighthouse Friends

In order to save the lighthouse from eventual devastation, the National Park Service had to pick one of three options for ultimately preventing the structure from falling into the sea: reinforcing the existing jetties that were designed to stretch into the surf and reduce the impact of wave action on the island; constructing a seawall around the lighthouse so that it would eventually end up sitting atop its own island in the ocean; or move it to a safer location a bit further inland. Although there was widespread support for all three options, in the end it was determined that the best option for protecting the tower was moving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse farther away from the surf that constantly threatened it. In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed a relocation budget, and the plans to perform the so-called “move of the millennium” were officially prepared.

Photo: National Park Service

Although smaller lighthouses had been moved in other coastal states in years past, moving the tallest lighthouse in the United States was no small feat—and no structure of its scale had ever been relocated before. A New York-based company called International Chimney Corp. was contracted to move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse with the help of another contractor, Expert House Movers of Maryland. In order to move the structure from its perilous position by the sea, the lighthouse—which weighed 4,830 tons—would have to be lifted off its foundation and transferred to a transport system that would ultimately move it along a predetermined route to its new location, where it would be placed atop an all-new foundation.

Photo: Island Free Press

The first step in the process of moving the lighthouse was to replace the original foundation with temporary supports and shoring beams. A series of cross beams and main beams were then set, allowing the temporary supports to be moved. The structure was then raised six feet off its foundation by hydraulic jacks that were built into the main beams. Once the structure was raised, rollers and roll beams were inserted. The jacks were shored with the use of oak cribbing, and the system was pressurized and lifted again by the jacks. As the structure was lifted off its foundation a little at a time, the jacks were retracted and shored up several times before it was once again lifted to six feet and ready to begin its journey down a pathway through the sand to its new location nearly 3,000 feet from the spot where it currently stood.

Photo: Pinterest

On June 17, 1999, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse captured the attention of people across the country and around the world, as it started its slow and deliberate journey to the southwest. The support frame moved along its track to the new location with the assistance of roller dollies and steel track beams that served as rails. The lighthouse was kept carefully aligned by three zones of hydraulic jacks, which prevented the structure from swaying and potentially tipping over. The support frame was pulled forward toward the new lighthouse location just five feet at a time by a series of push jacks that were clamped to the track. Sixty automated sensors placed in various positions on the lighthouse constantly measured the load’s tilt and vibration, and a weather sensor attached to the top of the lighthouse kept tabs on the temperature and wind speed throughout the entire moving process.

Photo: OuterBanks.org

Three weeks after the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse began its 2,900-foot journey from its perilous perch on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean the move was complete, and the structure was placed on top of its new foundation. The lighthouse joined several other structures that had been relocated from the original lighthouse site earlier that year, including the principal keeper’s quarters, the double keeper’s quarters, an oil house and cisterns. Finally saved from years spent facing the risk of tumbling into the ocean that had continuously eroded the shoreline over which it stood watch for centuries, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse reopened to the public on November 13, 1999, and once again resumed its status as one of the most iconic landmarks on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

History of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Few attractions that dot the coastline of North Carolina are as famous as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Located in Buxton, this iconic black-and-white spiraled structure is the crown jewel of Hatteras Island and attracts nearly 200,000 visitors each year. If you’re planning a trip to our barrier island paradise, your vacation won’t be complete without a visit to this Outer Banks landmark that has protected the treacherous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic for centuries.

Just off the coast of Cape Hatteras, the Labrador Current—a current of cold water that flows south from the coast of Canada—and the Gulf Stream—an ocean current comprised of warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico—collide and create one of the most dangerous spots for ships and sailors in Atlantic Ocean: the Diamond Shoals. When Congress recognized the hazards posed by this stretch of shoreline in 1794, the construction of a lighthouse was authorized to protect those attempting to navigate their way around the 12-mile-long sandbar.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The construction process began in 1799, and in October 1803 the original Cape Hatteras Lighthouse—a 90-foot-tall sandstone structure that boasted a lamp powered by whale oil—was lit for the first time. Despite its builders’ good intentions, the lighthouse was unable to effectively warn the sailors out at sea that they were entering the perilous waters of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Deemed too short to send a strong enough signal to those whose ships were nearing Cape Hatteras, the lighthouse received numerous complaints, and in 1853 the Lighthouse Board approved the addition of 60 feet to the height of the structure.

Taking into account other complaints sailors had frequently made about the original lighthouse—namely that the unpainted sandstone exterior didn’t provide a stark contrast to the sky during daylight hours—the second version of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was painted white on the bottom and red on the top so it no longer blended into the background. To ensure the structure’s signal was strong enough to reach mariners sailing toward the treacherous coastline, the new lighthouse was retrofitted with a kerosene-powered Fresnel lens that allowed it to emit a much stronger beam of light that could be seen nearly 20 miles from shore. After years of use, however, the structure was in need of extensive repairs, and funds were soon appropriated for a new lighthouse that could better serve the needs of sailors traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

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Construction got underway in October 1868, and in February 1871—two months after the new lighthouse was first lit in 1870—the 1803 lighthouse was demolished. In 1873, the present-day Cape Hatteras Lighthouse received its characteristic spiral marking of black and white stripes. Assigned by the Lighthouse Board, this distinctive daymark pattern as well as a unique light sequence—known as a “nightmark,” in which the light flashes every 7.5 seconds—helped to distinguish the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from other navigational aids along the East Coast.

Although the newly constructed third rendition of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was both tall enough and bright enough to successfully warn ships of the dangerous shoals that lay ahead, the structure soon found itself facing another major challenge: Mother Nature. The tower was originally built in a spot deemed safe from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean; however, with each year that passed and every hurricane and nor’easter that hit the Outer Banks, more of the shoreline was stripped away, leaving the lighthouse increasingly vulnerable to imminent destruction.

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In 1893, the lighthouse stood 1,500 feet from the shoreline, but by 1975 only 175 feet separated the structure from the pounding surf—and cracks in the tower resulted in the lighthouse being closed to the public. In 1980 the lighthouse sat just 50 feet from the ocean, and the following year the “Save the Lighthouse Committee” was formed by U.S. Senator Helms and North Carolina Governor Hunt, among others. An independent study requested by the National Park Service (NPS) recommended relocation of the Outer Banks landmark, and the NPS later announced that moving the lighthouse to a safer spot posed less of a risk than leaving the structure in its perilous position. Restoration of the damaged tower began in 1990, and the lighthouse was reopened to the public in 1993.

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Six years later, in 1999, the keepers’ quarters, oil house and two cisterns were moved to a new site further inland, and soon after, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse began a journey that would garner worldwide attention. Over a period of just 23 days, in an effort to combat the ever-present threat of shoreline erosion the lighthouse faced as it stood precariously perched mere feet from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The 4,830-ton historic structure was lifted off its foundation at the edge of the encroaching sea, loaded onto a transport system and moved 2,900 feet to the southwest from the spot where it had stood since 1870. In 2000, the lighthouse finally reopened to the public. Now safely situated 1,500 feet from the shoreline, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse resumed its longtime duty of serving as a sentinel on the southern shores of the Outer Banks and continues to provide warnings to mariners brave enough to navigate the Diamond Shoals to this day.

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At a height of 210 feet, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. From the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, visitors can climb 257 steps to the top of this Outer Banks landmark, where they will be treated to unparalleled 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean, Pamlico Sound and the villages that surround this historic structure located in the heart of Hatteras Island.

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