Can Red-Eared Turtles Breathe Underwater?


Red-eared turtles, also known as red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), are popular as pets all around the world. These semi-aquatic creatures are native to the southern United States and northern Mexico. One of the common questions among turtle enthusiasts is whether red-eared turtles can breathe underwater. In this article, we will explore this topic in detail, covering various subtopics related to the breathing mechanism of red-eared turtles.

The Respiratory System of Red-Eared Turtles

Before diving into the specifics of how red-eared turtles breathe, it’s essential to understand their respiratory system. Like other reptiles, red-eared turtles have lungs and breathe air. However, their ability to stay submerged for extended periods hints at their adaptation to aquatic life.

Respiration on Land

Red-eared turtles primarily breathe using their lungs when they are on land or at the water’s surface. The turtle’s ribcage expands and contracts, allowing air to enter and exit the lungs. They have a unique set of muscles called the oblique muscles that aid in respiration. These muscles help in compressing and expanding the lungs, facilitating efficient breathing.

Respiration Underwater

When red-eared turtles are submerged underwater, they can’t breathe air as they do on land. Instead, they rely on a specialized respiratory mechanism known as cloacal respiration. The cloaca is a common opening for excretion and reproduction in reptiles.

Red-eared turtles have a glandular lining in their cloaca that allows oxygen to be absorbed directly from the water. This process is possible due to the rich network of blood vessels present in the cloaca. Oxygen dissolved in the water diffuses through the cloacal walls and enters the bloodstream, providing the turtle with the necessary oxygen to survive underwater.

Adaptations for Underwater Respiration

Red-eared turtles have several adaptations that enable them to respire underwater efficiently. Let’s explore some of these adaptations:

Decreased Metabolic Rate

When red-eared turtles are submerged, their metabolic rate decreases significantly. This adaptation helps conserve oxygen and allows them to stay underwater for extended periods without needing to breathe air. The exact mechanism behind this metabolic suppression is still not fully understood.

Supplemental Oxygen Storage

Red-eared turtles have the ability to store oxygen in various parts of their body. They can store oxygen in their muscles, organs, and even in specialized sacs in their cloaca. This supplemental oxygen allows them to survive prolonged periods underwater when oxygen levels are low.

Buoyancy Control

Red-eared turtles have the ability to control their buoyancy, which aids in efficient respiration. These turtles can adjust the volume of air in their lungs to achieve neutral buoyancy, enabling them to stay at their desired depth in the water column without expending excessive energy.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q1: How long can red-eared turtles stay underwater?

A1: Red-eared turtles can stay submerged for an average of 15-20 minutes, but some individuals have been known to remain underwater for up to 30 minutes.

Q2: Do red-eared turtles ever need to come up for air?

A2: Yes, red-eared turtles need to come up for air regularly. While they have adaptations for underwater respiration, they still require air to meet their oxygen needs fully.

Q3: Can red-eared turtles drown?

A3: Yes, red-eared turtles can drown if they are unable to access the water’s surface for an extended period. It is crucial to provide them with proper basking areas to prevent drowning.

Q4: Can red-eared turtles respire solely underwater?

A4: No, red-eared turtles cannot respire solely underwater. While they have adaptations for underwater respiration, they still require access to air for proper oxygen exchange.

Q5: Can red-eared turtles breathe through their skin?

A5: Red-eared turtles cannot breathe through their skin like some amphibians. They rely on their lungs and cloacal respiration to obtain oxygen.

Q6: Can red-eared turtles survive without water?

A6: Red-eared turtles are semi-aquatic and require access to water for survival. They cannot survive without water for extended periods as it is essential for their respiration, hydration, and thermoregulation.


Red-eared turtles have remarkable adaptations that allow them to respire both on land and underwater. While they primarily breathe using their lungs, they can rely on cloacal respiration to extract oxygen from water. These adaptations, coupled with their ability to control buoyancy and store supplemental oxygen, enable red-eared turtles to thrive in their semi-aquatic habitats. Understanding these physiological adaptations enhances our appreciation for these fascinating creatures and their ability to survive in diverse environments.

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