How Do Turtles Sleep Underwater?

How Do Turtles Sleep Underwater

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

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We all need sleep to function our brain and body perfectly. Turtles are no different. The sleeping pattern of turtles is quite fascinating. Most turtle species tend to sleep underwater. Now the question is,” How do turtles sleep underwater?”

The experts claim that turtles switch to a unique physical mechanism that helps them sleep underwater. They drop their metabolism, reduce their heart rate and oxygen consumption, which allows them to stay underwater for long hours without breathing.

Read on to this article to get an insight into the turtle’s underwater sleeping mechanism. I promise I will not bore you with heavy scientific words and keep it as easy as possible.

How Do Turtles Sleep Underwater?

The sleeping is more like a resting state for the turtles. Each turtle has a different spot where they prefer sleeping. In that particular place, the turtle feels comfortable and safe.

You know turtles spend most of their time in the water, even when they sleep. And this is impossible even for a turtle to stay underwater for a long time keeping the body mechanism normal. This attracted the interest of scientists. They studied and observed the sleeping cycle of turtles closely.

The experts suggest that turtles adapt to a different body mechanism while sleeping. They drop their overall metabolism. As a result, their heart rate and body functionality fall. This leads to less oxygen consumption, which helps the turtles remain underwater for long hours.

The lesser the energy usage, the lesser the oxygen consumption, and the longer the turtles stay in the water. The turtles can not go like these forever. From time to time, the turtles bob their head above the water and breathe. Then they dive back to the sleeping place.

So, you can see turtles do not sleep like us humans without any break. In most cases, the captive turtles sleep 3 to 4 hours and then come to the surface for air. This goes on until their sleep is complete. For this on and off cycle, scientists refer to it as a resting state.

Where Do Turtles Sleep Underwater?

I have mentioned earlier that each species has a different favorite spot for sleeping. It can slightly vary for the captive turtles, but for the wild turtles, this is universal.

If you have ever asked yourself,” Where do turtles sleep?”, this section is for you. Most aquatic and semi-aquatic turtle species, like map turtles, red eared sliders, musk turtles, painted turtles, mud turtles sleep at the bottom of the lake, pond, river, or tank.

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The scientists have observed that the map turtles prefer the low vegetation or marshy patch of grassy areas to sleep underwater. Even in captivity, your pet map turtle may rest in the middle of small plants. During the sleep cycle, the pets switch to the special physical mechanism I have discussed above.

When it comes to marine or sea turtles, they prefer sleeping on the surface in the deep water. If not, then they select a shallow place that is not deep and surrounded by coral outcroppings and rocks. Green turtles sleeping underwater reefs near a shore is a common scene for many people.

Painted turtles and snapping turtles have a bit of a different sleeping pattern. They bury themselves in the sand or mud at the bottom of the river, lake, pond, or tank. This is the same for the softshell turtles.

When it comes to the baby turtles, for the resting time, they stay on the surface. For deep or night sleep, the babies also prefer staying at the bottom of the tank. Sometimes, hatchlings may sleep on the surface as their lung capacity is not developed yet.

Do you think turtles only sleep at the place they choose once? The resting place can change. They might sleep at any place they find comfortable and suitable temperature. Also, remember not all turtle species sleep in the water.

Take box turtles or desert turtles as examples. The box turtles spend their night in the tree holes or dig a burrow all by themselves. Similarly, the desert turtles also burrow in the ground at night.

How Do Turtles Sleep Underwater (1)

How Do Turtles Breathe Underwater?

I am sure many of you are wondering about the breathing mechanism of turtles. “How can the turtles breathe underwater?” “Do the turtles have lungs?” Let’s take a closer look at the breathing mechanism of turtles and you will get your answers.

You already know turtles drop their metabolism and heart rate during sleep. This helps the species consume less oxygen and remain underwater for hours. From time to time, the turtles come to the surface, breathe air, and get back to the resting state. But what makes the turtle breathe in both the media?

The answer is simple. Most turtle species are bi-modal. It means they can breathe in both air and water media. The gas exchange capacity is different for all the turtle species. For example, the softshell turtle is one of the rarest species that can 100% fulfill its oxygen requirement even in the water.

The scientists claim that softshell turtles absorb 70% oxygen via their skin. For the rest, they depend on their pharynx. The throat or pharynx contains tissues with blood vessels, which work as a great surface for oxygen absorption. This type of breathing is referred to as pharyngeal breathing.

