How Do Softshell Turtles Breathe Underwater?

How Do Softshell Turtles Breathe Underwater

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

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It is not odd that you want to explore more about your pet softshell turtle. If you have observed your softshell turtle closely, you must know these turtles can stay underwater for a long time. Does not it make you wonder how the softshell turtles breathe underwater? Or how long they can stay underwater?

Softshell turtles breathe underwater through “Pharyngeal Breathing”. Pharyngeal breathing means breathing through the skin or the lining of the pharynx.

If you are interested to learn more about the pharynx breathing, then give this article a quick read. I will discuss more details on how a softshell turtle breathes underwater.

Underwater Breathing Of Softshell Turtles

A few years back scientists used to think that the reptiles only do aerial breathing and the lung is their only respiratory organ. But when it comes to turtles, especially the softshell turtle, the theory does not work anymore. The softshell turtle species have been biologically programmed to do aquatic respiration for a longer time than you can think.

These turtles keep their entire body underwater all day long and barely come to the land area. They fill and empty their pharynx and mouth about 16 to 17 times a minute while staying underwater.

If you look closely, you will find a similarity between the softshell turtle breathing system and the fish. How? Well, the thyroid apparatus movement is much like the fish. This proves that the softshell turtles are comfortable breathing underwater.

Let’s discuss pharyngeal breathing in simple terms. See, the softshell turtles need to hibernate in the cold season in order to survive. Why?

Like most other turtle species, the softshell turtles are also unable to regulate their body temperature. So, in the winter, they bury themselves in the muddy or sandy bottom of a river, pond, or lake. They reduce their activities, body metabolism, and oxygen intake.

Now the question can rise how the softshell turtles stay underwater for 3 or 4 months. Are their lungs this powerful? The answer is not. When the softshell turtles enter the hibernation state, they start exchanging oxygen via skin and pharynx or throat. This is what we call pharyngeal breathing.

These turtles can fulfill 100% oxygen from their surroundings. They use their skin for the 70% absorption, and the remaining 30% comes from pumping water in and out of the pharynx. How is the pharynx so compatible with oxygen absorption?

Actually, the pharynx has a number of small villis. These small projections of tissues have a supply of blood vessels. The surface area of the villis is large enough for oxygen absorption. Only the softshell turtles use this unique way of breathing. Other turtle species breathe underwater through their cloaca or their butt.

How Long Softshell Turtles Can Stay Underwater?

By now, you may have understood that softshell turtles can stay underwater longer than other turtle species. This is because of the special breathing system of the softies. So, how long can they pull it off underwater?

Experts claim that a softshell turtle can stay underwater for 1 to 10 hours. This depends on the oxygen supply of the tank or river. These turtles do not expose their full bodies even when they need air. They come to the surface and breathe through their long neck.

In the cold season, the softshell turtles enter into the hibernation state. At that time, these turtles can stay in the mud at the bottom of the lake for several months. As the softshell turtles are bimodal breathers, this is not a big of a deal for them.

Bimodal breathers mean they can breathe in both air and water medium. Also, as the softshell turtles reduce their oxygen consumption during the hibernation, staying underwater for so long will not be any problem. Usually, the hibernation period of a softshell turtle can last for around 7 months.

The turtle is safe as long as the oxygen rate of the pond does not drop. Yes, this can happen. In severe cold, the upper surface of the pond can freeze. All the plants and aquatic animals in that pond depend on the lower oxygen supply. As a result, after a short period, they will feel the shortage of oxygen.

Check this article for more information.

Softshell Turtle Is Staying Underwater For Too Long- Why?

Many beginners start worrying when they see the softshell turtle is not coming out of the water. But this is totally normal. A softshell turtle barely leaves the water. These turtles prefer swimming and lying low.

If the water temperature is fine (74 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit), then this is totally okay. But when the temperature is low, the pet may be preparing for hibernation. Also, the softshell turtle can avoid coming up if there is no proper basking area in the tank.

Staying underwater for too long can be unhealthy for the softshell turtles. They can have shell problems or respiratory diseases. So, observe your turtle closely. If they are not coming out at all, check the water temperature, and consult a vet immediately.

Can A Softshell Turtle Drown?

Softshell turtles are excellent swimmers and usually, they do not drown. But unfortunately, the hatchlings have a breathing limitation. Their lungs and bodies are not totally developed to stay underwater for a long time.

So, make sure the water depth of a hatchling tank is not much for them. Place different sized stones for support.


Unlike most other turtle species, the softshell turtles own a unique type of breathing system. This helps them stay underwater for several hours at a stretch.

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


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