The site navigation utilizes arrow, enter, escape, and space bar key commands. Left and right arrows move across top level links and expand / close menus in sub levels. Up and Down arrows will open main level menus and toggle through sub tier links. Enter and space open menus and escape closes them as well. Tab will move on to the next part of the site rather than go through menu items.

The Buzz

Nature Curiosity: Why and How Do Turtles Breathe With Their Butts?

Turtles, such as this snapping turtle, spend the winter in state of brumination under water, which means they have to find a different way to breathe. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Bobal)

As winter sets in and ice starts to cover our lakes and ponds, you may wonder what happens to all the animals living in the water. How do they survive?

Many of the aquatic turtles that live in northern Illinois spend the entire winter underwater, but they are still able to get oxygen. Their ability to "breathe" underwater is because of how their metabolism is affected by their body temperature, according to PBS News Hour.

Like all reptiles, turtles are ectotherms, which means their body temperature is determined by their environment. If the water they are in is 60 degrees F, their body temperature is 60 degrees F. If the water is 32 degrees F, their body temperature is 32 degrees F.

Compare this to humans and most other mammals, which are endotherms, meaning their metabolism allows them to maintain a steady body temperature regardless of the temperature of their environment. For example, humans usually maintain a body temperature of about 98.6 degrees F, while a horse typically maintains a body temperature between 99 degrees F and 101 degrees F. 

For turtles, their body temperature determines the rate of their metabolism, PBS News Hour reports. As it gets colder and their body temperature drops, so, too, does their metabolism. This means their heart rate and respiration rate drops, and they require less energy and oxygen to survive.

In the cold of winter, turtles enter a state of brumation. Brumation is essentially the same as hibernation, but reptiles brumate while mammals hibernate. 


During brumation, turtles don't require much oxygen, but what they need they can't get by breathing like they do in the warmer parts of the year, according to the McGill University Office of Science and Society. Instead, they use another form of respiration which is kind of like breathing through their butts.

The technical term for this butt-breathing is cloacal respiration, and it's not quite like the breathing you do, or even like turtles do when they are above water, according to the McGill University Office of Science and Society. 

Through cloacal respiration, turtles get oxygen from the water by moving the water over their body surfaces covered in blood vessels. Turtles have a cloaca, which is essentially their butt, that has a lot of blood vessels, so the most efficient way to get oxygen is through the cloaca, hence the term cloacal respiration.

Turtles aren't the only butt breathers in the animal kingdom; it's fairly common among reptiles and amphibians, according to McGill University. Other well-known butt breathers include frogs and salamanders.


Stay up-to-date on the happenings in Will County's forest preserves by subscribing to The Citizen, our weekly digital newsletter that provides subscribers with updates on Forest Preserve news, upcoming events, and other fun and useful information for the whole family. If you're only interested in programs, subscribe to The Weekly Five, which outlines the five must-do programs each week. Signing up for either newsletter is easy and free of charge.

First Murder Hornets, Now Zombie Cicadas. Luckily, Their Names Make Them Sound Worse Than They Are


Zombie cicadas are the latest scary-sounding insect to roam the world, but much like the murder hornets before them they sound scarier than they actually are.

Read More

Quiz: What's Your Belted Kingfisher IQ?


Find out on this 10-question quiz.

Read More

5 Fascinating Facts About Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds


The ruby-throated hummingbird is among the most beloved birds in Will County, and the more you know about them the more you will love them.

Read More

Sign up for a Newsletter