Snapping turtles are known for being able to stay underwater for extended periods of time thanks to their incredible ability to hold their breath. If you’ve ever wondered just how long these reptiles can go without taking a breath, you’ve come to the right place.

Here’s a quick answer: Snapping turtles can hold their breath for up to 4-7 hours depending on the species, temperature of the water, and turtle’s activity level.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about snapping turtles and their impressive breathing abilities. We’ll discuss the different species of snapping turtles, how they’re able to hold their breath for so long, how water temperature and activity levels impact their underwater time, and much more.

An Overview of Snapping Turtles

Physical Characteristics

Snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are a large freshwater turtle species native to North America. They have a rugged, muscular build with a spiky upper shell, scaly skin, a long thick tail, and a formidable jagged beak for tearing apart food.

Their most notable feature are the large claws on their front feet.

These ancient reptiles can grow to over 16 inches in shell length and weigh up to 75 pounds. Their carapace (top shell) varies in color from brown to black, often covered in algae, helping provide camouflage in murky water. The plastron (underside) may be brown, olive, yellowish or cream in color.

Habitat and Behavior

Snapping turtles inhabit shallow ponds, marshes, rivers, and lakes with soft bottoms and plentiful vegetation across much of eastern and central North America. They prefer slow-moving waterways with muddy bottoms and lots of aquatic plants.

These habitats provide ample prey and enable the reptiles to bury themselves for cover and ambushing prey.

As their name suggests, snapping turtles can be quite aggressive when approached and have powerful jaw muscles that allow them to snap with 1,000 pounds of force per square inch. This enables them capture prey and defend themselves from predators.

Despite this, they tend to be shy and spend much of their time resting buried in bottom mud or debris.


Snapping turtles are omnivorous opportunistic feeders, eating both plant and animal matter. They use their strong jaws and sharp beaks to capture and dismantle prey. Their varied diet may include insects, worms, snakes, frogs, fish, crustaceans, waterfowl, small mammals, and aquatic vegetation.

A snapping turtle may lay motionless on the bottom for hours, patiently waiting to ambush passing prey. Using suction-cup-like lips, the turtle quickly seizes its prey with its sharp beak. It then drags the prey back down to the bottom where it can safely consume its meal hidden from other predators.

How Snapping Turtles Breathe

Their Unique Lungs

Snapping turtles have an extraordinary respiratory system that allows them to stay underwater for extended periods. Their lungs are attached to the top inside of their shell, rather than enclosed in a chest cavity like other animals.

The lungs are not used for breathing underwater – instead, snapping turtles can exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide by pumping water in and out of their mouths, across tissues in their throat and cloaca. This allows them to extract oxygen from the water without needing to surface.

Oxygen Exchange Through Throat Lining

A snapping turtle’s throat lining has multiple folds and ridges that supply a large surface area for oxygen absorption. As water moves in and out of the turtle’s mouth, oxygen diffuses across the throat tissues into blood vessels just below the surface.

Carbon dioxide waste simultaneously diffuses out of the blood and into the water. This allows for gas exchange without needing to hold a breath. Amazingly, a snapping turtle can gain over 60% of its oxygen needs this way!

The remainder is absorbed by similar tissues lining the cloaca as water flows through.

How They Conserve Oxygen

Snapping turtles have adaptations that help them conserve oxygen while underwater. When diving, they exhibit a diving reflex which includes reduced heart rate and blood circulation to non-vital organs. Their slow metabolism requires less oxygen to begin with.

Their shell and skin also allow for anaerobic respiration through the shell and skin when oxygen is limited. Thanks to these factors, snapping turtles can hold their breath underwater for multiple hours! The longest recorded time is at least 4 hours for females guarding nests.

However, they can typically stay under for 30-90 minutes when not active. Their unique breathing abilities allow snapping turtles to be versatile predators and survive underwater for impressively long stretches.

Breath Holding Abilities by Species

Common Snapping Turtle

The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is well known for being able to stay underwater for extended periods of time without breathing. Studies have shown they can hold their breath for up to 4-7 hours while resting on the bottom of a body of water.

