While spotting a snapping turtle on land is hardly an uncommon sight, these large turtles actually spend most of their lives in aquatic habitats. This begs the question — how long can a snapping turtle hold its breath?
On average, a snapping turtle can hold its breath for 40 to 50 minutes, but there is one scenario when they can stay underwater even longer – brumation. A reptile equivalent of hibernation, during this state snapping turtles can stay underwater without coming up for breath for 3 to 6 months!
When they aren’t underwater, mature individuals come out to mate and females do come out to nest and lay eggs. Snapping turtles may also be seen on land when they are relocating, in cases where their aquatic habitat has dried up.
In today’s article, we’ll explore this subject in a little more depth, starting with snapping turtle respiratory systems, a little more about how long they can hold their breath, and more about this fascinating species in general.
If you’re ready, then let’s talk about how long a snapping turtle can hold their breath and how this amazing ability works!
Just brought your first snapping turtle home? Find out more about their care in our Common Snapping Turtle Care Guide!
Table of Contents
Snapping Turtle Respiration
Turtle respiration is pretty fascinating, in that they have many more options than we do when it comes to ingesting life-giving oxygen. The first method is by breathing it in through their nostrils like humans do, often using their pointy beaks like built-in snorkels!
Snapping turtles aren’t limited to breathing through their noses, however. They can also obtain oxygen through their skin, mouth, and cloaca (so technically, you could say that they can breathe through their butts!).
This ‘butt breathing’ trick is known as ‘cloacal respiration’, while the underwater mouth-breathing is called ‘buccopharyngeal pumping’.
Snapping turtles do most of their breathing through their nostrils, but it’s a little bit different from what we do when you look ‘behind the scenes’. For instance, ribs are very important to how we breathe. When you inhale, your ribs move up and outward, and when you exhale they move down and inward.
This helps to essentially ‘pump’ the lungs so that air may be more easily drawn in and pushed out.
The same can’t be said of snapping turtles, however, as their ribs aren’t as flexible. This is because the ribs of the turtle are also a part of their shell. For the turtle to breathe, assistance is required in the form of an abdominal muscle sling attached to the shell helps to pump air in and out of the lungs.
This muscle sling can be found in the anatomies of other turtles, but not other animals – this is strictly a chelonian physiological trait.
When breathing, the snapping turtle draws air through external nares (nostrils), and this air moves through the glottis, the trachea, and then into two bronchi. From the bronchi, the air ends up in the lungs. Once inside the lungs, the air goes into a faveoli network where oxygen is delivered to the bloodstream.
The oxygen is supplied throughout the body by the way of muscle contractions.
Unlike most reptiles, turtles can respire underwater, and the snapping turtle has two ways they go about this. The first is known as buccal/buccopharyngeal pumping, which is a filtration method for extracting oxygen through the mouth.
The second is known as cloacal respiration, which is basically a form of ‘butt breathing’ (yes, you read that right!). Let’s take a closer look at both and how they actually work.
While your turtle is hiding out underwater, it never hurts to have some extra snacks – Find out the 7 Best Plants for Turtle Tanks so that you can provide them with the good stuff!
With this ventilation method, the turtle moves water in its mouth in a rhythmic method. The snapping turtle expands and contracts their throat to pump water in and out of their mouth. Specialized membranes then extract oxygen as it passes through the mouth and deliver it to the bloodstream.
Cloacal respiration, on the other hand, is the ‘butt breathing’ that we’ve mentioned and it is done by drawing in water through the cloaca. The cloaca is a posterior orifice which is the opening to the digestive and urinary tract.
Since the turtle excretes feces and urine from this opening, it is commonly referred to as the ‘butt’ of the turtle. The cloaca is also used for reproduction and respiration, so this is a pretty versatile orifice for turtles.
So when does the turtle rely on cloacal respiration and what does that have to do with the snapping turtle holding its breath?
Well, during the fall when temperatures drop, the turtle prepares to brumate, a process similar to hibernation. The turtle starts by slowing down its metabolism and overall activity so that it uses fewer calories and less oxygen. This is done underwater and it evolved as a means of surviving cold weather.
During brumation, the turtle relies on cloacal respiration for most of their oxygen needs. Cloacal preparation provides a small amount of oxygen, so the turtle does still sometimes have to come up for air – but not for 3 to 6 months unless they suddenly need to increase their activity.
In this fashion, turtles can even stay safe under frozen ponds during the entire winter, until it warms up and they come up for a little air and renewed activity in spring.
Turtles are cold-blooded animals, after all, and technically ‘ectotherms’, which means that they rely mostly on environmental heat sources, such as the sun and the water temperature. These factors help to dictate their metabolic rates and ensure their survival.
A 1-degree change in water temperature causes a 1-degree change in the snapper’s internal temperature, and while that doesn’t sound like much, it’s very different from how it works with humans. Our bodies can regulate heat and use it to keep us warm, for burning calories, and more.
Due to this, we keep fairly stable temperatures on our own inside our bodies, so humans are considered ‘endotherms’. The easy way to remember the difference is knowing the full meaning of the words ‘ectotherm’ and ‘endotherm’ – ecto means ‘outside’, endo means ‘inside’, and ‘therm’ refers to heat.
Since turtles regulate their body heat by ‘ecto’ or ‘outside’ influences, they control their body temperature by methods such as basking in the sun or diving into warm or cooler water.
As Snapping turtles rarely bask, their specific method of warming up is to rise to the surface of the water so that they can get a little sun without making themselves vulnerable by lining up on a platform outside of the water.
When it gets colder out, their metabolism slows down, and their breathing rate is reduced, along with their oxygen consumption, so that buccopharyngeal pumping and cloacal respiration are quite able to give the turtle enough oxygen to survive the cold and chilly winter.
