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Can turtles breathe underwater? (And how long can they hold their breath underwater?)

by Janet
Can turtles breathe underwater?
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Turtles are aquatic animals that you’ll find living in the ocean, sea, rivers, and ponds because they have an adaptation that allows them to stay underwater for long periods. They have also adapted to absorbing small amounts of air without breathing. 

So, how can turtles breathe underwater? Turtles can’t breathe underwater, but they can hold their breath for long periods depending on their level of activity. A turtle that is resting can stay underwater for up to 7 hours whereas one that is foraging will need to surface frequently. 

Why can turtles breathe underwater?

Although turtles are aquatic, they’re land animals and unlike fish that use gill to breathe and depend on water for their survival, turtles need to surface to breathe air. Though all turtles breathe air, some aquatic turtles like painted and slider turtles can stay underwater for quite a long time. Their adaptations and slow metabolism allow them to extract oxygen from the water and this helps some of the species to spend the entire winter underwater. Some of the freshwater turtles can absorb oxygen from the water using the internal walls of their cloaca and this helps them to breathe during their hibernation period. 

How turtles breathe underwater 

How turtles breathe underwater 

Since turtles can’t breathe underwater, they have adapted to holding their breath for long periods underwater. However, different types of turtles can hold their breath at different intervals. Some can hold their breathe for a short period while others like sea turtles can stay underwater for hours before surfacing. Some turtles have a gill-like structure in their anus that helps them to absorb small amounts of oxygen when they’re underwater. This respiratory function is very effective, especially during the cold season when the turtle’s metabolism is usually very low and very little oxygen is needed. 

Turtles are ectothermic animals or cold-blooded, that warm their bodies using external sources like sunlight and warm water. However, a turtle’s metabolism is a bit low compared to warm-blooded animals, but it fluctuates depending on the temperatures. When it’s cool, a turtle’s metabolism will slow down and speed up when it’s warm. The faster the metabolism, the more oxygen the turtle will need. 

Average times a turtle can hold its breath.

Turtle species
Leatherback sea turtle
7-10 hours
Olive ridley
7-10 hours
Green sea turtle
7-10 hours
Snapping turtle
20-30 minutes
Map turtle
20-30 minutes
Box turtles
15-30 minutes
Russian tortoise
1-2 minutes

Why do turtles spend so much time underwater?

Although turtles can’t breathe underwater they spend so much time underwater because it’s how they have evolved. It’s the only habitat they have found their best chances of survival. Turtles are very slow on land compared to other animals and this can be a problem when it comes to defending themselves from predators or catching prey. But when they’re underwater they can defend themselves better and have more access to food sources. The areas around rivers and lakes contain lots of small insects that turtles can eat and the vegetation provides protection and is also a food source. However, some turtles survive in dry areas like the desert, but these turtles can’t hold their breath like other species and they can’t swim. 

How do turtles breathe in hibernation?

Turtles have a unique biological mechanism that they use to help them hibernate and survive the cold seasons very well. They can remain underwater for months at a time without breathing because turtles are capable of cloacal respiration which means they can breathe through their butt. Technically, cloacal respiration is not so much breathing as just diffusing oxygen in and removing carbon dioxide. However, cloacal respiration isn’t optimal, but it’s enough to give turtles enough energy to survive the winter underwater. 

Typically, turtles will swim to the river or lake bottom and bury themselves in the substrate, and at this point, the turtle’s metabolism has dropped drastically, so the turtles will need very little oxygen and no food for a few months. Most of the turtles during this time will absorb some of the oxygen they’ll need directly from the water using special structures from their throat and cloaca. However, in extremely cold lakes, the oxygen levels may become dangerously low. Painted and snapping turtles use anaerobic metabolism and active chemical buffering processes to survive such anoxic waters. This mode of breathing comes with a time limit because of the buildup of lactic acid in their system. 

Temperature and metabolic rate and how long turtles can hold their breath

When the weather begins to get cold, the metabolic rate of turtles starts to automatically slow down. This results in their hearts slowing down and all processes happening in their bodies. Generally, a turtle’s heart beats between 40-45 times per minute, but when they hibernate it drastically slows down to around 10 beats per minute. While hibernating, turtles can live without oxygen for up to 5 months and survive 5-8 months without food and water. 


Turtles can hold their breath underwater for long periods of time, but they need to surface to breathe air or they will drown. However, during hibernation, they use the cloacal respiration system to absorb the oxygen they need from the surrounding water. Despite their adaptations, turtles can drown if they get stuck underwater. If turtles use up all the oxygen in their system, they can easily asphyxiate and used stressful situations, they can struggle so they end up depleting their oxygen stores rapidly and may drown within minutes if they don’t reach the surface. 


How long can turtles breathe underwater?

During the routine activity, turtles can hold their breath for about 45 minutes to 1 hour and they normally dive for 4-5 minutes, then surface to breathe for a few seconds in between dives.

Can turtles drown?

Sea turtles can drown since they have lungs just like other reptiles and humans. Sea turtles can’t breathe underwater, but they can hold their breath for a long time. 


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