How Long Can Turtles Hold Their Breath Underwater?

Written by Em Casalena
Published: March 27, 2023
Share this post on:
Listen to Article

Turtles spend a lot of time underwater, yet they are unable to breathe there. Yet, turtles have developed the ability to hold their breath for extended periods of time, which allows them to stay underwater for a lot longer than we can.

Depending on the species and age of the turtle, they can hold their breath underwater for a specific amount of time. For example, some turtles can only survive underwater for a few minutes, while others have been seen to survive there for several hours. There is also a big difference between how long a sea turtle and a land turtle can hold their breath underwater.

Are you interested in finding out how long turtles can hold their breath underwater? In this guide, we’ll take a look at the length of time that different turtle species can survive underwater. We’ll also explain how they can sleep and eat underwater with ease.

Only The Top 1% Can Ace our Animal Quizzes

Think You Can?

How Long Can Sea Turtles Hold Their Breath?

Turtles are water-loving reptiles. For diverse activities including swimming, eating, drinking, hiding, and hibernating, they require plenty of water. However, because they cannot breathe in water, they cannot stay underwater continuously. They will drown and eventually perish if they are unable to surface for air.

That being said, turtles have gotten into the habit of holding their breath for extended periods of time underwater. At room temperature, many species can hold their breath for an average of 40 to 60 minutes. For species that sleep underwater, they can hold their breath for several hours.

There are many different species of turtles and not all of them have the same lung capacity. In actuality, even a turtle of the same species cannot hold their breath for the same period of time as another.

How long a turtle can hold its breath underwater depends on important aspects including species, age, and water temperature. Some turtles can go for hours underwater without breathing, while others can only do it for a few minutes.

When underwater napping, freshwater turtles specifically can go for many hours without breathing. They are able to accomplish it because their metabolism is slowed during this period. Less oxygen is used when the metabolism is slower. Turtles can thus spend hours submerged without the risk of drowning.

Sea Turtle
Most sea turtles (pictured) can hold their breath for hours and even sleep underwater.


Do Turtles Supply Their Own Oxygen?

Most turtles supply their own oxygen by breathing through their nostrils, like many other reptiles. That being said, there is another way that turtles get oxygen… and it’s through their butts!

Turtles don’t need a lot of oxygen while brumating, but they can’t receive it via breathing through their lungs as they can during the warmer months of the year. Instead, they employ a different method of breathing that is known (hilariously) as butt breathing.

Cloacal respiration, the medical word for this butt-breathing, is different from the breathing that turtles do when they are above water. Turtles use cloacal respiration, which involves flowing water over the blood vessel-covered body surfaces, to get oxygen from the water. The phrase cloacal respiration refers to the process of getting oxygen through a turtle’s cloaca, which is essentially its butt and has numerous blood vessels.

Turtles aren’t the only animals with this bizarre talent. Other species of reptiles and amphibians also frequently breathe via their butts. Frogs and salamanders are two other well-known animals that can breathe through their cloacas.

Why Can’t Turtles Breathe Underwater?

Sea turtles are unable to breathe underwater. As mentioned earlier, they can hold their breath for long periods of time, depending on how active they are. Turtles are reptiles that do not have gills like fish do. They cannot process water into oxygen for their bodies. Thus, they implement other methods, such as holding their breath or cloacal breathing.

How Often Do Turtles Need to Breathe Air?

The species of turtle, amount of activity, age, and temperature of the water are just a few of the variables that affect how often turtles need to breathe. Compared to terrestrial turtles, aquatic turtles are better at holding their breath. As a result, they don’t need to surface as frequently as turtles that live on land. Also, young turtles require some time to breathe oxygen into their lungs. For instance, even though aquatic turtles like sea turtles and painted turtles can hold their breath for hours at a time, they still need to surface regularly.

Box turtles, on the other hand, are not well suited to swimming and aquatic life. They must therefore surface for air every few minutes.

Can Turtles Sleep While Underwater?

Turtles do indeed sleep underwater. It’s not quite that simple, though. Almost all turtles sleep submerged, although some, like box turtles, don’t. Turtles like mud turtles, musk turtles, and painted turtles spend four to seven hours dozing underwater.

Turtles periodically rise to take a breath before going back to sleep. Several turtles hibernate underwater in addition to sleeping, including painted turtles and Asian pond turtles. These turtles are able to go for long periods of time without breathing. They accomplish this by breathing in and out of their cloaca, as was previously noted.

Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta)
Painted turtles (pictured) can sleep for hours underwater.


How Do Marine Turtles Sleep?

