How Do Turtles Breathe? Can They Breathe Underwater?


Whether you have simply observed sea turtles in the aquarium or have a pet turtle of your own, you have likely seen turtles stay underwater for a long amount of time. Since turtles are so comfortable submerged under water, it is a common misconception that turtles breathe underwater.

However, turtles are not capable of breathing underwater, including sea turtles. Instead, turtles must come up to the surface of the water to breathe. Luckily, they have the ability to hold their breath for much longer than people, which allows them to stay underwater for long periods of time.

Let’s learn more about turtle breathing habits, how long they can stay underwater, and more.

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Can Turtles Breathe Underwater?

red turtle swimming in the water
Image Credit: taylorklekamp, Pixabay

To begin, it’s important to understand that no turtle can breathe underwater. Even though turtles often swim and hunt in the water, they are land creatures. They require air for breathing, much like us. Even sea turtles cannot breathe underwater.

As a result, all turtles often spend time underwater, but they will come up to the water surface in order to breathe. Most turtles prefer not to push their limits. So, they come up to the surface more than they need to out of comfortability.

That being said, some turtles have evolved so as to absorb oxygen while they are underwater. For these sorts of turtles, they still cannot breathe underwater and need air for respiratory functions, but their ability to absorb oxygen allows them to stay underwater longer than other land animals.

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A Closer Look at How Turtles Breathe

So, turtles need air to breathe, but they can sometimes absorb oxygen underwater. How exactly do they breathe?

Through Nares

Most commonly, turtles breathe through nares that are found above their mouth. Whenever they are breathing air, the process is very similar to ours, but it is not exactly the same. Because of the turtle’s hard shell, the turtle has certain muscles that aid in the breathing process.

This actually makes breathing easier for turtles than it is for us. Since breathing is easier for turtles, they don’t require as much oxygen to keep up the respiratory function.

Cloacal Respiration

turtle above water
Image Credit: Elmer Geissler, Pixabay

Most turtles that are primarily land creatures only breathe through the nares method. However, there are certain species that can absorb oxygen through other methods. These sort of turtles are often underwater for long periods of time and sometimes hibernate during the winter.

During hibernation, certain species of turtles participate in what is called cloacal respiration. Cloacal respiration is not exactly breathing. Instead, it is the turtle’s ability to diffuse oxygen into their body and carbon dioxide out of their body using their cloaca.

At the same time, the turtle’s metabolism slows down dramatically. As a result, the turtle does not need as much oxygen to survive. Because of these two facts, turtles can sleep and hibernate underwater, even though they aren’t breathing there.

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How Long Can Turtles Stay Underwater?

For many people who are first learning about turtles, they are shocked to find out that the creatures cannot breathe underwater. After all, some turtles can stay underwater for so long that it seems that they are right at home.

Aquatic and Semi-Aquatic Turtles

turtle swimming in the sea
Image Credit: purple_sparrow_art, Pixabay

Although turtles cannot breathe underwater, they sure can stay under there for a long time. Aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles can especially stay underwater for long periods of time. Aquatic turtles especially can stay underwater for several hours without coming back up for air.

This is especially true while the turtle is sleeping. During this time, they breathe through cloacal respiration and their metabolism rate slows down, which means the turtle requires less oxygen to survive than before. As a result, aquatic turtles can stay underwater for up to 7 hours while they sleep.

After the turtle wakes back up, it will first go up to breathe. After that, the turtle’s metabolism rate starts to speed up again, causing it to need oxygen more. As a result, aquatic turtles can only stay underwater for a couple of hours before needing air again once awake.

Terrestrial Turtles

Box Turtles
Image Credit: allyartist, Pixabay

Terrestrial turtles cannot hold their breath for nearly as long as their aquatic and semi-aquatic counterparts. Instead, terrestrial turtles can typically only hold their breath for about an hour at most. Particularly young, old, or active terrestrial turtles need oxygen even more.

Some terrestrial turtles have the ability to breathe through cloacal respiration, though their bodies are not as adapted for sleeping underwater like aquatic varieties. Still, terrestrial turtles can stay under water much longer than us, though they have to come up for air more frequently than aquatic and semi-aquatic varieties.

Most pet turtles are terrestrial, and they do not feel threatened by their environment. As a result, pet turtles especially come up for oxygen much more frequently than wild ones. Pet turtles may sleep in a basking area or at the very top of the water surface simply because it is easier to breathe in these positions.

Can Turtles Drown?

Because turtles need air to survive, all species can drown. This includes aquatic turtles, such as sea turtles. This is why all turtle owners must have a basking spot for the turtle to access. Without proper access to air and land, turtles will drown and eventually die.

Luckily, most turtles will not drown if they are given the proper environment. For example, turtles are very skilled at getting out of water and onto a surface if need be. So, you don’t have to worry about your turtle drowning as long as you provide a basking area for them to access.

Spotted turtle_Anna-2118_Shutterstock
Image credit: Anna-2118, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, turtles need to breathe air like us. However, the methods through which they breathe are slightly different. All turtles come up for air and breathe through their nares. Some also have the ability to breathe through their cloaca, which is why turtles can stay underwater for a long time.

Still, your turtle isn’t breathing underwater whenever it is fully submerged. Instead, it is simply absorbing oxygen through the water. After a while, it must come up for air.


Featured Image Credit: Scottslm , Pixabay



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