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How Long Can Turtles Hold Their Breath? Vet-Approved Facts & FAQ

Brooke Billingsley

By Brooke Billingsley

one swimming marine turtle underwater in aquarium tank

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Karyn Kanowski

BVSc MRCVS (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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If you’re an owner of an aquatic turtle, then you probably already know that they seem to be able to stay underwater for a while—certainly longer than we can! So how long can they actually hold their breath? The answer will vary with the type of turtle, read on to find out more details.

How Long Can Turtles Hold Their Breath?

The answer to this question will vary with the type of turtle. Freshwater aquatic turtles often surface every few minutes, but they are actually capable of holding their breath for around an hour. If they’re being active underwater, then they’ll need to breathe every few minutes. During cold temperatures, turtles enter a semi-hibernation state called “torpor.” While in torpor, aquatic turtles can hold their breath for up to 7 hours!

Sea turtles, on the other hand, can hold their breath for around 2 hours, most likely due to the reduced energy expended as they glide through the water, rather than paddling as freshwater species do. Like freshwater turtles, sea turtles need to breathe more frequently when they’re active, so during hunting or escaping a predator, a sea turtle will need to breathe every few minutes.

Closeup view of Mississippi map turtle
Image By: TadeasH, Shutterstock

Can Terrestrial Turtles Hold Their Breath?

We know that aquatic turtles can hold their breath for a long time, but what about turtles and tortoises that live on land? Yes, terrestrial turtles can hold their breath, but not nearly as long as their aquatic cousins.

Land-dwelling turtles can only hold their breath for around 20–30 minutes, although you should never try to test how long your turtle can hold its breath.

How Are Turtles Able to Hold Their Breath for so Long?

There are a few reasons that enable turtles to hold their breath for so long, the main one being that they have evolved to do so. Some species can even absorb oxygen from the water via their cloaca, known as “butt breathing”.

The slow metabolic rate of turtles means that their oxygen demands are much lower than other animals, so they actually don’t need to breathe as often as we do. Sea turtles, in particular, are able to slow their metabolism even further when deep diving or staying underwater for extended periods, which reduces their oxygen needs.

Reeve's turtle in the case
Image By: shepherdsatellite, Shutterstock

In Conclusion

If you have an aquatic turtle, it will be interesting to watch and see how long it can stay underwater – keep an eye out for those tiny nostrils poking out of the water! The slow metabolic rate of turtles might mean that they take life a little more slowly, but it means that they can also do things for a longer time, like holding their breath longer than we can, and in the case of some tortoise species, even living longer than us!


Featured Image Credit: Nerify, Shutterstock

Brooke Billingsley

Authored by

Brooke Billingsley spent nine years as a veterinary assistant before becoming a human nurse in 2013. She resides in Arkansas with her boyfriend of five years. She loves all animals and currently shares a home with three dogs, two cats, five fish, and two snails. She has a soft spot for special needs animals and has a three-legged senior dog and an internet famous cat with acromegaly and cerebellar hypoplasia. Fish keeping...Read more

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