How do Turtles Breathe? Do Turtles Have Lungs or Gills?

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To breathe or not to breathe. That is certainly not a question we ask ourselves. Turtles and tortoises don’t do that either. The process comes naturally and you don’t even think about it.

How would it be if you’d have to actively want to breathe if you wanted to…breathe? But are you able to breathe underwater for multiple days in a row? No, but turtles can easily do that.

One secret breathing technique of turtles is that they breathe through their butts. Hah, right? There’s much to be said about the way turtles breathe and how they survive underwater for so long.

In this article, we’ll explore together the hows and whys of turtle and tortoise breathing. I should also explain how long turtles and tortoises can stay underwater, depending on their breathing technique and capacity.

Do Turtles Have Gills or Lungs?

Turtles don’t have gills but they have lungs that act the same way ours do. These lungs are a bit different from other mammalian lungs but the functions are all the same. Turtle lungs sit under the carapace and the spine.

When they breathe, turtles move their shoulders when above water. That’s how they achieve ventilation of the lungs (breathing). Stimulating these muscles changes the pressure in their lungs, which helps them breathe normally.

They inhale oxygen and carbon dioxide, and they exhale the carbon dioxide back out. But this won’t help them when underwater. Just like we can’t breathe underwater with our lungs, turtles can’t either. But then, how do they stay underwater? Here’s a nifty list of average times different turtle species can spend underwater:

  • Box Turtle – Between 1-2 minutes
  • Desert Turtle – Between 1-2 minutes
  • Snapping Turtle – About 20-30 minutes
  • Red-Eared Slider – About 20-30 minutes
  • Map Turtle – Between 20-30 minutes
  • Green Sea Turtle – About 7-10 hours
  • Leatherback Sea Turtle – Same 7-10 hours

Some turtles are more adept at breathing underwater than others. As for humans, some have achieved even 24 minutes at the Olympic level, but most of us can only stay underwater for 30-40 seconds.

Even trained individuals generally stay no more than 2 minutes underwater. Some turtle species far outclass us when it comes to surviving underwater. What’s more, most turtle species hibernate for 90+ days underwater, when the water is frozen.

How Do Turtles Breathe?

Normally, turtles breathe through their nose. They do have one, two small holes in their head, similar to humans. When they inhale, oxygen and carbon dioxide enter, and when they exhale, carbon dioxide exits.

Their lungs fill up with oxygen and this allows them to live. Just like a human, so far. Even fully aquatic turtles can easily go on land and use their lungs to survive long-term. They don’t do that because of their aquatic nature but it’s not impossible if push comes to shove.

But when going underwater, the whole process changes. Suddenly, their nose becomes ineffective and useless. Humans drown when they try to breathe underwater. Well, the same goes for turtles.

But somehow, some turtle species manage to stay for 7-10 hours underwater. How come? There’s got to be something there, a secret technique that they use, right? Right, but you’ll never expect what it is.

Can Turtles Breathe Underwater?

Remember what I said before about turtles breathing through their butts? Well, that wasn’t a sarcastic or funny remark. It was the truth. Besides lungs, turtles have another organ that helps them breathe – their butt, also called a cloaca. The cloaca is a small orifice located at the rear end of the turtle. Damn it, you know where butts are located on animals. Why am I explaining this?

Usually, animal butts serve only excretory roles, right? That’s right, but turtles are special (like we didn’t know that already). While humans and other mammals like dogs only excrete and urinate through their butts, turtles perform two more functions – reproduction and breathing.

That’s right, they not only breathe through their butts, but they also reproduce through butts. If you’re wondering how can the organ used for taking a dump be used for breathing or reproducing, then you and I are in the same boat.

Apparently, it’s because their cloaca contains more parts, including the Urodeum, Proctodeum, and Coprodeum. When turtles lay their eggs somewhere, they do it through the cloaca, as well.

Moreover, if you stick around for 15-20 minutes staring at the turtle’s butthole, you’ll catch them breathing. Just make sure no one is around you when you’re doing this. Staring at butts, even animal ones, is usually frowned upon. Just saying…

When underwater, the turtle’s cloaca sucks in water, picks off the oxygen, and expels the water outside. Then, the process starts again. Compared to regular lung breathing, this form of breathing expends less energy. At the same time, the level of oxygen received from the cloaca is usually insufficient to allow long-term survival for turtles.

How Long Can Sea Turtles Stay Under Water?

Some can only stay underwater for 1-2 minutes, others for 20-30 minutes, while others are descendants of Aquaman and can stay underwater for 7-10 hours. That’s because turtle species have different butts. Some cloaca are more efficient than others at gathering up oxygen from water. The more oxygen gathered, the more time the turtle can stay underwater.

But there is a period when all turtles can stay underwater for months, and that is during hibernation. When winter comes, sea turtles go to the bottom of the pond or sea and hibernate until the end of winter. That’s generally 100 days away.

So, how can they possibly live underwater for all that time without dying? Well, their butts come to the rescue again. You see, when hibernating, turtles lower their metabolism and expenditure of energy.

While their cloaca usually only allows for short-term breathing underwater, hibernation is different. Because they expend less energy when hibernating, turtles need less oxygen to survive. Coincidentally, the oxygen they need to survive is exactly how much their cloaca provides. Clearly, this is a coincidence and not a biological adaptation to environmental conditions.

Even when not hibernating, turtles can lower their metabolism when sleeping. They can stay a bit more underwater than they normally do. They still have to come to the surface to replenish their oxygen reserves at some point, though.

But when they really need to stay underwater for extended periods, turtles can pull off the impossible. Their butts save the situation and provide just the right level of oxygen needed for survival.

How Long Can Tortoises Stay Under Water?

Tortoises are land-dwelling animals that don’t live underwater. Their bodies are not made to live underwater. While they enjoy taking a swim now and then, you won’t ever see a tortoise sleeping or hibernating underwater.

That’s because they can’t breathe nor hold their breath for too long. Instead, when they swim, their head is usually above the water so they can breathe normally, through their lungs.

Of course, this doesn’t mean they can’t stay at all underwater. At most, they can stay for a few minutes before having to come back out and breathe. Some tortoise species may be able to hold their breath for a couple of hours but they’re few and far between.

Tortoises can’t breathe through their butts either. So, the one ability that would have been useful when underwater is now gone.

Instead, they rely on good-old nose breathing. Air goes into their lungs, carbon dioxide comes out, and life goes on. Despite all this, most tortoises can stay underwater longer than a human. So, there’s that. But tortoises are not nearly as well-equipped as turtles for living underwater.

Wrap Up

What you should take from this article is that turtle butts are amazing. If only our butts helped us breathe underwater or do other cool stuff. Jokes aside, sea turtles are perfectly at ease staying underwater for extended periods, though there are differences between species.

Some turtles can stay underwater for hours, while others only stay for a couple of minutes. Hibernation is the only period when all turtles get to the same level. That’s when they self-regulate their need for oxygen.

Tortoises are a bit different. For starters, their butts aren’t magical anymore. They only excrete, urinate, and reproduce with their cloaca. So, if they can’t breathe underwater, they’ll hold their breaths for as long as needed.

Usually, this means a couple of minutes before new oxygen is needed. But both species, turtles and tortoises, make for great pets if you know how to take care of them!

Reptiles, Turtles

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