WTF Fun Fact 13690 – Butt-breathing Turtles

We’ve heard of mouth breathing, but never butt breathing. Yet it turns out that turtles can breathe through their butts.

Technically known as cloacal respiration, this biological feature allows certain turtle species to stay submerged underwater for extended periods during winter months. This essay unfolds the science behind this unusual respiratory adaptation and its significance for turtle survival.

Unpacking Cloacal Respiration (aka Butt Breathing)

The cloaca is a multipurpose orifice that’s found in various animals, including reptiles, birds, and amphibians, It serves as the exit point for the intestinal, reproductive, and urinary tracts. In some turtle species, the cloaca extends its utility to include respiration.

This process involves the absorption of oxygen directly from the water through a pair of sacs located near the tail, known as cloacal bursae. These bursae are richly lined with blood vessels. They facilitate the exchange of gases much like lungs do with air.

Cloacal respiration is especially crucial for aquatic turtles during the winter months. When temperatures drop, many turtles enter a state of brumation—a period of dormancy similar to hibernation. During brumation, turtles burrow into mud or settle at the bottom of ponds and lakes, places where they cannot access surface air for months.

The ability to breathe through their butts allows these turtles to remain underwater throughout the winter. This helps them avoid the need to surface for air and expose themselves to harsh conditions or predators.

Species and Significance

Not all turtles possess this remarkable ability. It is primarily observed in certain freshwater species like the Australian Fitzroy River turtle and the North American eastern painted turtle. This adaptation highlights the incredible diversity of life and the various evolutionary paths organisms have taken to survive in their specific environments.

For these turtles, cloacal respiration is a key to their survival in cold environments. It enables them to exploit niches that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Implications of Butt Breathing for Conservation

Understanding unique physiological traits such as cloacal respiration is crucial for the conservation of turtle species.

Habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change threaten many aquatic turtles. Conservation efforts benefit from insights into turtles’ adaptive strategies. They inform habitat protection and management practices that ensure these remarkable creatures can continue to thrive in their natural environments.

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Source: “The secret to turtle hibernation: Butt-breathing” — PBS News Hour


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