Turtles

Can Red Eared Sliders Breathe Underwater?

Red eared slider turtles are becoming more and more popular as household pets, whether housed in an inside aquarium, or outside in a garden pond. The great thing about slider turtles is that they’re semi-aquatic, which means they spend their time split between being on land, and in the water. Spending so much time in the water you’re probably wondering “Can red eared sliders breathe underwater?”. 

Luckily for you we have the answer. So let’s carry on to find out more.

Aquatic Breathing Techniques

Generally speaking red eared slider turtles roughly spend about 30 minutes underwater at any one point in time. However they don’t always come up because they need air. Usually their body temperature drops to a cautious level way before they feel the need to come up for air. This is the reason why for so many years people were unsure whether red eared sliders can actually breathe underwater, because they never really came up to the dry land unless they were cold.

To be able to breathe underwater, animals need need to be aquatic. Aquatic animals are those which live and breathe underwater without the need to come up for air. We’re talking about animals such as fish, sharks, jellyfish, whales etc. None of these animals can survive out of water.

Aquatic animals have specially designed breathing apparatus in which they can extract oxygen particles from water. Basically they allow oxygenated water in through their gills, and tiny gill filaments absorb the oxygen from the water, into their bloodstream. 

(This is why you will most likely see a turtle tank with a filtration system, or a pond with running water in the form of water features).

So do red eared slider turtles have gills?

No, red eared slider do not have gills. In fact, no reptile has gills. Turtles have lungs for breathing just like humans, which involves needing oxygenated air to breathe with in obviously unavailable underwater. 

But can red eared sliders breathe underwater? Red eared sliders are champions of breath holding. Although they usually only hold their breathe for about 30 minutes at a time, they can actually hold their breathe for a lot longer. If needed to, they can hold their breathe underwater for months at a time, which is most commonly seen through the colder, winter periods. We’ll cover that a bit further on in the article under “Brumation”. 

Why people may think they can breathe underwater?

Can red eared sliders breathe underwater? It may seem like your turtle is spending all day swimming round without the need to come up for air, and whilst this may seem like the case, it’s not entirely true. When us humans hold our breathe underwater for what seems a long period of time, our bodies oxygen levels drop. When we finally come up for air we are desperate for oxygen, which is why we breathe in as deeply as possible and then continue to breathe at a fastened pace for some time afterwards.

Turtles bodies and respiratory systems have evolved over millions of years so that they only need a small amount of oxygen in their bodies to be able to function properly. With every breathe they diffuse the oxygen slowly into their blood stream, and are very cautious when doing so. Their own energy which is exited is through muscles for swimming, (which is very little effort) and their brains.

As humans we excite most of our energy regulating our bodies temperature. Which takes a huge amount of oxygen and energy throughout the day. Turtles do not have to regulate their bodies temperature, so they are saving a lot of energy which can be withheld for longer periods of time. Therefore not using anywhere near the amount of oxygen we use throughout the day.

This is why you may think your turtle can breathe under water, because you see them spending most of their time underwater. When really you just haven’t noticed them come up for air. Unless you’re going to stare at your turtle for up to an hour (Which I doubt you will) then there in a high chance they won’t need to come up for air until you are finished watching them. 

How long can red eared slider turtles hold their breathe for?

On average a red eared slider turtle will come up for a breath of air every 30 minutes to 45 minutes. Sometimes it can be more if they are just relaxing at the bottom of the aquarium. The less energy they are using, the longer period of time they can hold their breath. Amazingly some species of sea turtle can hold their breath for anywhere between 4 – 7 hours, which is incredible on one breath.

There is however an acceptation to this 30 minute rule for red eared sliders, and this is through the brumation process. Through the brumation process a turtle can slow its body down to excite almost no energy. So whilst going through this brumation process a turtle only needs to feed oxygen to its brain. Everything else will shut down and temporarily stop working.

Brumation process for red eared slider turtles

Mature adult red slider turtles store reserve fats so they can brumate through the colder winter periods. Brumation is very similar to hibernation, however it’s the reptile version. Turtles do not actually sleep like many other animals who hibernate. Brumation is a process which slows the metabolism of a turtle, which means they become less active through the colder months. The brumation process can easily last 2 months, so this may be the reason why your turtle has been underwater for such a long period of time.

Red eared slider turtles are able to survive underwater for months without needing to come up for air as they use so little oxygen through the brumation process. In fact they use so little, they can even get enough oxygen through cloacal respiration techniques, which means it can breathe through its butt.

What Exactly Is The Cloacal Respiration Process?

So the cloacal respiration process is not really a breathing technique, but more of a diffusion technique. As long as the aquarium water is being continuously oxygenated by a filtration system or freely running water, then a red eared slider turtle can actually diffuse the oxygen out of the water through their butts.

In simple terms, the oxygenated water is flowing constantly over the turtles body. The turtle contracts some of its butt muscles to allow a flow of water into pockets which can then defuse the oxygen from the water, and then into their blood stream.    

