how do turtles breathe

Turtles are adaptive creatures and live in the water as well as on land. They are reptiles and don’t live in water like amphibians. Sea turtles are rarely seen on land but they must come to the water surface to breathe air. Their special lung systems aren’t affected by water pressure when they dive.

How do turtles breathe?

Turtles cannot breathe underwater and need to come up to the surface to breathe air. However, these amazing reptiles can hold their breath for a long time underwater. This gives a wrong impression that they are breathing underwater.

So, if turtles cannot breathe underwater, then how do they stay alive underwater? Let’s talk about it.

How do sea turtles breathe?

Both sea turtles and freshwater turtles breathe by intaking oxygen from the air.

Turtles have lungs that are located right under the carapace and the vertebral column. They breathe through the external nares located above their mouth.

However, turtles are fascinating creatures and can stay underwater and hold their breath underwater for extended periods. The biology and holding behavior of sea turtles differs greatly from freshwater turtles. For example, most sea turtles can hold their breath for up to 7 hours. Freshwater turtles can usually only hold their breath for up to an hour. 

Turtles do not maintain a steady body temperature like most mammals. They are ectotherms and their body temperature is determined by their environment. As it gets cold, their body temperature drops. When the temperature drops, their heart rate, metabolism, and respiration rate also drops and require less energy and oxygen to survive.

How long they can hold their breath depends mainly on the species, locality, activity level, and temperature. Let’s have a look at few aspects of turtles breathing underwater:

  • Usually, turtles can hold their breath for 45 minutes to 1 hour during their routine activity. They dive for four to five minutes and come to the surface of the water to breathe for a few seconds in between dives.
  • If the turtles are sleeping, they can stay underwater for 4 to 7 hours on average.
  • Red Eared Sliders can hold their breath for 20 – 30 minutes underwater.
  • Box Turtles can hold their breath for 15-30 minutes.
  • Painted Turtles can stay underwater for many hours. These turtles living in temperate environments brumate all winter without breathing at the surface.
  • Fitzroy River turtles hardly ever surface but obtain oxygen from water pumped through their posterior opening.

How else can turtles breathe?

Turtles are pretty incredible and can actually breathe through their butts. This process is technically called cloacal respiration.

Some turtles spend the winter in underwater brumation as their dormant period. Brumation is the reptile version of hibernation during winters. During brumation, the turtles shut down their bodies to conserve energy. They may not move, eat, drink, defecate for several weeks. When turtles are about to brumate, they move to the darkest and coldest part of their habitat.

During this time, these aquatic animals need a different way to breathe. When turtles brumate, they rely on stored energy and uptake oxygen from the pond water. They take the oxygen from the water by moving it across body surfaces that are flushed with blood vessels. In this way, they can get enough oxygen to support their minimal needs without using their lungs.

When turtles brumate, the source of oxygen is through their butts. Some freshwater turtles can absorb oxygen from the water through the internal walls of their cloaca or anus. The butts of turtles are especially well vascularized.

Do pet turtles brumate?

If your pet turtle is preparing to brumate, you must ensure that they are healthy, have enough body fat, and free of parasites. Also, encourage defecation by soaking them in water and rubbing their belly. Male turtles occasionally emerge from brumation before female turtles.

Can pet turtles drown?

Turtles can drown in water if they stay or get trapped underwater for longer periods, more than they can handle. This is quite uncommon as most turtles are aware of their limits. However, even aquatic pet turtles such as red-eared sliders can drown if there is an object blocking them from leaving the water.

In most homes with aquariums, it is very unlikely for a pet turtle to drown in the tank. However, Baby turtles are inexperienced and untested and are at risk of drowning. In sea and rivers, sick turtles are at risk of dying during brumation.

Just be careful when keeping baby turtles in large tanks. They may get confused with the obstacles and are at risk of getting trapped.

Final thoughts 

Well, turtles are among the world’s most incredible and ancient vertebrates. A turtle’s life remains one of nature’s great mysteries. They used to be land animals but evolved and adapted to a life of swimming.

Please let us know if you have any more questions. We would be happy to hear from you!

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