How Do Turtles Breathe? Can They Breathe Through Their Shell?

Rhea Nischal
Feb 07, 2023 By Rhea Nischal
Originally Published on Oct 15, 2021
Fact-checked by Gowri Rao
Underwater view of a sea turtle taking a breath of air
Age: 3-18
Read time: 6.1 Min

You must have heard of the slow-walking animal called the turtle.

Have you ever wondered how it breathes? Through its shell, lungs, or both?

A turtle is a vertebrate that possesses lungs which it utilizes for respiration. Thus, a sea turtle cannot stay underwater forever as it will drown without breathing air. However, when a turtle is underwater hibernating it cannot use its lungs. Then what does it do?

It undergoes cloacal respiration which indeed involves inhaling oxygen through its butt from the water. Interesting or gross, you decide. Read on to discover more about this unusual breathing technique that sea turtles use to get oxygen from the water!

If you enjoy this article, why not also read about do tortoises hibernateand how do amphibians breathe here at Kidadl!

Do sea turtles breathe air or water?

Sea turtles are amphibious reptiles that have the ability to breathe in oxygen from the water as well as from the air! Freshwater turtle species like Japanese pond turtles, sliders, and painted turtles can remain submerged for long durations because of cloacal breathing.

Similar to humans, they also have the ability to breathe through their lungs when they are on land.

Many aquatic animals have the ability to breathe through their skin when they are underwater and do not need to come up to the surface of the water. They can remain underwater for long periods due to this ability.

However, turtles cannot absorb oxygen through their skin and have to come up to the surface of the water after periods of 10-30 minutes so that they do not drown. A sleeping turtle can remain underwater for four to seven hours.

An active turtle cannot swim underwater for long. A hibernating turtle can remain underwater for months and wouldn't need to come up to the surface during the hibernation duration.

During the winter season, ponds in the natural habitat of turtles freeze and get concealed with a layer of ice.

Thus many turtle species hibernate during cold months and are known to crawl beneath decaying plants or in the bottom of ponds. A freshwater turtle does not move throughout hibernation.

During this time, its heart rate falls and its metabolism drops. The turtle undergoes only a few functions in its body throughout hibernation when it is underwater.

Do turtles breathe through their shell?

Interestingly, the turtle's shell is the turtle's ribcage. This rib cage consists of legs, organs, guts, and lungs.

Turtles undergo respiration by breathing air through external nares, which are their nostrils, as well as by letting water pass through their throat and cloaca. The shell of turtles has made them quite famous as this shell is like armor for them.

The outermost layer of the shell of turtles constitutes keratin, which is also present in human nails and hair! Turtles are one of the very few animals that breathe in oxygen under the non-moving, hard shell. The shell does not expand and contract, unlike human bodies that expand and contract due to breathing.

A muscle sling is connected to the turtle shell and is utilized to pump the lungs with air. This muscle sling is quite essential for a turtle's shell to develop.

As you know by now, turtles breathe air with their external nares. From here, the inhaled air goes into the trachea through the glottis.

The inhaled air enters through the trachea to ultimately reach the turtle's lungs. The trachea divides into two bronchi when it reaches the heart to carry air to the lungs. Lungs absorb the air and then absorbed oxygen is circulated throughout the body.

Lungs are quite sponge-like and have many air passages called a network of faveoli. Oxygen is delivered to the bloodstream from this network so that oxygen can reach every body part.

Caretta Caretta Turtle emerges to take a breath

Do turtles breathe through their butts?

Yes, sea turtles are known to breathe through their butt during cold months when they are hibernating underwater. They respire through their butt, which is their cloacal opening, and the whole process is termed cloacal respiration.

Turtles also breathe air through external nares that are located on top of their mouth. Turtles are reptiles that breathe air, but can also breathe via their butt during hibernation.

Cloacal respiration is undergone by hibernating turtles that choose to hibernate underwater. Breathing is performed mostly by their cloaca.

It is a process of exchanging gas, by diffusing inhaled oxygen into the turtle's blood and exhaling out carbon dioxide. Through this method of respiration, the amount of oxygen diffused into the blood of the turtle is very low as compared to normal amounts on land.

Thus, turtles adapt to this with a slow metabolism. Slow metabolism is easily achieved by turtles due to the cold temperature in winter months. Turtles are a cold-blooded animal species whose body temperature is regulated by the change in environment.

They are quite unlike other animals and humans that have the ability to regulate their body temperature. Sometimes, the oxygen in the pond where a turtle is hibernating becomes very low which leads the turtle to perform anaerobic respiration.

However, this time of respiration causes lactic acid to build up. Some species choose to delay the production of this acid by utilizing carbonates and calcium in their bones.

Do all turtles breathe through their butt?

No, only some aquatic turtle species can breathe underwater using a process known as cloacal respiration. Aquatic turtles that are undergoing hibernation can respire through their butts.

Blood vessels that are present near the cloaca absorb oxygen from the water. Muscles located in the cloaca expand and contract to force the water in and out of the cloacal opening.

Blood vessels located at the cloacal opening are present in high concentration and allow turtles like the Japanese pond turtle and the painted turtle to easily absorb oxygen from the water.

Painted turtles and snapping turtles can both stay underwater at a cold temperature for more than 100 days. For turtles to successfully breathe underwater, water oxygen levels must be high.

However, sometime through the winter, oxygen levels reduce in the water body turtles inhabit, such as a pond. Then turtles like snapping turtles and painted turtles have no option but to survive in the water by performing active lactic acid buffering as well as anaerobic metabolism and respiration.

Anaerobic breathing is performed without oxygen and takes place only for a short duration. It is not a preferred method of breathing as it causes lactic acid build-up.

It is only used in bad water conditions as it is the last resort for a turtle to survive in cold temperatures in winter months.

The painted turtle neutralizes this acid by releasing calcium and carbonates present in its bones. Musk turtles utilize a similar method which is absorbing oxygen through the throat's blood vessels, instead of the cloaca.

Did You Know...

Turtles are cold-blooded animals that regulate their temperature with the help of external temperature, the temperature of the environment they dwell in. The temperature of turtles is proportional to the temperature of their surroundings. Thus, turtles swim in water and bask in sunlight to maintain their body temperature!

The metabolism of the turtle is also proportional to the temperature of its surroundings!

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for how do turtles breathe then why not take a look at how do frogs breathe, or Indian tent turtle facts!

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Written by Rhea Nischal

Bachelor of Business Administration specializing in Management

Rhea Nischal picture

Rhea NischalBachelor of Business Administration specializing in Management

A background in Business Administration and Management from MCM DAV College, Rhea has led her to work for her father's global business. However, her passion for content production, where she manages operations to ensure all processes run smoothly. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the piano and spending time with her one-year-old nephew.

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Fact-checked by Gowri Rao

Bachelor of Arts specializing in Economics

Gowri Rao picture

Gowri RaoBachelor of Arts specializing in Economics

With a bachelor's degree in Economics from Krea University, Gowri is a highly skilled data analyst and an expert in regression and causation modeling. Her interests in economic trends, finance, and investment research complement her professional expertise. In addition to her professional pursuits, Gowri enjoys swimming, running, and playing the drums, and she is also a talented tutor.

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