Few animals are as well-equipped for inhabiting oceans, rivers and ponds as aquatic turtles are. One of the adaptations common to the group is the ability to hold their breath for extended periods. Though some are capable of holding their breath for "only" 30 minutes, other turtles, in some circumstances, spend months underwater without breaching the surface to breathe.
Pulmonary Pet Patterns
Your pet slider (Trachemys scripta ssp.) or painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) will frequently swim underwater for long periods of time -- certainly longer than you could hold your breath. At night, when they are inactive, many pet turtles sleep underwater, surfacing only a few times to grab several quick breaths. While breathing in the oxygen, they increase their rate of blood flow in an effort to absorb more oxygen than they would otherwise.
Mata matas (Cheuls fimbriatus) are South American turtles who lurk in sluggish backwaters, rivers and ponds. These bizarre-looking turtles occasionally reach 18 inches in length. Mata matas make their living by remaining motionless in the murky water; their flat shells and unusually shaped heads help them ambush unsuspecting fish, which they gulp down with remarkable quickness. To hunt in this manner, mata matas must remain still for long periods of time. Surfacing to breathe would ruin the turtles’ subterfuge, so they hold their breath for long periods of time -- sometimes more than one hour.
Freshwater turtles from temperate latitudes must hibernate to survive the winter. While a few species -- primarily mud turtles (Kinosternon ssp.) -- hibernate in loose soil, most other North American aquatic species hibernate underwater. During this time -- which may last more than six months in northern areas -- the turtles lower their metabolic rates; they absorb oxygen from the water via their throats and cloacas. While they are not technically holding their breath, remaining under a sheet of ice for months at a time is a significant achievement for otherwise air-breathing animals.
Sea turtles are incredibly well adapted to their marine existence; some can remain underwater for hours at a time. Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) hold the record for longest dive -- scientists have documented them remaining underwater for longer than 10 hours. Additionally, some groups of sea turtles hibernate underwater just as their freshwater cousins do.
- Respiration Physiology: Respiration in the Fresh Water Turtle, Chelys Fimbriatus
- Journal of Experimental Biology: Cardiorespiratory Synchrony in Turtles.
- Smithsonian.com: Wild Things: Life as We Know It
- Animal Diversity Web: Chelus Fimbriatus
- Biological Reviews: Ecology and Physiology of Hibernation and Overwintering Among Freshwater Fishes, Turtles and Snakes
- Herps of North Carolina: Eastern Mud Turtle
- George Doyle & Ciaran Griffin/Stockbyte/Getty Images