At some point in a dive, breath-hold divers must decide to return to the surface to breathe. The issue of when to end a dive has been discussed intensively in terms of foraging ecology and behavioral physiology, using dive duration as a temporal parameter. Inevitably, however, a time lag exists between the decision of animals to start returning to the surface and the end of the dive, especially in deep dives. In the present study, we examined the decision time in emperor penguins under two different conditions: during foraging trips at sea and during dives at an artificial isolated dive hole. It was found that there was an upper limit for the decision-to-return time irrespective of dive depth in birds diving at sea. However, in a large proportion of dives at the isolated dive hole, the decision-to-return time exceeded the upper limit at sea. This difference between the decision times in dives at sea versus the isolated dive hole was accounted for by a difference in stroke rate. The stroke rates were much lower in dives at the isolated hole and were inversely correlated with the upper limit of decision times in individual birds. Unlike the decision time to start returning, the cumulative number of strokes at the decision time fell within a similar range in the two experiments. This finding suggests that the number of strokes, but not elapsed time, constrained the decision of emperor penguins to return to the surface. While the decision to return and to end a dive may be determined by a variety of ecological, behavioral and physiological factors, the upper limit to that decision time may be related to cumulative muscle workload.
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