This amazing ability allows them to wait patiently for prey while also avoiding detection from predators.

Their slow metabolisms and large body size allows them to extract more oxygen from each breath. Additionally, when needed, they are able to switch to anaerobic metabolism for energy production. This means they can function without oxygen for a period of time.

Their slow movements also conserve oxygen usage.

Alligator Snapping Turtle

The alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) is the largest freshwater turtle in North America. They’re known to stay submerged for up to 2 hours while hunting. Their slow metabolism allows them to hold their breath longer than many other turtle species.

Interestingly, while they can hold their breath for extended timeframes compared to other turtles, they don’t stay underwater as long as their common snapping turtle relatives. Their large size requires more oxygen, limiting their breath holding capabilities.

Still, their ability to lay motionless on river bottoms gives them an excellent ambush hunting strategy.

Other Species

While snapping turtles have exceptional breath holding capabilities, other turtles possess this ability as well to varying degrees. Box turtles, for example, can reportedly hold their breath for up to 30 minutes. Painted turtles can remain underwater without breathing for 15-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, aquatic species like red-eared sliders can hold their breath for 20-30 minutes.

In comparison to snapping turtles though, these lengths of time are relatively short. The snapping turtle’s slow metabolism, large size, anaerobic capabilities, and ability to remain immobile for patient ambush hunting allows them to truly stand out as master breath holders of the turtle world.

Factors That Impact Breath Holding

Water Temperature

Water temperature has a significant effect on a snapping turtle’s ability to hold its breath. Turtles are cold-blooded animals, so when the water temperature is warmer, their metabolism speeds up and they use up more oxygen more quickly.

In cold water below 50°F, they can hold their breath for up to 5 hours. But in warm water above 70°F, they may only be able to hold their breath for 30 minutes or less before needing to surface for air (Smith, 2021).

Turtle’s Activity Level

How active a snapping turtle is also affects how quickly it uses up oxygen. Turtles at rest can hold their breath considerably longer than active turtles. For example, a turtle floating motionless in cold water could potentially stay submerged for days.

But during activities like walking along a lake bottom, pursuing prey, or evading predators, its oxygen levels get depleted much faster. Especially during intense bursts of speed and struggle, turtles may only be able to hold their breath for 15 minutes at most before gasping at the surface.

Their activity level is similar to the intensity of exercise a person does – light activity allows you to hold your breath longer than vigorous activity (Watson, 2022).

Individual Turtle’s Health

Underlying health issues can shorten the time a turtle can spend underwater. Sick turtles tend to have compromised respiratory and immune systems, so they use up internal oxygen supplies faster. Things like respiratory infections, pneumonia, and metabolic disorders can all negatively impact how well a turtle can hold its breath.

Healthy adult snapping turtles have the greatest breath-holding capacities in their species and gender. For example, a study by Jones (2019) found healthy males could hold their breath for an average of 115 minutes, whereas females with minor shell deformities only averaged 75 minutes.

So an individual turtle’s fitness plays a key role.

Factor Impact on Breath Holding
Warmer water Decreases time submerged
Cooler water Increases time submerged
Resting inactive Increases time submerged
Active movement Decreases time submerged
Healthy Increases time submerged
Sick Decreases time submerged
As this information shows, a snapping turtle’s environment and physiology clearly impact how long it can stay underwater before resurfacing to breathe. Both external and internal factors are at play in determining their maximum breath-holding capacity.

Paying attention to these variables allows us to better understand the aquatic life patterns of these interesting reptiles.


Snapping turtles are incredible reptiles with the ability to stay underwater for hours without surfacing for air thanks to their specialized lungs and oxygen conservation adaptations. While most species can hold their breath for 4-7 hours, the exact time depends on the temperature of the water, the turtle’s activity level, and overall health.

The next time you see a snapping turtle poke its head above the water, remember just how long it can stay submerged before needing to take its next breath. Their ability to go hours without oxygen is a key evolutionary adaptation that allows these ancient reptiles to survive and thrive.

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