Humans do not sleep as turtles do. Their restful slumber is closer to rest. Typically, turtles choose a location with a consistent temperature that falls within the permitted range and just stop moving. Some turtles might hunker down inside their shells. Turtles also favor hiding out while they’re sleeping. In order to protect them from predators, this is done.

The shallow seas are where marine turtles love to repose. This enables them to swiftly take a breath when necessary. Every several hours, they merely need to briefly reappear. They favor rocky crevices with overhangs and coral outcroppings. Their metabolism almost stops during sleep. They may consume oxygen considerably more slowly as a result of this.

Depending on the species, freshwater turtles have particular sleeping habits. It is common knowledge that painted turtles snooze at the bottom of ponds or aquariums. Via the cloaca, the turtle takes up oxygen down below. The turtle’s metabolic rate must be extremely sluggish because they can’t absorb much oxygen in this method.

Certain turtles, like mud turtles, are also capable of breathing underwater. Similar to painted turtles, this method of oxygen absorption is exceedingly inefficient and unsustainable. Every few hours, they may rise to get air. If there are shallow waters, the turtle could choose them. Although some are known to sleep on land, all aquatic turtles prefer to sleep underwater. The majority of freshwater turtles also sunbathe during the day.

How Do Land Turtles Sleep?

Box turtles and other land turtles sleep on the ground. If you keep a turtle as a pet, you must give it both a moisture box and a hide for it to sleep comfortably. In the winter, land turtles also hibernate and brumate. Land turtles require a less warm and gloomy habitat during this time. The turtle’s body processes and metabolism slow down.

How Do Turtles Eat Underwater?

The skull of a sea turtle is perfectly suited for submerged feeding without ingesting too much water. Turtles physically suck food and water into their mouths while quickly extending their head and neck, a process that resembles slurping noodles. Just as well, the suction keeps prey in the mouth. It does this by enlarging the oropharyngeal cavity, located near the back of the neck. It is also done by depressing the hypoid bone, which lowers the base of the throat.

Turtles will spit up the water they consumed once the meal is in their mouth. Two procedures are used to do this. The prey is trapped between the turtle’s raised tongue and the roof of its mouth, rendering it immobile. The water will be expelled from a small opening between its lips and nose as it compresses its mouth at the same time. Scientists have noticed that turtles expel a jet of water from their nostrils and from these little holes in their lips after ingesting their meal.

Because the turtle needs the water for swallowing, not all of the water gets regurgitated. Certain turtles can’t swallow their meal when on land, according to some research, proving the need for water in this process.

Why Aren’t Sea Turtles Able to Eat on Land?

The salivary glands of the turtle can be one of the causes. Turtles only have one or fewer of the many types of salivary glands that terrestrial animals have in their mouths. This suggests that the gland may only operate to produce digestive enzymes and may not adequately lubricate their mouths with water to permit the swallowing of food. The turtles open the rear of their throats to ingest the meal.

The food descends through the esophagus of the turtle in stages. Food cannot go back into the mouth because of long, conical projections called papillae that are pointed in the direction of the stomach. This object has a very strange tube-like appearance with big, inward-pointing spikes.

The turtle’s esophageal papillae also shield it from consuming an excessive amount of saltwater. The papillae act as a form of filter, pressing out the extra water as the food and liquid go down the esophagus. The water may then be expelled by the turtle, but the food cannot because of the papillae that face inward.

How Do Turtles Float?

Turtles don’t float, at least not unless something is wrong. They are actively swimming at all times outside of slumber. While sleeping, turtles will occasionally float on the water’s surface of the tank or pond by utilizing the air in their throats as buoyancy aids.

Turtles usually float in the water as a result of digestive issues like flatulence. As turtles can quickly recover, the gas buildup is not a serious problem. Nonetheless, pulmonary illnesses can occasionally cause turtles to float. Pneumonia can result from this, which can cause turtles to float strangely in the water.

You should not take a pet turtle floating lightly. The floating could be caused by anything as simple as gas, or it might even be caused by a serious respiratory illness. Bring your turtle to the veterinarian as soon as you notice it floating more than it is swimming. For pet turtles, floating because of gas buildup is not a serious problem, but it can be lethal for wild turtles.

Aren’t turtles neat? They can hold their breath for several minutes or as long as several hours. Not many creatures that don’t breathe in water can do that!

Up Next:

More from A-Z Animals

The Featured Image

pig-nosed turtle
Pig-nosed turtle on the zoo

Share this post on:
About the Author

I'm a lover of all things sustainability, from urban farming to not killing houseplants. I love carnivorous plants, indigenous crops, and air-cleansing indoor plants. My area of expertise lies in urban farming and conscious living. A proud Southwest Institute of Healing Arts graduate and certified Urban Farming instructor.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.