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Can A Turtle Breathe Underwater?

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Did you know that sea turtles can survive underwater for long periods? They even go through hibernation during the winter months.

Sea turtles spend their entire lives at sea, except for mating season. During this period, they come ashore to lay eggs. The hatchlings then crawl out of the sand and into the ocean.

Turtle swimming in the ocean

Although sea turtles can stay underwater for hours, they don’t breathe underwater. This made us think: do any turtles, such as your pet turtle, breathe underwater?

We discovered some interesting facts about how turtles breathe.

Why Do Turtles Not Breathe Underwater?

Turtles are amphibian reptiles. This means they live on land and in the water.

Most species spend most of their life on land and only occasionally go into the water to cool themselves down or hunt.

As mentioned, sea turtles and some other freshwater turtles can absorb the oxygen in the water through their anus and therefore stay underwater.

However, your pet turtle is likely not able to breathe underwater because it has no external gills.

Instead, its lungs are filled with air sacs called pneumatophores. This help keep the air inside the body while also allowing the animal to swim freely.

Although most turtles cannot breathe underwater, they still manage to stay in the water for a very long time.

This is because they can lower their heart rate and live off their existing body fat.

How Does A Turtle Breathe?

A turtle breathes by taking in air through its mouth and nose holes.

The air passes through the nasal passages and throat into the trachea. From there, the air enters the lungs, where it mixes with carbon dioxide from the blood.

The mixture of gas moves into the bronchi, which leads to the alveoli. Here, the gas exchange takes place between the air and the blood.
When the turtle exhales, the air leaves the lungs through the esophagus.

Does A Turtle’s Shell Expand When It Breathes?

Turtle swimming underwater in an aquarium

No, a turtle’s shell is hard and it doesn’t expand when a turtle breathes.

It does, however, have an internal skeleton made up of muscles inside. These muscles expand and contract when the turtle breathes.

This also helps the airflow in and out of the turtle’s lungs. In addition, turtles can move their limbs in ways that help them with breathing.

The movement changes the pressure in their lungs, allowing them to move air in and out.

How Long Can A Turtle Hold Its Breath Underwater?

Turtles are interesting animals because they can hold their breath underwater for a long time.

Although apnoea divers try to replicate this, we can’t stay submerged in water for such a long time.

There is no set amount of time that a turtle can hold its breath underwater.

Some species can hold their breath for half an hour, while others may be able to hold their breath for hours without rising to the surface.

Most of the turtles can stay underwater for around an hour. This is the average time they stay in the water during their routine activities, such as hunting for prey.

Most of the time, a turtle dives only for a few minutes and then comes up again for a quick breath of fresh air.

Turtles, like pet slider turtles, can also hold their breath for a long time underwater.

If you are an attentive pet owner, then you will notice that your pet turtle sleeps underwater at night. They do come up now and then for a few breaths and then return to their sleeping position.

This is possible thanks to their low heart rate when they are resting.

In comparison, sea turtles can stay submerged in the water for up to 7 hours when they are sleeping or taking a nap.

While they cannot breathe underwater, they are much larger than your pet turtle, so their body can hold oxygen for longer.

How Do Turtles Breathe When Hibernating?

During hibernation, turtles go into a state called torpor, which means they slow down their metabolic rates.

They reduce their heart rate and body temperature. During this process, they lose weight and feed on their fat reserves.

Torpor, also called brumation, allows them to conserve energy and avoid overheating during their hibernation.

Torpor is not something that happens overnight. It usually starts after several days of being inactive.

For example, if you put a turtle in a dark room with no food or water for about two weeks, it will enter a state of torpor.

So, how does a turtle breathe in a state of inactivity? When turtles, such as sea turtles, hibernate, they breathe out of their butt.

The scientific term for this is cloacal respiration. Although we call this breathing, it isn’t breathing in the normal way.

Hibernating turtles absorb oxygen through their cloaca and disperse carbon dioxide out of it.

Then, turtles don’t leave the water or come to the surface. They stay submerged and extract oxygen from the water around them.

This is done through their cloaca, which contains a large number of blood vessels, so it simply absorbs the water’s oxygen through the skin.

In addition, a turtle’s metabolism slows down a lot during hibernation. This means that they need a lot less oxygen over time.
This is the reason why they can survive the winter and start being active again in spring.

How Do You Know When Your Turtle Is Hibernating?

Turtle hibernating

When a turtle is hibernating, it’s very still and doesn’t move. However, it still has control over its limbs and slowed-down body functions.

So, when you pick up your turtle, it should slowly move its limbs.

It’s best not to disturb your turtle when it’s hibernating. Hibernation is an instinct; some turtles need this time to keep up with their body clock.

If you intend to wake up your turtle from hibernation, then you need to do it slowly. Warm them up gently over a period of 24 hours.

Offer them something small and easy to chew as their first meal. Lettuce or tomato is great because it will give them some energy and improve their hydration levels.

Your turtle should emerge out of hibernation after 7 days of resuming its normal activities. If you notice that it doesn’t behave as before hibernation, it’s best to check with a vet.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will A Tortoise Move When Hibernating?

As a tortoise does move when it’s in hibernation. They will often instinctively dig into the sand or surface they sleep on to bring their body temperature down.


Turtles are amazing animals. They’re able to live in all kinds of environments, including freshwater, saltwater, and even frozen waters.

They’re also one of the few reptiles that can live on land as well as at sea. Although not all turtles can breathe underwater for hours, they have adapted to both environments over millions of years.

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About the author


Kerry White is an avid dog lover and writer, knowing all there is to know about our furry friends. Kerry has been writing for PetDT for three years now, wanting to use her knowledge for good and share everything she can with new dog owners.Kerry has two dogs herself - a German shepherd called Banjo and a chocolate labrador called Buttons. Kerry knows more than anyone how adjusting to new life with a puppy can turn your life upside down, and she wants to ease some of the burdens through her articles.