Can Turtles Breathe Underwater? The Answer Isn’t What You Expected

Last Updated on November 13, 2021 by cmoarz

It’s an interesting subject. There are so many varieties of turtles, such as sea turtles, box turtles, painted turtles, snapping turtles. But none of them have gills. So can turtles breathe underwater? The question has a fascinating answer actually.

Can turtles breathe underwater?

Yes and No. Outside of hibernation, Turtles come to the surface for air. However, During brumation (Hibernation) they have the ability to extract oxygen from their cloaca organ, called cloacal respiration. So during cold months, Turtles can extract enough oxygen from their butts to survive. They cannot breathe underwater otherwise.

Excuse me? Did you say they breathe through their butts?

Yes! I told you it would be fascinating.

How do turtles extract oxygen from their butts?

Turtles have an opening on their ventral (belly) side called the cloaca. The cloaca is not only for excretion, But it also helps with reproduction and osmoregulation.

Osmoregulation is how living things regulate the concentration of solutes (salts/ions).

So basically, This means they can extract oxygen like normal animals breathe, But also take in water to extract salt. They then use proteins to expel the water and extract more oxygen.

It’s not a lot of oxygen.

In fact, it’s very little. But it’s all they need when they are very cold and hibernating as their metabolism slows down to almost nothing.

Does that mean turtles can’t drown even though they have lungs?

So in other words, Can turtles drown? Yes, turtles can stay underwater, and drown if they stay too long. And it happens, often enough, however, still a turtle drowning is considered rare. Usually, an external source keeps them underwater longer than they can hold their breath. Things like stray fishing nets.

However, there are many instances of turtles that have been rescued that had become disoriented and couldn’t make it back to the surface for air. The water directly around them is saturated with enough oxygen for them to survive for some time even if they can’t reach the surface themselves.

What about my pet aquarium turtle? What are the odds he could drown?

It’s very unlikely for your pet turtle to drown in a shallow aquarium. However, if the tank is too large or your pet turtle can’t find its way to the surface for air, There’s a chance.

This can happen sometimes if it gets tangled in plants or stuck behind filters or decorations.

In general, almost all aquatic turtles need land and water basking area so they can climb out of their tanks and dry off.

There are ways to make them drown-proof as well such as making ensuring there’s open space between the water level and lid where they could breakthrough. As well as having a basking island for them to climb on with an easy ramp.

Avoid plants that can easily be tangling them up in, And decorations should be far enough away from the aquarium glass that he can’t wedge himself in and get stuck.

Besides, A good owner will be looking out for their turtle multiple times a day, Which means you are more than likely to unstuck or untangle and turtle in distress before it becomes a life-threatening issue.

Not all turtle species are water-friendly

Your box turtle friend for example is an awful swimmer. He shouldn’t have anything more than a shallow puddle to chill in or else he’s at high risk for drowning.

It’s the same with your tortoise friend, Though they are better adapted for land-living, They aren’t like most turtles that can breathe underwater. They need to have their noses above the surface so they can pant and get oxygen.

So how do I know if my turtle is drowning?

Close observation is always important. Make sure you’re watching them for at least an hour or two a day so you can tell if something isn’t right with them.

One of the biggest signs of distress is floating on their back instead of being submerged underwater where they are supposed to be chilling. This means they are probably stuck somewhere underwater where they can’t swim back up to reach air. Not oxygen or too much carbon dioxide.

However, They don’t always float on their backs. It may be something else like shell rot or ingrown toenails (yes, it happens with some pet turtles). Or stress that they cannot swim properly.

When a turtle’s metabolism slows, turtles stay underwater for significant amounts of time

Either from simply sleeping underwater or when they hibernate underwater, in both cases they stay submerged underwater for long periods of time. During this time they slow their metabolism down which means they use less oxygen and can survive by absorbing oxygen from their cloacal respiration.

This allows them to hold their breath underwater for longer periods of time and in turn it appears they are breathing underwater, when in fact they are just absorbing oxygen and using very little of their oxygen supply.

If you would like to know more about turtles, check out our article on box turtle habitat setup.

Here you will learn what plants for indoor box turtle habitat, how to set up a box turtle habitat indoor and outdoor box turtle habitat.


Owner of and also owner of actual Aquarium Gravel believe it or not! ;). Setting up beautiful aquarium sceneries and habitats since I was very young. Enjoy!