Butt-Breathing Snapping Turtles Are a Real Gas

Snapping Turtles bring new meaning to the words “butt breath.” But in this case it’s not an insult; it’s a way to survive!

Photo by Chad Merda

When you breathe, you only breathe through two places – your mouth and your nose. And you draw air into your lungs.


But if you’re a snapping turtle that spends a lot of time underwater during the winter, breathing through your mouth and nose isn’t always an option. Like humans, turtles would drown if they tried breathing with their lungs underwater.


A different way to breathe


To solve this breathing-underwater problem, Mother Nature turned to the other end of the turtle’s body. A turtle’s backside opening is called a cloaca, and it is really a multitasker. This is where turtles poop and pee and how they lay their eggs. It is also where they “breathe” underwater! Scientists call this cloacal respiration. We just call it cool.


What’s the science?


Muscles force water in and out of their backside. There are a lot of blood vessels in the cloacal opening, which can absorb a bunch of oxygen from the water through the skin. It is basically a butt sponge. But instead of sucking up water, the cloaca sucks up oxygen.


It’s all in the family


Snapping turtles aren’t the only turtles to accomplish this amazing act. Other water-loving turtles use butt breathing to survive like the Fitzroy river turtle in Australia. Closer to home, the painted turtle does the same thing right here in Will County.


Cool facts about snapping turtles:

  • Snapping turtles are cold-blooded. Their body temperature is the same as their environment. A pond that is 35 degrees in temperature equals a turtle that is 35 degrees in temperature. Brrr.

  • The lower their body temperature, the slower these turtles move.

  • Cold, slow moving turtles make an easy mark for predators, so they slow waaaay down into something like hibernation. When reptiles and other cold blooded animals do this, it’s called brumation.

  • Snapping turtles don’t always completely shut down in the winter. Scientists have recorded seeing them swim around under the ice when we get a warm spell.

  • Snapping turtle shells act like antacids! (Antacids are medicine people use to calm stomach acid.) Lactic acid is waste that builds up in all of our muscles when we don’t have enough oxygen. Think about when you run really fast. Do you feel the burn? Do your muscles cramp up? That is lactic acid build up. In the winter, sometimes lactic acid gathers in snapping turtles. Their shell has lots of calcium and carbonate in it. Luckily, that naturally stops acid. Calcium is the same stuff in antacids that stops acid in your stomach.


OK, snapping turtle expert, take your friends for a pond hike and share this info:

  • It’s all in the name. Unlike other turtles that can completely pull their head and legs into their shell, snapping turtles can’t. Instead they protect themselves with strong jaws that snap.

  • Snapping turtles are usually pretty chill in the water. But on land, they can be aggressive and might even try to bite.

  • There are two species of snapping turtles: One is just called a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and the other is called an alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii). Both are found in Illinois, but the alligator snapping turtle is endangered.

  • You won’t see alligator snapping turtles in Will County; they are only located in Southern Illinois.

  • Alligator snapping turtles are the largest of its species, weighing a whopping 150 pounds! The more common snapping turtle found in Will County taps out at 35 pounds.

  • Snapping turtles eat almost anything they can catch and swallow from insects to fish to mammals. They get their veggies in too, eating aquatic plants.

  • Alligator snapping turtles have their own built-in “lure”! Their tongues look like a worm – a delicious meal if you’re a fish. Alligator snapping turtles hang out at the bottom of rivers with their mouths wide open, wiggling their pink tongues. When a fish takes the bait, it’s lunchtime for these hungry turtles.