Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Can Turtles Breathe through their Butts?

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Wondering can turtles breathe through their butts? Or is it just a myth that you heard somewhere else? Let’s find out. 

Turtle surfacing to breathe

Breathing for us is a big deal, even though we take things like an abundance of oxygen for granted, the recent times of air population is making us understand for better. But do you know some organisms around us like the reptiles don’t even need oxygen to breathe? Yes you read it right! These are the anaerobic respiring reptiles that don’t need oxygen and surprisingly have a very unusual breathing method.

Dragonflies, sea cucumber and some species of turtles breathe through their butts. Shocked? I was too. Turtles, like anteaters, are interesting creatures. It would be the last place one would think to breathe through. Nature plays her own hilarious jokes and this might be counted in one of them.Turtle hibernates during temperature drops thus turtles can survive through whatever comes in front of them.

Do turtles breathe through their butts?

Firstly can turtle breathe through their butts? But butt breathing isn’t a myth or a joke. The turtle species called the painted turtle, Japanese pond turtles and the snapping turtles breathe through their butts or scientifically speaking cloacae. So the answer to the question of whether do all turtles breathe through their butts is busted.

Some turtle species like the musk turtles absorb the oxygen through the blood vessels which are found in the neck region and their source of oxygen is through neck rather than the cloacae. This is a common misconception that most of the turtles breathe through their butt but this isn’t the case. It seems like the turtle family is indeed like the super famous cartoon “Ninja Turtles” and has various interesting ways of oxygen intake.

ninja turtles
Ninja turtle

But how do turtles breathe in general?

We might have owned a turtle as a pet or at least known someone who did. We always are fascinated by their shell which is the highlight of their existence. For a turtle, the shell is a big deal as its rib is attached to it. But the sad part is since their shell is a cage for the lungs, they can expand or contract as the normal lung does. But not to worry, they have special adaptations for all the conformity.

They have a special type of abdominal muscles attached to their shell which pulls the lungs in order to propel or to expel the air from the lungs which cause the inhalation and the exhalation. For the science geeks out there this is a fun fact that turtles breathe through their butts. The movements created by these muscles create a negative and positive pressure gradient that works on Boyle’s law. Now, isn’t that interesting?

Types of respiration:turtles

These turtles have two types of respiration processes. The aerobic one when they do the active respiration. This happens through the external nares i.e. like the nostrils in humans. When air is taken in through these nares, they enter the respiratory tract which is similar to most of the animals which consist of the glottis, trachea (windpipe), bronchus and then multi-chambered lungs.

The anaerobic respiration is the other type of respiration when these turtles are inactive i.e. when they are hibernating. We all love to sleep in winters right? Tucked under the blanket, away from the cold. But these turtles have another way to tackle these cold. They reduce their activities which leads to less requirement of oxygen.

These requirements can be fulfilled by the simple diffusion of oxygen present in the water which runs over their shells. But this butt breathing is not as simple as it sounds

How does butt breathing happen?

Butt breathing or speaking in a scientist’s language, cloacal respiration is when these turtles do the anaerobic respiration during hibernation. We all know that turtles are cold-blooded creatures. Their body temperature changes according to their environment.

So when the winter hits and before the water turns into ice, they hibernate using anaerobic respiration, low metabolism and chemical buffering processes. Since most of the turtle’s body parts are covered with the shell, the only body parts exposed to running water are the neck and cloaca.

The turtles respire through taking the water in and out of the cloaca to absorb the oxygen in this hibernating stage. What happens in this process of butt breathing is, a set of specialized muscles just like those which help turtles to expel and propel the air in the lungs, these muscles found in the cloaca region work by expanding and contracting.

When these muscles expand, the water rushes in and when it contracts, it is propelled out. You must be wondering this isn’t exactly butt breathing right?

Normal breathing v/s butt breathingturtles breathe through their butts

Turtles when they are active i.e. they need a lot of energy they breathe through the nares which almost look like Voldemort’s nose. Funny right? But it’s true. They breathe oxygen which is diffused in air through nares which are then taken in by the lungs to then produce energy by breaking it down. This is aerobic respiration which is mostly done by the living organisms and even us.

Yes turtles breathe through their butts – and here is why.

But when winter hits, the oxygen level in water drops since the water freezes and they reduce their movements to a minimum, they do not need this huge amount of oxygen and hence revert to anaerobic respiration. This respiration also cannot last long due to the respiratory by-product build-up of lactic acid. I know you are thinking where you have heard about this!

This is the cause of the infamous muscle cramp you get after a good workout at the gym or when you wake up in the middle of the night due to a cramp. This is big bad news for all the living organisms out there. But the clever turtles have evolved a way out of this. They produce a certain amount of calcium to combat this lactic acid production.

So the minimum oxygen they need to survive this harsh winter, they manage from the oxygen diffused in the water which is taken through butt or cloaca in species like the Japanese pond turtles and the painted turtles. The butt breathing is therefore to ensure the oxygen supply needed for the aerobic respiration to survive the winter.

But how long do they survive underwater?turtles

Sea turtles live mostly in seawater and need to come out to take air only about 10 to 30 minutes and come out in the land or beaches to lay eggs. They are totally adapted to live in water as they have webbed feet, streamlined bodies and aquatic respiratory systems.
Freshwater turtles also show the same behavior as the seawater turtles. It is seen that they like to bask in the sun, on the rocks during summers which even we do during the season.

Quite relatable isn’t it? The only difference is we do to get a tan and they do it to increase their metabolism. Since we already established the fact that they belong to cold-blooded categories, their body temperature changes according to their environment and basking in the sun raise the body temperature. This results in active metabolism which means that they need more oxygen to breathe.

As a result, their breathing and aerobic respiratory activity increase. But when they get caught in fishing nets or other dangers like when chased by predators, they tend to lose their energy quickly. If they didn’t get the proper oxygen support, they can even drown or die from suffocation.

 What did we learn about butt breathing?

To make a quick wrap up of what you’ve got to learn about turtles and their butt breathing is that all the turtles do not breathe from their butt which is a common misconception. Only a few species like Japanese pond turtles, painted turtle can do this. These turtles breathe through their butts or cloaca. Butt breathing is called cloacal respiration, in the scientific term.

This butt breathing is done to ensure the continuous oxygen supply needed for respiration as the water has low oxygen content during harsh winters. They perform butt breathing only when they hibernate during harsh environmental conditions.

Breathing through butt ensures they can hibernate for a longer period of time without resurfacing. Butt breathers are fascinating as this is an evolutionary adaptation of aquatic species. One thing we definitely got to know is that the rear end is not only used to expel the bad by-products but can also be used for survival purposes.

Introspection: Can Turtles Breathe through their Butts?

Baby turtle crawling towards the sea

The good news is the turtle population that was facing threats due to human population on beaches and were not able to lay eggs are returning to lay eggs on the beaches on Brazil! Isn’t that great news? It was seen that many baby turtles were crawling towards the sea after hatching the egg. So, yes some turtles breathe through their butts. And if you want to save all of them – God’s wonderful gift to nature – you may want to be more mindful about how your actions are shaping up the planet.

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