Can Turtles Sleep Underwater?

Turtles are fascinating creatures that have captured people’s imaginations for centuries. Their unique appearance, with a protective shell and ability to retract their heads, gives them an air of mystery. One question that often comes up is whether turtles can sleep underwater. This comprehensive guide will provide a deep dive into the sleeping habits of various turtle species to uncover the answer.

An Overview of Turtle Sleep Patterns

Like all animals, turtles need sleep to rest their bodies and brains. However, their sleep cycles and ability to sleep underwater depends on whether they are aquatic or land dwellers.

Do All Turtles Sleep?

Yes, all turtles do require sleep. However, their sleep patterns can vary significantly. Here are some key facts about turtle sleep:

  • Turtles may sleep 4-10 hours a day on average. Some species are more active at night and sleep more during the day.
  • Aquatic turtles can sleep both in and out of water. They may sleep underwater for 4 hours before coming up for air.
  • Land tortoises sleep at night on land, burrowing into soil or vegetation. They cannot sleep underwater.
  • Sea turtles sleep while floating at the ocean’s surface or resting underwater. They can sleep for several hours before taking a breath.
  • Turtles can sleep with half their brain awake. This allows them to watch for predators while resting.

Why Do Turtles Need to Sleep?

Like humans, sleep is essential for a turtle’s health and well-being. Key benefits of turtle sleep include:

  • Resting the body – Sleep gives muscles, organs and other systems a chance to recover.
  • Brain restoration – Sleep allows the brain to consolidate memories, process information and recharge for next day.
  • Energy conservation – Lowered metabolism during sleep conserves a turtle’s energy.
  • Health maintenance – Sleep promotes cell repair and optimal immune function.
  • Growth and development – Deep sleep is linked to production of growth hormones in young turtles.

Turtle Sleep Habits

Turtles display some unique sleep habits and routines:

  • Naps – Turtles take frequent naps of 1-2 hours during the day and longer sleep at night.
  • Sunning – Basking in the sun helps some turtles get a deeper, more restorative sleep.
  • Light sleepers – Turtles sleep lightly and may be roused by noises or other disturbances.
  • Seasonal variation – Sleep patterns can change with the seasons. Turtles sleep more in winter.

Aquatic Turtles That Can Sleep Underwater

For aquatic turtles that live in ponds, lakes and other watery habitats, the ability to sleep underwater is essential. Here are some of the most common aquatic turtles that can snooze submerged.

Painted Turtles

Distinguished by their colorful red, orange and yellow shell markings, painted turtles are well-adapted for an aquatic life. They have specialised flaps that cover their ears underwater and valves that close off their nose. These features allow them to sleep submerged without water entering these air passages.

Red-Eared Sliders

Named after the red streak behind their eyes, these popular pet turtles can sleep underwater by slowing down their heart rate, circulation and metabolism to conserve oxygen. They can sleep 4-7 hours underwater before needing to surface for air.

Snapping Turtles

With their large head and powerful jaws, common snapping turtles may not look sleepy. But these bottom-dwelling turtles can sleep underwater for at least 4-5 hours. Some species have even been observed napping on the lake bottom for up to 50 hours.

Softshell Turtles

True to their name, softshell turtles lack the hard, protective plates and instead have a leathery skin. They are skilled swimmers and typically sleep on the sandy or muddy bottom of lakes and rivers, rising to the surface every few hours to breathe.

Map Turtles

With their intricate, map-like shell markings, map turtles inhabit rivers and lakes across North America. Using cloacal respiration, they can extract oxygen from the water to sleep underwater for extended periods before needing fresh air.

Sea Turtles

Though they spend most of their life at sea, sea turtles are air-breathing reptiles. While they can remain active underwater for an hour or more, during sleep they float at the surface or just below, rising occasionally for a quick breath.

Land Turtles That Cannot Sleep Underwater

In contrast to their aquatic cousins, land turtles have evolved for a life on the ground. They lack the specialised breathing adaptations that allow for prolonged underwater sleep.

Box Turtles

These brightly coloured terrestrial turtles get their name from their ability to close up within their shell entirely. During their 4-6 hours of nightly sleep, box turtles burrow into loose soil, leaf litter or mud, but cannot sleep if submerged.


Sometimes confused with aquatic turtles, tortoises are land animals. They sleep at night tucked away in caves or natural shelters. Tortoises will quickly drown if forced to sleep underwater.

Wood Turtles

Though they enjoy spending time in streams, wood turtles emerge onto land to sleep in habitats with sandy banks. If a wood turtle fell into deep waters while sleeping, it would need to wake up and get air promptly.

Desert Tortoises

Adapted for dry habitats, desert tortoises spend over 16 hours daily in underground caves or rock shelters to escape the heat. While they can wade through pools formed by desert rains, these terrestrial reptiles cannot sleep underwater.

