Breathing Easy: Do Sharks Breathe Air?

can sharks breathe air

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Sharks are some of the most remarkable animals in our oceans. They are exceptional predators with a range of heightened senses that allow them to locate prey from up to a quarter-mile away.

They can be found in all five of our planet’s oceans and range from roaming in shallow coastal waters to out in the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at a shark’s ability to breathe and answer a question that often comes up when discussing sharks. Do sharks breathe air?

No, sharks do not breathe air as they do not have lungs. Instead, they have gills that extract oxygen from the water which allows them to survive.

Do Sharks Breathe Air?

Unlike marine mammals such as dolphins and whales, sharks do not need to surface in order to breathe air and inhale oxygen.

But sharks do still need oxygen to survive, just like fish and many other marine animals. So how do they do it then?

Well, they have gills that extract oxygen from the water whilst they are submerged. This allows them to stay in the water whilst still harvesting oxygen to keep them alive.

How Do Sharks Breathe?

Sharks don’t actually breathe in the way that we humans or land animals do, they harvest oxygen from the water through their gills.

The concentration of oxygen in water is much lower than it is in air, so animals like sharks have developed ways to extract as much oxygen as they can.

A shark’s gills are the lifeline that extracts oxygen from water and removes carbon dioxide from their bodies.

Below is a quick overview of how sharks breathe:

  1. As water passes over the shark’s gills, small capillaries allow oxygen to enter the bloodstream.
  2. The oxygenated blood is then pumped throughout the shark’s body.
  3. The blood then enters the heart and is pumped to the gills, this is where carbon dioxide is released and then the process starts again.

Many sharks optimize the amount of oxygen they extract from the water by swimming through the water, even sometimes against the current which allows them to sleep.

Whilst other sharks hold water in their cheeks and pump it over their gills, allowing them to breathe whilst resting on the bottom, this is known as “buccal pumping”.

Can Sharks Breathe On Land?

Sharks are unable to breathe on land as they do not have lungs. They are unable to extract oxygen from the air like we humans do which means that after a short while, they will die on land.

Sometimes sharks end up beached as they swim too close to the shoreline or are trying to escape from a larger predator.

When they do this and become stuck on land, if a rescue team is not able to help and get the shark back into the water, the shark will ultimately die if it does not return to the ocean.

Sharks rely on water in order to extract oxygen, so when there is no water there is no way for the shark to “breathe”.

That said, sharks can survive so long as there is water passing over their gills, which is why you may see rescuers pouring buckets of water on a shark’s gills to help them survive a little longer.

The problem is that a shark’s gills provide a large surface area to aid gaseous exchange, and when out of the water the gills stick together which prevents the passage of gas causing the shark a brain disorder known as hypoxia.

Can Sharks Hold Their Breath?

It may come as a surprise, but some sharks are able to hold their breath. Hammerhead sharks do this when they are deep-diving in cold waters to hunt prey.

Sharks in general are cold-blooded animals with their body temperatures being comparable to the water around them.

However, sometimes they keep their body temperature higher than that of the water surrounding them or they can keep specific areas of their body warm.

Hammerhead sharks keep specific areas of their body warm when diving into cold water to hunt prey.

According to new research presented at the Ocean Sciences Meeting 2020 in San Diego, California, studies show that they do this by holding their breath.

They do this by shutting their mouth or clamping their gills closed, either way, they both allow no water to pass through the gills and no exchange of gas will take place during this period.

Hammerheads are warm-blooded, and when their body temperature gets too low they lose muscle function, visual focus and their metabolism slows down, which is no good whilst trying to hunt.

Final Thoughts

So, do sharks breathe air? No, they do not. They extract oxygen from the water through their gills, allowing them to stay submerged for as long as they please.

When sharks swim, water passes over their gills which they then use to extract oxygen. This means that many sharks need to stay constantly on the move or they will die.

Some sharks use a method known as buccal pumping which means they pump water over their gills forcefully instead of swimming.

This allows some species of shark to stay on the bottom of the seafloor, whereas others would die if they stopped swimming.

Hopefully, you’ve learned something new today about how sharks breathe and why they do not breathe air as we humans do.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and feel free to share it with others who may find it useful.