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Similarly, you will find unique respiration techniques in painted turtles and musk turtles. The painted turtles have real muscles that are designed for gas exchange even in water. While the musk turtles use their neck for underwater breathing. These two species can spend months in the water without coming to the surface during the brumation period.

The turtles adapt to the same breathing process during the brumation or hibernation process.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Turtles breathe out of their butt.”? Well, I am not indicating the literal meaning of course. The technical term is cloacal respiration.

In most turtles and reptiles, this type of breathing process is observed. Even some turtles have the physical ability to switch to anaerobic respiration. Here, the turtles can drop their overall metabolism and do not absorb any water.

In a sense, you can compare the underwater sleeping process to brumation or hibernation. It is because, in both processes, turtles drop their metabolism, heart rate, and oxygen consumption. Also, they tend to switch to specific breathing mechanisms in case the sleep is long.

How Long Can Turtles Stay Underwater?

If you ask me how long a turtle can stay underwater while they are active, the answer will be 45 minutes to 1 hour. At that time, their heart rate, metabolism, and oxygen consumption level are normal. The more energy the turtles spend, the more oxygen they require. As a result, you will often find your turtle coming out of the surface or bobbing its head to replenish its lungs.

On the other hand, the sleeping period is different. Depending on the species, a turtle can sleep 4 to 7 hours a day. As I have mentioned above, the turtle’s sleep is not as smooth as ours. They have to come to the surface for breathing from time to time.

In low temperatures like 70 or 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the turtles can stay a bit longer underwater. Why? It is because their metabolism becomes slower when the temperature drops. And now you know, a slow metabolic rate means less oxygen usage.

Again, during the hibernation or brumation period, the turtles can spend months underwater. Yes, they even do not come to the surface for air every day. This happens due to the severe cold. In some regions, the turtles hibernate for 5 to 7 months.

Do Turtles Sleep Every day?

This is a common question. Do turtles sleep every day? Or when do turtles sleep? Well, the sleeping cycle of turtles can be different. But all of them sleep at night. Other than that, you may find your pet resting most of the time throughout the day.

A healthy turtle will sleep every day for at least 4 to 7 hours. That is why experts suggest maintaining a day and night cycle inside the tank. It means the heating bulb of the tank should be on for 10 to 12 hours during the day. And at night time, keep it turned off. You can use red light that does not irritate the pet’s eyes.

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Do you know the sleeping cycle of a pet can indicate its health status? Usually, the babies or the hatchlings are more active than the older ones. So, they sleep less and spend more time swimming, playing, or resting.

On the other hand, adult or old turtles will do the exact opposite. They sleep more and do less activity. So, if you see your hatchling sleep a lot, there is definitely something wrong. This is the same for an ill turtle.

However, a stressed turtle can not sleep well. This can lead to appetite and weight loss. No matter how old your pet turtle is, keep an eye on its sleeping cycle. Adjust the tank temperature to make the perfect sleeping environment for the pet.

Can Turtles Drown?

Most turtles spend almost their life in the water. So, when you ask if a turtle can drown or not, this may sound a bit awkward. Do not worry about the drowning of your turtle. They know their way out and how to survive in the water.

Moreover, a turtle can stay underwater for several hours even if they do not get any air. They have the mechanism to adapt to the environment quickly. But it is not rare that turtles are drowning.

When does a turtle drown? Only if the turtle is trapped or weighed with a heavyweight, it may drown. Also, the cases can be observed among the baby turtles.

As the lungs of the hatchlings are not developed yet, they might not be able to stay underwater for so long. Eventually, the pet may end up losing its life. To avoid this type of accident, make sure the water level is perfect for the baby turtles.

Sleeping Place For Pet Turtles

I have discussed the preferable sleeping places for different turtles. But how will you ensure a perfect sleeping spot for your pet turtles? Of course, you can not replicate the exact wild environment. That does not mean you will not even try.

I suggest providing several hiding places in the enclosure. Place those visual barriers in a shallow area. You also have to place submerged logs that can aid the turtles to come to the surface. For safety, install airstone or air spaces for the pets.


Did you have fun learning the unique sleeping pattern of the turtles? Sleep is a relaxation process even for these pets. So, create a suitable underwater resting and sleeping environment for the turtles.

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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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