The Truth About Sea Turtle Breathing: Gills or Lungs

do sea turtles have gills

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With seven different species of sea turtles on planet earth, these fascinating marine reptiles are a staple in many tropical reef ecosystems.

Sea turtles have an incredibly low survival rate, somewhere between one in 1,000 to one in 10,000 depending on the species.

Today we’re going to take a closer look at how sea turtles breathe and more specifically answer do sea turtles have gills?

No, sea turtles do not have gills. Sea turtles have lungs that they use to fill up with oxygen before holding their breath and submerging underwater for sometimes hours at a time.

Do Sea Turtles Really Have Gills?

Unlike fish, sea turtles do not have gills. They are required to come to the surface and breathe so that they can fill their lungs with oxygen and stay submerged in the water.

Sea turtles do not have diaphragms as they have a shell that does not allow them to contract, instead, they have muscles inside of their shells to help push air in and out.

That said, in the same with fish use gills to respire, sea turtles can also take up dissolved oxygen from the water using papillae.

What Is The Cloaca?

Sea turtles have something called the cloaca, which is essentially their butt. It has a lot of blood vessels and allows the turtle to absorb oxygen whilst underwater.

This helps some turtles hibernate underwater for long periods of time, as their cloaca acts as a pump and allows them to expel water whilst absorbing oxygen.

It’s like a superpower that allows sea turtles to absorb even more oxygen whilst underwater, helping them stay submerged for long periods of time.

Unlike the anus of say a dog, the cloaca has four main roles for sea turtles. Excretion, urinating, reproduction and breathing.

Sea turtles have only one orifice for all of these essential activities. The cloaca is located at the back of the turtle and is considered the butt.

So in essence, sea turtles are able to breathe from their butt, but the cloaca is also used for laying eggs and much more.

How Do Sea Turtles Breathe?

Like many other reptiles, sea turtles have lungs that allow them to breathe in oxygen. Although they have a different structure from the mammalian lungs, they work just as efficiently when exchanging gases.

Sea turtle lungs are located right under the carapace and the vertebral column. The turtle breathes by contracting muscles attached to the pelvic and shoulder girdles and to the plastron.

Sometimes it can look like sea turtles are rocking their shoulders when they’re not underwater, but this is the movement of the muscle masses around the shoulder that helps them breathe by changing the pressure inside the lungs.

The main way turtles breathe is through the two small holes in their nose. These small holes act just as nostrils do for humans and allow the turtle to inhale oxygen into their lungs.

When we inhale, we can visibly see our chest expanding as we have a flexible rib cage. Whereas turtles have a shell that is not flexible at all.

Since they are not flexible, they have no use for the lung and muscle setup that we and most mammals have.

Instead, their muscles pull the body outwards towards the opening of its shell which allows it to inhale, and then their muscles squish the turtle’s guts against its lungs to exhale.

The cloaca works in a similar way to the lungs, in that it will act as a pump to such water inside, and after it extracts all of the oxygen from the water it then expels the water out and repeats the process.

Even though sea turtles can use their nose and cloaca to breathe, they wouldn’t survive long using only the cloaca.

That said, some species of turtle are able to stay submerged for up to 10 hours at a time, in which the cloaca is essential to allowing them to do this.

How Long Can Sea Turtles Hold Their Breathe?

The amount of time a sea turtle can hold its breath largely depends on the species, as well as the amount of activity the turtle is doing.

Turtles that are swimming can usually only hold their breath for up to 2 hours, whereas resting sea turtles can hold their breath for 5 hours or more sometimes.

In winter when many sea turtles begin hibernation, some species are able to hold their breath for longer than 7 hours as they are essentially in a sleep-like state for this period and using little oxygen.

When a turtle hibernates it will rely solely on the cloaca for its breathing as it will remain submerged for long periods during this time.

Final Thoughts

So, do sea turtles have gills? No, they do not. However, they do have a cloaca which is similar in the sense that it allows turtles to extract oxygen from the water.

This cloaca is located near the turtle’s butt and extracts oxygen from the water before expelling the water, it’s like a superpower that allows turtles to stay submerged for hours at a time.

Sea turtles, like many mammals, also have lungs and must break the surface to breathe oxygen.

The length of time a sea turtle can stay submerged largely depends on their activity levels, but most can stay underwater for around 3 – 7 hours.

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this post today and you have learned something new about sea turtles and how they breathe.

To answer the question, sea turtles do not have gills. They are reptiles that have lungs and breathe by using their cloaca and lungs.

If you have enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it with others who may find it valuable, and feel free to stick around to learn more about sea turtles and other marine life.