Close up shot of turtle while breathing

How Do Turtles Breathe? Turtles breathe through their lungs, and their unique anatomy allows them to take in air efficiently even though they have a rigid shell that doesn’t expand.

Turtles have adapted various methods to ensure they get enough oxygen, whether they are on land or in water.

Turtles’ Respiratory System

How Turtles Breathe on Land

On land, turtles breathe air into their lungs just like most reptiles and mammals. They use muscle movements to expand and contract their lungs since their rigid shells prevent their chest from expanding. This process involves:

  • Muscular Contraction: Turtles have specialized muscles within their shell that move their internal organs. By contracting and relaxing these muscles, they create negative pressure that pulls air into their lungs.
  • Nostril Breathing: Turtles have nostrils at the top of their snouts, allowing them to take in air while keeping most of their bodies submerged or hidden.

How Turtles Breathe Underwater

Aquatic turtles have fascinating adaptations for breathing underwater:

  • Holding Breath: Turtles can hold their breath for long periods. While resting, some species can hold their breath for several hours.
  • Buccal Respiration: Turtles can also absorb oxygen directly through the lining of their mouth and throat. This method, known as buccal respiration, supplements their lung breathing.
  • Cloacal Respiration: Some species, like the Fitzroy River turtle, can take in oxygen through their cloaca (a multi-purpose opening used for excretion and reproduction). This allows them to stay submerged longer and absorb oxygen directly from the water.

For more information on turtle care and turtle wellness, check out our other articles.

Adaptations for Efficient Breathing

Turtles possess adaptations that optimize their breathing efficiency.

Their lungs are positioned near the top of their shells, crucial for maintaining buoyancy in water and balance.

These lungs are spongy, facilitating extensive gas exchange due to their large surface area.

Unlike mammals, turtles lack the ability to expand their ribcages for breathing.

Instead, they utilize muscles to move their internal organs, which generates necessary pressure changes within their body cavities to facilitate respiration.

Adaptations vary among turtle species based on their habitats: terrestrial turtles typically rely solely on lung breathing with robust lungs, while aquatic turtles have developed buccal and cloacal respiration mechanisms to aid in obtaining oxygen while submerged.

To learn more about the can turtles breathe underwater, explore our detailed guides.

Challenges in Turtle Breathing

Gray and Green Turtle Swimming on Water

Turtles are prone to respiratory infections, especially under inadequate conditions.

Common symptoms include wheezing or coughing, indicating breathing difficulties, as well as nasal discharge, a clear sign of infection, and lethargy due to reduced oxygen intake.

It is essential to maintain a clean and suitable habitat to prevent these issues in turtles.

For aquatic turtles, regular water changes are crucial to prevent bacterial buildup.

Proper temperature control is also vital as it supports their immune function.

Additionally, maintaining appropriate humidity levels is important for terrestrial turtles to prevent respiratory distress.

For a deeper understanding of turtle biology, refer to the comprehensive resources on Wikipedia.


Turtles have fascinating and complex respiratory systems that allow them to thrive both on land and in water.

Understanding how turtles breathe helps pet owners provide better care, ensuring their turtles remain healthy and active.

By maintaining clean habitats and monitoring for signs of respiratory distress, turtle owners can support their pets’ unique breathing needs.