It seems a little weird, but that’s Nature for you!
To find out more about cloacal respiration, check out this great article from McGill University – it’s definitely a good read!
How Long Can A Snapping Turtle Hold Its Breath?
The snapping turtle can hold its breath for several months when brumating. As explained earlier, this is only possible because the snapper is an ectotherm.
When temperatures drop during fall and winter, so does their body temperature, and the lowered metabolism means the turtle needs less oxygen and energy to survive. During this time, the snapping turtle can hold its breath for up to 100 days.
During the warm months/seasons, temperatures are high, and as such metabolism is high as well. During these times, the snapping turtle cannot hold its breath for as long, but still for a pretty impressive time by our standards — 30 to 50 minutes.
At its most active, such as when chasing prey, the snapper needs to come up for air after about 10 minutes, but on a ‘slow day’ when it’s chilly, without going into brumation a snapping turtle can conceivably hold its breath for approximately 6 hours.
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The two most common types of Snapping Turtles
For those of you who are new to the world of snapping turtles, we’re including a few basics that you should know about the most common two snapping turtles – the common snapping turtle and the alligator snapping turtle!
Common Snapping Turtle
- Binomial Name: Chelydra serpentina
- Adult Shell Length: 8 to 18.5 inches
- Adult Weight: 9 to 35 pounds
- Lifespan: 47 years
The common snapping turtle is most often referred to simply as ‘the snapping turtle’, since it’s the one that you’re most likely to see.
They’re quite a prevalent species, found across North America (including much of the continental United States), from Novia Scotia to Alberta in the north, and to the Gulf of Mexico in the south.
The common snapping turtle is relatively large and has a shell length of 8 to 18 inches (occasionally 18.5-20, but this is rare). The tail is also quite long and reaches a length that is almost as long as the turtle’s upper shell.
These snappers are also dark in color, with coloration ranging from tan to dark brown and black. The lower shell, also known as the plastron, is tiny and barely covers the extremities.
The snapping turtle is also known to be aggressive when it feels threatened. If you approach one, it might well try to bite you, and the resounding ‘snap’ of its closing jaws is where this turtle gets its distinctive name.
Although said to be able to live up to 100 years, they generally live up to about 47 years in captivity. In the wild, the average lifespan is 30 years. One very cool exception, a snapping turtle known as Big Snap Daddy, just turned 93 years old in 2022 — needless to say, they’re a hardy species!
Snapping turtles are social animals and generally get along unless it’s mating season, in which case it’s every turtle for themselves!
The common snapper is also an excellent hunter, feeding on amphibians, mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, and even carrion. To supplement its diet, it also eats large amounts of vegetation as well!
Alligator Snapping Turtle
- Binomial Name: Macrochelys temminckii
- Adult Shell Length: 31 to 40 inches
- Adult Weight: 154 to 176 pounds
- Lifespan: 11 to 45 years
This fierce-looking chelonian is called the alligator snapping turtle, due to its distinctly crocodilian appearance. Those spiky scutes going down its back make it look more like a dinosaur than a turtle and also make this the second most popular snapper around.
Alligator snapping turtles are endemic to the southeastern United States and these aquatic snappers like to live in freshwater areas. Considered one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world, the alligator snapper’s upper shell can reach a length of 31 to 40 inches and a weight/mass of 154 to 176 pounds!
The alligator snapping turtle may live up to 70 years in captivity and 45 years in the wild. A large part of their success may well be their aquatic habitats — they like to hide in the bottom of rivers and streams, so you’ll seldom see them on land.
When you do, it’s normally a case of a female coming to land to nest, or an alligator snapper of either gender whose habitat has dried up and they’re looking to relocate.
Like the common snapping turtle, they can remain submerged for up to 40 to 50 minutes before coming up for air, of 3 to 6 months when brumating.
The alligator snapper is predominantly carnivorous and feeds on a lot of animals – especially other turtles – but they are also known to eat armadillos, raccoons, possums, muskrats, insects, crayfish, snails, worms, clams, snakes, and frogs.
Frequently Asked Questions
What turtle can hold its breath the longest?
If we don’t count brumation (the reptile version of hibernation) into account, then the Loggerhead turtle would win the award for being able to hold its breath the longest.
When relaxed, these turtles can stay underwater for 10 hours at a time on a single breath!
Do snapping turtles sleep underwater?
Yes! Snapping turtles can and often do sleep in the mud in their freshwater habitat.
Utilizing cloacal respiration and buccopharyngeal pumping, they can extract small amounts of oxygen from the water, and by slowing their metabolisms, this is enough to keep them happily sleeping until it’s time to start a new day!
What is the absolute longest that a snapping turtle can stay underwater?
Provided that the snapping turtle is brumating, then it may stay underwater anywhere from months to as long as 6 months! By reducing their metabolic rate, the turtle conserves energy and needs very little in the way of oxygen.
This is a survival trait, which allows the turtle to stay safe in a mud bank under the water until the worst of the winter has passed.
As you can see, the length of time that a snapping turtle can hold its breath depends largely on their levels of activity and the temperature outside. On your average spring day, the turtle can hold its breath for 40 to 50 minutes if it’s just casually sitting under the water.
When it is most active, such as when chasing prey, the chelonian can hold its breath for about 10 minutes, and when resting, the snapping turtle can hold its breath for 6 hours before it needs to come up for air.
Brumation is the time when the turtle REALLY shows off how long it can hold its breath, though. During this reptilian hibernation, the snapper can hold its breath for up to 100 days, and they’ve even been known to sometimes brumate under the ice for several months.
When spring arrives, they’ll be well-rested and ready to get back to their everyday lives!