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How do turtles breathe? (And how long can they stay underwater?)

by Janet
How do turtles breathe
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Turtles are very unique creatures that have different breathing techniques that are important for the survival of different species. Although turtles are aquatic, they’re primarily land creatures, however, they need to constantly stay in the water to live and survive, but they need to come to the water surface to breathe air.

So, how do turtles breathe? Turtles can breathe in 3 different ways that include through their lungs which is their primary means of breathing, through their mouths and throat especially if they’re underwater, and through their butthole especially when hibernating.

How turtles breath

Breathing using their lungs

All turtles are vertebrates and have lungs which they mostly use to breathe. That is why turtles can drown if they don’t up to the surface for air. The unique thing about turtles is their shell is their ribcage and it holds its organs, lungs, guts, and legs. However, this ribcage is infused into the shell so it doesn’t have any allowance to expand the lungs and body cavity for the turtle to breathe in as humans do.

Through their mouths and throats

how turtles breath

Turtles pump their throats and mouths, but they’re not pumping air into their lungs. Some aquatic turtles can absorb oxygen through their mouths and throats by pumping water into their mouths and throats, then extracting the oxygen in this water. Throat pumping underwater allows the water to enter through the nose and mouth, and the turtle smells and absorbs the oxygen using the surface of their throat and mouth. 

Through their butthole or cloaca

Some aquatic turtle species can breathe from their butts. Diving turtles or turtles going to hibernation use this breathing option to get the oxygen they need to stay in their hibernation state for a long time. 

How do turtles breathe?

Turtles use their external nares located above their mouth to breathe in oxygen in the air. When they breathe, the air passes through the glottis into their trachea that is very long and flexible. That’s why turtles can easily move their heads in and out of their shells. The trachea is divided into 2 bronchi near the heart to transport air into the lungs that absorb the oxygen in the air into the turtle’s body. A turtle uses a lot of energy to breathe because its ribcages are inflexible, so instead of having ribs that can contract around the lungs like humans, their ribs are attached to their shells. However, there are muscles inside the shell that can expand and contract to help the air move in and out of the lungs. Turtles can also move their limbs and by altering the pressure in their lungs, they’re able to breathe. 

How do turtles breathe out of their butt?

Some turtle species can remain underwater for several months at a time, especially during the winter when they’re hibernating. During this time turtles breathe out of their butt or use the cloacal respiration technique. This isn’t breathing exactly, it’s diffusing oxygen in and releasing carbon dioxide through their cloaca. During hibernation, turtles don’t go to the surface to breathe air, instead, they absorb the oxygen in the water to help them breathe. They do this through their cloaca that has lots of blood vessels that help the turtle to absorb the oxygen from the water through their skin. During hibernation, their metabolism is slow so they don’t need a lot of oxygen to survive until spring. 

Turtles that stay underwater for long periods use their cloaca opening to draw water into the cloaca. Some turtles can extract up to 20% of the oxygen they need, while others can get as much as 80% because the tissues lining their cloaca have better vascular intake. 

Not all turtles are the same, some turtle species have adapted to their surrounding in different ways and some can survive best while breathing through their butt.

Turtle species
Fitzroy river turtle
Only found in Australia. Lives in freshwater rivers and can use cloacal respiration to get 70% of the oxygen it needs to stay submerged for about 3 weeks
White-eyed stream diver
Found in Australia. Lives in fast-moving shallow rapids. Can absorb about 68% of oxygen from cloacal respiration and their cloacal orifice stays open whether in or out of the water. 
Australian white-throated snapping turtle
A much endangered turtle found in a small part of Australia. Can get 80% of the oxygen from cloacal respiration. 

How long can a turtle stay underwater?

how turtles breath under water

How long a turtle can stay underwater will depend on the turtle species and the temperature of the water. Some turtle species like the Fitzroy river turtle can get a lot of oxygen it needs to breathe underwater for several days using cloacal respiration. However, some of the common pet turtles like the painted turtle and red-eared turtle can only survive underwater for about 30 minutes before they come up for air. This is because the water in their aquarium tanks isn’t oxygenated since it’s still water. Most turtles in the wild go into hibernation and this slows down their metabolism and their body’s need for oxygen and this enables them to stay underwater for up to a month. 


Turtle’s natural adaptations for breathing make them amazing survivors on land and underwater. They can hold their breath underwater for long periods, but they need to come up for air once in a while. Turtles can either use their mouth, throat, or butthole to breathe when submerged in the water. 


How long can turtles go without air?

Some turtles like the adult western painted turtle can go without oxygen for about 30 hours at room temperature, but when the water gets colder it can stay underwater for about 4 months.

How do turtles breathe in the water?

Turtles can’t breathe underwater, but they use their mouth, throat, and butthole to extract oxygen in the water to help them breathe. They need to come up for air after holding their breath for a long period. 


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