Can Turtles Breathe Through Their Butts? (How & Why)

Do turtles butt-breathe? Do they even have butts?

The chilly season is upon us, and your pet turtle is ready to go underground for hibernation. You can’t stop thinking, “How is he going to breathe?”

Don’t worry. We’ve got you. Coming up in this article, we’ll tell you all there is to know about whether turtles can breathe through their butts, how they do it, and when.

Can Turtles Breathe Through Their Butts?

Key Takeaway:

Technically, turtles can’t breathe from their butts. It’s because they don’t have any. What they have, instead, is an all-in-one opening called the cloaca. And so, this uniquely strange concept of breathing through butts is known as cloacal respiration. Or, more properly, called cutaneous respiration.

Since we are talking technicalities, cloacal respiration isn’t so much breathing, just diffusing oxygen and carbon dioxide. It can happen in water and on land, though it’s more efficient underwater.

But if you want to look at it in a less technical way, yes, turtles can breathe through their butts.

turtle's butt

More About Cloaca

Cloaca is the endpoint of a reptile’s urinary and digestive tract. So, turtles poop and pee through the same opening.

Since the cloaca is rich in blood vessels, it can efficiently uptake oxygen and expel carbon dioxide.

Is that all a cloaca does?

No, there’s more.

Female turtles also use the cloaca as a reproductive opening. They mate and lay eggs through it. Male turtles, on the other hand, use it instead of a phallic sex organ.

As you can see, the cloaca isn’t as alien as it sounds to our human ears. In the animal kingdom, it’s a pretty standard structure. Birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles all use the cloaca like it’s NBD (no big deal).

How Does Cloacal Respiration Work?

If letting carbon dioxide from the butt is farting, then taking oxygen in should mean breathing. Right?

So, cloacal respiration is like a tiny gulp of oxygen from the environment that can keep a turtle going.

When the turtle contracts his muscles to expel waste, he inhales water too. The water travels to bursae – a pair of sacs near the cloaca that act as lungs in turtles.

These organs extract the oxygen from the water and let go of the hydrogen. Once the oxygen is free, it makes its way into the turtle’s bloodstream and spreads throughout its body.

back of turtle

When Do Turtles Use Cloacal or Cutaneous Respiration?

Turtles are ectotherms or simply cold-blooded animals. It means they aren’t the happiest when the temperatures drop or rise too much.

How can a turtle tell what’s the temperature outside?

A turtle’s body temperature tracks that of the environment. So, when it gets chilly outside, the turtle’s internal temperature drops too. His metabolism slows down, and he goes into hibernation.

During this slowed-metabolism hibernation period, the cold turtle doesn’t need a lot of oxygen. And so, he’s happy with whatever he’s getting through his rear end.

In essence, turtles switch on their cloacal respiration during hibernation.

Why Do Turtles Breathe Through Their Butts?

Can’t turtles just breathe air through their noses and mouths? Why complicate it?

They can, but their mouths and noses are safely tucked in their shells during hibernation. A turtle’s shell is hard to get through – even alligators struggle. It’s like his best defense mechanism against predators when he’s resting.

The turtle’s body needs to adjust how it works to keep him alive until the sun’s out to shine again. So, when a turtle is butt-breathing, he isn’t complicating anything; he’s surviving.

What Happens if There Isn’t Enough Oxygen in the Environment?

As we said, turtles are survivors. They always find a way.

If a turtle’s hiding spot doesn’t have enough oxygen, he switches to anaerobic respiration – his final attempt to create energy without oxygen. A turtle uses his muscles and a stockpile of stored energy to keep going.

But this comes with a price. Anaerobic respiration creates lactic acid, which is a respiratory byproduct. Lactic acid buildup means more time in the sun for the turtle to rid himself of it.

Is Butt Breathing the Best Way to Breathe Air?

No, compared to normal aerobic respiration, cutaneous respiration is not as effective.

When turtles breathe through their butts, they have to pump the water to the bursae (little sacs next to the cloaca) to extract oxygen. This process requires a lot of energy, which reduces the overall oxygen gain.

Water has substantially less oxygen than regular air, which just makes things worse. It also takes longer to diffuse. Sadly, this implies that in order to obtain the same amount of oxygen, the poor shelled creature must work twice as hard.

Now, imagine breathing in water over and over again. Exhausting, right?
Gases are light and easily flowing. So, breathing in air from the nose and mouth is way easier than breathing water from the butts.

However, during hibernation, turtles don’t really have a choice.

common musk turtle

Turtles the Butt Breathers

So, to answer the question – can turtles breathe through their butts?

Yes, they do. All thanks to their cloaca.

But butt breathing is not their go-to technique on usual days. They only use it when the temperature drops and they enter hibernation. It’s a clever adaptation, helping them rest undisturbed during long winters.

So, if you can’t find your turtle in his pond, don’t worry. He’s probably butt-breathing at the bottom, waiting for the sun to come out and warm him up.

And when it does, he’ll be back in action, swimming like a pro.

Until then, let him chill and get his oxygen boost from the rear. After all, everyone needs a breather sometimes.

Did you find this article helpful?

At Oddly Cute Pets, our passion is to share exciting articles about turtles and other pets to help you develop a deeper love for them. Whether you’re interested in learning about a particular breed or discovering where turtles go during the winter, we have articles that cater to your curiosity. Make sure to check out our website for more.

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