The turtle is an extremely aquatic animal which is well equipped to stay under water, holding its breath for at least 30 minutes! Under certain circumstances, some turtles can stay underwater for months without breaching the surface for a gulp of air!
Painted Turtles & Sliders
Because of their slow metabolisms, the slider (a.k.a. Trachemys scripta) and the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) can stay submerged for a rather long time. Some species have adapted so well in fact that they’ve learned how to extract oxygen from the water, thus allowing them to stay underwater for an entire winter!
Under the Hood
Turtles are “cold-blooded” or ectothermic animals. A closer look under their hood (or shell) reveals how their low metabolic rate fluctuates with warmer temperatures. Turtles warm their bodies with the aid of outside sources like sunlight and warm water so when the temperatures are warm, the turtles move faster and when cold, slower. A faster metabolism also means more oxygen is expended.
A pet turtle’s usual behavior is to stay underwater for only a few minutes at a time. During the day and in warm water they breathe regularly but at night their metabolism may change due to a slow down which results in sleeping turtles staying underwater for not a few minutes but a few hours at a time.
Take a Deep Breath…and Hold
Only a few studies document the breath-holding capabilities of turtles in high temperatures mainly because most work has been concentrated on hibernating turtles. One study of the mata mata turtle (Chelys fimrbiata), however, does demonstrate that a turtle can hold its breath underwater (when undisturbed) for at least 35 minutes.
Aquatic turtles from northern locations usually hibernate underwater. The turtles will bury themselves into the substrate of a lake or river bottom and hibernate for months as their metabolism slows down and they have very little need for food and oxygen. Many turtles absorb oxygen from the water through their throats and cloaca. Other turtles like snappers and painted turtles survive by implementing their anaerobic metabolisms and their active chemical buffering processes as well.
Species, Location & Temps
What is your turtle’s species? From where does your turtle originate? What are the temperatures in that region? If you know the answers to the above questions you’ll probably know how long your turtle can stay underwater. Whether it will be 30 minutes or six months is dependent upon the turtle’s species, where they live, and the temperatures in that area.
By Tom Matteo
About the Author
Tom Matteo has been a freelance writer since 1992. He has written hardware and software reviews for computers and gaming systems, and now writes about animal behavior and care. Tom resides in Bethlehem, PA with his wife, Tina, and their beloved cockapoo, Angel.