Why do red eared slider turtles spend so long underwater?

So you may be wondering, if a slider turtle can’t breathe underwater, then why do they spend so much time submerged? Well there is actually a reasonable explanation for this. The only two reasons why a slider turtle will usually come onto dry land is either to bask, or lay their eggs. They get most of their other resources from under the water. Both of these factors are crucial to their survival, but every other aspect of living is done underwater.

The 5 main reason red eared slider turtles have to spend so much time underwater include;

  • Need to keep their skin hydrated 
  • Makes food easily digestible 
  • They’re sensitive to light and noise 
  • They only mate underwater 
  • Offers protection from predators
Need to keep their skin hydrated

Turtles skin is notoriously dry naturally. For this reason they need to spend a lot of their time underwater to keep their skin hydrated. This seems like a catch twenty-two situation as they need to come out of the water to heat their bodies, however in doing so the air dries out their skin.

When a turtles skin become too dry, it will become very irritative. Like humans skin, when it dries out too much then it will start to crack. When this happens a turtle become extremely vulnerable to infections and diseases. So a healthy red eared slider will spend a lot of time underwater.

Water makes food easily digestible 

A red eared sliders main source of food are turtle pellets. These pellets are solid when manufactured, but when put in water they soften up into a safely edible food source. Other foods such as aquatic plants and and live foods will naturally be high in waters, so they will also be fairly easy to digest.

Our Red Eared Slider Food List will give you all the recommendations for suitable foods. 

Sensitive to light and noise 

Another reason why red eared sliders spend so much time underwater is because their eyes and ear bones are highly sensitive to light and sound. During the middle of the day, the natural sun light will be very over powering for a turtle. Commonly you will see them bask in the morning and evenings to evade strong lighting. If they are basking during the middle of the day, they’ll most likely be facing away from the sun.

They’re also very cautious of loud noises. Although turtles don’t have ears, their ear bones are highly sensitive to its surroundings, therefore any loud or crowded environments may scare them.

Only mate in water 

Did you know that turtles mate underwater? In order to mate, turtles need deep water to indulge in such activities. The positions they need to get themselves into are simply too difficult to act out on dry land.

Water offers protection 

Finally, water offers red eared slider turtles a form of protection from any predatory threats. When a slider turtle is scared it will seek protection under water, specially domestic pet turtles. Most of its predators can’t access them underneath the water, so they’re safe from potentially being eaten.

Resting underwater can provide the most relaxed state for a slider turtle as they will have no worries from predatory threats. This could be a reason why the are spending so much time underwater.

So what if your slider turtle is spending more time on dry land?

If your red eared slider turtle is spending more time out of water than it is underwater, then you should assume there are some problematic factors. Although water is a natural habitat for turtles, they will only submerge in the clean waters, with the correct environmental levels. 

What I mean by this is factors such as water temperature, water cleanliness, bullying from other tank/pond mates. They will also spend more time in dry land if they are sick. Let’s take a look into some more factors of why your red eared slider turtle is spending more time out of water.

Could be pregnant 

Pregnant female slider turtles will naturally spend more time on dry land and basking. They will spend a lot of time prior to laying their eggs makes a suitable nest, which takes up a lot of their day. They also like to bask more, which is believed to comfort them for longer periods. The production of eggs inside a females body will need a sustainable temperature to grow effectively.

Water temperature and cleanliness 

If the water in which your turtles swim is either too hot or too cold, they will simply refuse to swim. However this has to be quite a change as usually they are very hardy reptiles which can manage highly varied temperatures.

Cleanliness however is a definite. Slider turtles will not submerge in dirty water. Their skin is highly sensitive to the waters condition and will become irritant and uncomfortable when the water is dirty or the pH levels are incorrect. Dirty water can even effect their respiratory system and can cause trouble breathing.

Bullying

If you notice one of your slider turtles out of the water more often than the others, then you can’t rule out the factor of being bullied. Red eared sliders can get along for years before any bullying starts, so you should never assume they are fully compatible. 

If you notice this, then you should try to segregate the problematic turtle, at least for a few days. Sometimes spending some time away from the others will alter the hierarchy and the outcome could be more harmonious. 

Conclusion

We hope this has answered all your questions and queries on “can red eared sliders breathe underwater?”. The answer is no. Red eared slider turtles cannot breathe underwater. They can however defuse oxygen from the water through their skin, however this isn’t enough so they can spend their lives living a breathing underwater. 

Through the winter periods your slider turtle may enter the brumation stage, which means its body will slow down, almost to a complete stop. They can stay underwater for months without the need to come up for air through this process.

If your turtle is spending a lot of time out of the water, assume something is wrong. Check the water condition, and the health of your turtle. Please visit a veterinarian if you feel the need for reassurance of its healthiness.

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Red Eared Slider Food List

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