Aquatic Turtles and Butt Breathing

Snapping turtles, like all aquatic turtles outside the tropics, have to hibernate underwater every winter. They don’t have gills and can’t rise to the surface while asleep for a full season, and may even be completely locked under a thick layer of ice. So how do they breathe? Through their butts!

If you want to sound more technical and scientific, butt breathing is known as “cloacal respirstion.” The cloaca is the all-purpose hole that turtles use for reproduction, pee, and poop, and in snapping turtles, it also contains special cells called cloacal bursae. These cells extract oxygen through the water, which gets absorbed into the bloodstream and keeps them going through winter.

This is actually an important thing to be aware of, because snapping turtles and other aquatic turtles depend on safe, clean water to survive the winter. If oxygen levels on water drop too much, cloacal respiration isn’t enough to survive, and they may suffocate under the water or come out of hibernation far too early. Please do your part to avoid contributing to water pollution, especially in winter!

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