Turtles typically breathe through their lungs; but perhaps you’ve heard that they can breathe through their butts. Well, it turns out, this is just one of several tricks they can use to bring in oxygen without actually breathing. This may lead you to wonder: how long can a snapping turtle hold its breath? How long can it stay underwater? Keep reading! In this article, we’ll answer these questions and more.
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How Do Snapping Turtles Breathe?
Turtles have been around for a long time–over 250 million years! As you might imagine, they’ve developed a number of adaptations during that time to help them survive in a changing world.
One of these adaptations is the way they breathe.
Snapping turtles typically breathe through their lungs in a way that is similar to humans. They take in oxygen through external nares behind their mouth, which passes into their lungs, is absorbed into the bloodstream, and spreads throughout the body by muscle contractions.
This is the most common way for them to breathe, but they can also take in oxygen in other ways as well.
One of these methods is known as buccopharyngeal pumping. Using this method, the turtle allows water to pass through its mouth, and specialized membranes extract oxygen from the water and pass it into the bloodstream.
Another, more bizarre method is known technically as cloacal respiration, but it is more commonly referred to as “butt breathing.”
This type of “breathing” is commonly used during brumation, when the turtle’s metabolism drops and it spends long periods of time underwater. Cells in the turtle’s rear end, called cloacal bursae, extract oxygen from the water and send it into the bloodstream.
Snapping turtles can even “breathe” without oxygen for periods of time. This breathing method is called anaerobic respiration and involves converting glucose in the body to usable energy in the absence of oxygen.
Snapping turtles may use this form of respiration if they are trapped under the surface of a frozen lake, for example. Though it cannot be used indefinitely without causing harm, snapping turtles can safely use anaerobic respiration for up to 100 days.
Check out this video to learn more about this strange phenomenon:
How Long Can a Snapping Turtle Hold Its Breath?
Thanks to anaerobic respiration, snapping turtles can technically hold their breath for as long as 100 days. That said, this is only possible during brumation (hibernation), when their metabolism is extremely low.
A snapping turtle’s metabolism is directly related to the temperature of their environment. During the warmer months, the turtle’s metabolism is much higher than it is during the colder months.
When the metabolism is higher, the turtle has more energy needs and, therefore, must breathe more often.
Even so, a snapping turtle can hold its breath for an average of 30 to 50 minutes while waiting for prey to swim by.
If they expend more energy chasing after prey, they may have to surface for breath after only 10 minutes or so. On the other hand, if they aren’t moving at all, they can drop their heart rate significantly, allowing them to stay underwater for up to 6 hours without breathing.
How Long Can Snapping Turtles Stay Underwater?
Snapping turtles can stay underwater for as long as they don’t need to surface for air.
In the summer, they may stay underwater for as little as 10 minutes or as long as 6 hours depending on their activity level and heart rate.
In the winter, they may stay underwater for the entire season–3 to 6 months depending on their location and the harshness of the winter.
As long as they are able to use alternative methods of bringing in oxygen, such as cloacal respiration, they can stay underwater indefinitely.
If the water freezes over and they are forced to use anaerobic respiration, they can stay underwater for up to 100 days. Longer than this, and a buildup of lactic acid in their bodies may cause their muscles to cramp up, leading to the threat of drowning.
Snapping turtles can hold their breath for up to 6 hours without entering brumation. During brumation, they can hold their breath for months at a time as they turn to alternate forms of respiration to keep themselves alive.
Looking for more interesting facts about these beautiful creatures? You can read our guide about nesting habits of snapping turtles.