Can Turtles Breathe Underwater? (Here Are Some Interesting Facts)

Image of a turtle coming to the water surface for breathing

Turtles are aquatic animals that usually live in vast seas, oceans, rivers, and ponds. This is mainly due to the reason that they can stay underwater for long periods. So, the question that arises is, can turtles breathe underwater?

Turtles cannot breathe underwater. They have to come up to the water surface to inhale air because they breathe through the external nares located above their mouth. However, turtles can hold their breath for a long time underwater. This gives a false impression that they are breathing underwater.

Now that you know turtles cannot breathe in the water, let’s also understand how turtles breathe and how long they can hold their breath underwater.

But first, let us understand why turtles cannot breathe underwater.

Why Turtles Cannot Breathe Underwater?

Although turtles are aquatic, they are primarily land creatures. Unlike fish that need to constantly stay in the water to survive and live, turtles need to come to the water surface to breathe air.

Having said that, there are some freshwater turtles that can absorb oxygen from the water through the internal walls of their cloaca or anus. They breathe in this manner during their hibernation period.

Now, even if most of the turtles cannot breathe underwater, they can stay underwater for a long time. They can remain submerged in water during winter by lowering their heart rate and living off their body fat.

Okay! If turtles cannot breathe underwater, then how do they breathe? Let’s talk about that now.

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How Do Turtles Breathe?

To get oxygen, turtles breathe air through the external nares that are located above their mouth.

When they breathe, air moves into the trachea through the glottis. The trachea of the turtle is elongated and is also flexible. That is why a turtle can move its head in and out of the shell.

The trachea splits into two bronchi near the heart to deliver the air to the lungs. It is through the lungs that the oxygen from the air is absorbed into the turtle’s body.

However, the turtle shell is hard, and it cannot expand and contract to help the turtle in breathing. But, the turtle’s shell has muscles inside it that can expand and contract. These muscles help in moving the air in and out of the lungs.

Turtles also move their limbs, which helps them in breathing by altering the pressure in the lungs.

Alright! Coming back to breathing underwater, you just saw that turtles can hold their breath underwater. But for how long?

How Long Can Turtles Hold Their Breath Underwater?

Turtles are fascinating creatures. They can hold their breath underwater for prolonged periods.

Different species of turtles have different capacity to hold their breath. Some turtles can hold their breath for as short as 30 minutes underwater while other turtles species, such as sea turtles, can stay underwater for hours without coming up to the surface to breathe.

During routine activities, turtles can hold their breath for 45 minutes to 1 hour. However, they usually dive for about 5 minutes, and then in between the dives, they come to the surface to breathe air for a few seconds.

Painted Turtles or pet sliders can swim underwater for an extended period too. The majority of the pet turtles sleep underwater at night. They come out of the water only a few times to breathe and then resume sleeping. They increase their rate of blood flow to absorb more oxygen while breathing.

Matamata (Chelus) are freshwater turtles that reside in rivers, ponds, and sluggish backwaters. They can hold their breath underwater for about an hour. They remain still in murky water sometimes for more than an hour to grab prey for their meal. Surfacing out to breathe ruins their chances of catching the fish or other prey that comes near them because the prey then becomes aware of the turtle’s presence. So many times, these turtles remain motionless and hold their breath for more than an hour.

Sea turtles also cannot breathe underwater. However, they can hold their breath for 4 to 7 hours underwater while resting or sleeping.

Okay! That was about turtles breathing underwater. But how do they breathe when they are hibernating?

Turtles use the Butt breathing technique when in hibernation. Let’s talk about this now.

Recommended Further Reading:

How Do Turtles Use Butt Breathing Technique Underwater?

Several species of turtles remain submerged underwater for several months. This happens particularly in winter when they hibernate. That is when they use the Butt breathing technique to survive.

During hibernation, turtles breathe out of their butt. This term is called as Cloacal Respiration. It is not exactly breathing, but they diffuse oxygen in and carbon dioxide out using their cloaca.

During this period, turtles do not come out of the water to breathe. Instead, they extract oxygen from the water itself. They do this through cloaca as it has a high density of blood vessels that allows the turtle to absorb oxygen from the water through their skin.

As their metabolism rate is slow during hibernation, their need for oxygen also decreases. So, the oxygen that is diffused from the water running over them is sufficient for them to survive till spring.

Interesting Further Reading:

Parting Thoughts…

Turtles cannot breathe underwater. They need to come to the surface to breathe air, or else they can drown. However, they can stay underwater for a long time.

Turtles breathe air just like humans. They breathe through the external nares above their mouth. And during hibernation, they use the Cloacal Respiration technique to take-in oxygen from the surrounding water.