Turtles are aquatic animals, right? Well, they spend most of their time swimming in the water, but they also occasionally come on land. Did you know that turtles can’t actually breathe underwater? Unlike fish, turtles need to come up to get oxygen. Turtles also come on land to bask in the sun for vitamin D production.
While they can spend much of their time on dry land, turtles thrive best in a water-rich environment. Their bodies are best adapted to swimming. Some turtles have flippers, others have webbed feet. But they all have an easier time moving underwater than they do on land. Freedom of movement is crucial when it comes to scavenging for food, after all.
In the wild, aquatic turtles eat diets consisting of algae, seaweed, as well as smaller fish, shrimp, and jellyfish. Needless to say, to obtain their food, turtles must venture quite deep into the water. Most turtles can actually dive to depths of up to 980 feet (300m).
It’s interesting how turtles regulate their movement in and outside the water. Unlike fish, turtles don’t have a swim bladder. Even without this organ, though, turtles can float effortlessly without sinking into the depths of the ocean. How do they do that? Well, you’re about to find out!
What is a Swim Bladder?
Despite its unfortunate name, a swim bladder doesn’t have anything to do with urine. Also known as an air bladder or a fish maw, this organ is specific to vertebrated fish. It’s a small, gas-filled chamber that gives fish the ability to stay afloat effortlessly. This is how fish regulate their buoyancy (ability to float) at different sea levels.
If you ever wondered how fish can float without sinking, now you know. But there’s more to it. As it turns out, not all aquatic animals have a swim bladder. Species such as cartilaginous fish and turtles don’t have this organ, and they use different means to swim. So, the question remains…
How do Turtles Float Without Sinking?
Just like other reptile species, turtles have these things called lungs. Who would have thought? A turtle’s lungs are located under the carapace. To control their buoyancy when underwater, turtles manipulate their lung volume. We, humans, use very similar swimming techniques.
To stay as close to the water surface as possible, we need a higher lung volume. The more air we keep inside our lungs, the higher we’ll float. Then, if we were to sink in the water, we’d need to slowly breathe out to empty our lungs.
Just like in humans, more air in a turtle’s lungs means the turtle will float higher in the water. To sink deeper, turtles need a lower lung volume. There’s also a limit to how much a turtle’s lungs can expand, because of the rigid carapace covering them. However, a turtle’s shell grows in size proportional to its length and weight.
A turtle’s body should always be in perfect sync so that swimming comes naturally. However, problems can sometimes arise for several reasons. Buoyancy issues in wild and pet turtles can reflect serious underlying health issues. If you have a pet turtle, don’t ignore these warning signs.
Your turtle should always be able to sink into the water when pushed down. If your turtle suddenly comes back up to the surface when pushed down, this might be a sign of too much air trapped in its carapace. Uneven weight distribution when your turtle is floating is also a worrisome sign. If you notice these signs take your pet to a vet clinic immediately!
Buoyancy Problems in Turtles
Sometimes, turtles can develop buoyancy problems because of digestive distress. If your turtle is floating with a forward or back tilt, as opposed to sideways, this might be because of trapped gas. Introducing new foods or certain medicine is usually the main cause. In such cases, the issue should solve itself when the excess gas finds its way out.
In other cases, excess gas can be a symptom of an infection or an obstructed bowel. Ingestion of a foreign body and constipation are some of the most common causes of bowel obstruction. Infections and bowel obstructions require immediate professional attention!
Uneven weight distribution from one side to another could be a sign of lung problems. Respiratory infections such as pneumonia may cause excess air to be trapped inside the lungs. Typically, only one lung is affected, hence the uneven weight distribution. Excess gas trapped in the turtle’s body can also increase pressure on the lungs, causing tears.
Respiratory infections in turtles are sadly not uncommon. They may appear for a variety of reasons. They’re usually a result of exposure to harmful bacteria, viruses, and even parasites. Unsanitary tank conditions are the main culprit for the spread of these micro-organisms.
Other factors might predispose a turtle to respiratory infections. A low-calorie diet, poor nutrition, and insufficient exposure to ultraviolet light will all weaken a turtle’s natural defense system. When a turtle’s body isn’t properly nourished, its immune system won’t work either.
Turtles need a varied diet to reach their vitamin and mineral needs. A combination of plant foods such as leafy greens, algae, seaweed, and fruit, as well as animal foods such as small fish, insects, and snails, will ensure adequate calorie and protein intake.
Turtles also need a relatively warm environment for proper immune function. If water and room temperature are too low, this might also predispose your pet to infection.
Make sure that their environment is at a constant temperature between 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit (22-26 degrees Celsius). If direct sun exposure is not an option, you can use an ultraviolet lamp for your turtle’s vitamin D requirements.
If your pet turtle has buoyancy problems, take it to the vet ASAP! Bacterial infections and parasites should be treated early on before they cause more damage.
Your vet will prescribe a suitable antibiotic treatment and the necessary dietary modifications. They’ll also devise the best treatment plan for any bowel and lung issues your pet turtle might have.