Turtle Near a Coral Reef

No, turtles cannot breathe underwater.

Turtles are reptiles, and like most reptiles, they need to come to the surface to breathe air.

Understanding Turtle Respiration

While turtles cannot breathe underwater, they have adapted to spending significant time submerged.

Unlike fish, turtles do not have gills. Instead, they have lungs similar to humans, which means they must come up for air regularly.

This adaptation is crucial for their survival, whether they live in the wild or are kept as pets.

How Do Turtles Breathe?

Turtles breathe air through their lungs. When a turtle is underwater, it holds its breath and can remain submerged for extended periods. The duration a turtle can hold its breath varies depending on the species and environmental conditions.

  • Aquatic Turtles: These turtles, such as the red-eared slider, can hold their breath for 30 minutes to several hours.
  • Semi-Aquatic Turtles: Turtles like the painted turtle can stay underwater for longer periods, especially during brumation (a hibernation-like state).
  • Tortoises: Unlike their aquatic counterparts, tortoises are primarily land-dwellers and do not spend much time underwater.

For more information on taking care of turtles, check out our related articles.

Adaptations for Holding Breath

Turtles possess several adaptations enabling them to remain underwater for extended periods.

Their slow metabolism reduces oxygen requirements, allowing for longer breath-holding.

They can also switch to anaerobic respiration, a temporary process that doesn’t require oxygen.

Additionally, some species can absorb small amounts of oxygen through their cloaca, a multipurpose opening for excretion and reproduction, which is particularly useful during hibernation.

Explore our guides on turtle care and tortoise care for comprehensive information on keeping your reptile healthy.

Importance of Surface Breathing

Although turtles can remain submerged for extended periods, they must surface to breathe, which is essential for their respiratory health and overall well-being.

If turtles cannot reach the surface, they risk drowning, so it’s important to provide an environment that allows easy access to the surface.

For pet turtles, this means ensuring their habitat includes accessible basking areas for regulating body temperature and preventing shell infections, maintaining clean water for respiratory health, and ensuring the water depth is sufficient for swimming but shallow enough for the turtle to reach the surface effortlessly.

Signs of Respiratory Distress in Turtles

Turtles on a Tree Trunk in a Pond

Recognizing the signs of respiratory distress in turtles is crucial.

If your turtle exhibits frequent surfacing, open-mouth breathing, lethargy, or mucus discharge around the nose or mouth, consult a veterinarian immediately.

Frequent surfacing may indicate breathing difficulties, open-mouth breathing can signal respiratory infection or distress, lethargy and frequent resting at the surface suggest potential health issues, and mucus discharge is a common symptom of respiratory infection.

For a deeper understanding of turtle biology and respiration, refer to Wikipedia.


Turtles cannot breathe underwater, they have developed remarkable adaptations to spend significant time submerged.

However, they must surface to breathe, and it is crucial for their health and safety. By understanding their respiratory needs and providing a suitable environment, you can ensure your turtle remains healthy and happy.