Eastern Box Turtles

With their domed, hinged shell, eastern box turtles live in forested areas and wetlands across eastern North America. However, they always sleep on land, digging into mud or leaf litter for protection while they slumber.

How Long Can Aquatic Turtles Stay Underwater While Sleeping?

Aquatic turtles’ underwater endurance depends on the species and individual health and oxygenation levels. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Most aquatic turtles can sleep underwater for 2-5 hours  before needing air. They may surface to breathe without fully waking up.
  • Some smaller turtle species, like musk turtles, can only sleep submerged for 1-2 hours due to their high energy needs.
  • Larger aquatic turtles, like snapping turtles, can sleep underwater for 4-7 hours. In cooler water they may stay under even longer.
  • The maximum reported underwater sleep times range from 8 to 50 hours for certain hardy turtle species in special circumstances. However, this is not typical.
  • Young, stressed or inactive turtles have lower oxygen reserves and may only sleep underwater for 30-90 minutes at once.
  • Sea turtles can sleep while swimming or resting underwater for 4-7 hours before surfacing to breathe air.

Unique Turtle Adaptations for Underwater Breathing

Certain anatomical and physiological adaptations allow aquatic turtles to sleep submerged without drowning. These include:

Cloacal Respiration

Turtles have a cloaca, an opening used for waste elimination and reproduction. Oxygen diffuses from the water into the turtle’s bloodstream through cloacal respiration. While minimal, this pathway provides enough oxygen for underwater sleep.

Slowed Metabolism

When sleeping, turtles enter a state of torpor where their metabolism slows down significantly, reducing oxygen demand. Their heart and breathing rates decrease, allowing them to get by on less oxygen.

Closed Air Passages

Valves seal off a turtle’s nose and ears while diving, preventing water from entering these air-filled cavities. This helps aquatic turtles sleep underwater without disturbances.

Blood Shunts

Special circulatory patterns allow blood to be shunted away from a turtle’s extremities when diving. This conserves oxygen for the heart, brain and other critical organs.

Anaerobic Metabolism

Muscles can function anaerobically without oxygen for short periods by using stored glucose and glycogen. This metabolic strategy helps tide turtles over if oxygen runs low.

Choosing a Safe Sleeping Spot Underwater

Aquatic turtles don’t just doze off anywhere in the pond or lake. Choosing a suitable sleeping site helps ensure they get quality rest. Key factors turtles consider include:

Protection from Predators

The underwater zone should offer cover from predators like raccoons, foxes or snapping turtles. Vegetation, crevices and mud offer good camouflage.

Access to Fresh Air

Easy access to the surface allows a turtle to breathe again when needed. Open water areas are avoided in favor of sheltered spots near the shoreline.


Warmer areas near the water’s surface or heated by the sun help turtles stay active and digest their food. Colder waters trigger inertia and inactivity.

Oxygen Availability

Highly oxygenated waters, often found nearer the surface or among aquatic plants, provide more dissolved oxygen for cloacal breathing. Stagnant or polluted areas are avoided.

Restful Environment

Turtles prefer quiet zones away from strong currents, noise and artificial lighting that could disturb sleep. Areas with soft mud or aquatic vegetation provide better rest.


Muddy bottoms offer camouflage, while sandy or gravelly areas stay cleaner. Polluted sediments can irritate a turtle’s eyes, skin and other delicate tissues.

Common Mistakes to Avoid with Pet Turtles

For turtle owners, understanding proper sleeping habitats is crucial. Some common mistakes that should be avoided include:

  • Land turtles can sleep in deep water, which can lead to accidental drowning.
  • Not providing an adequate basking area – All turtles need a dry platform for proper rest.
  • Exposing aquatic turtles to loud noise – This disturbs their slumber and increases stress.
  • Letting water quality deteriorate – Turtles need clean, oxygenated water to sleep well underwater.
  • Keeping nocturnal and diurnal turtles together – Their opposite schedules will lead to sleep deprivation.
  • Using bright lights at night near tanks – Turtles require darkness to sleep soundly.
  • Allowing water to get too cold – Lower temperatures prevent restful sleep.
  • Keeping hatchling and adult turtles together – The hatchlings won’t be able to rest properly.
  • Disturbing sleeping turtles – Never poke or handle a sleeping turtle!

Frequently Asked Questions about Turtle Sleep

Do turtles sleep with their eyes open?

Yes, like many reptiles, turtles can sleep with their eyes open. They have a nictitating membrane that acts like built-in eyelids to protect their eyes underwater.

Do turtles close their eyes when sleeping?

While their eyes remain open, turtles exhibit slower blink rates and lowered awareness of surroundings while in deeper sleep stages. Their level of eye closure may correspond with sleep depth.

Do turtles sleep while floating?

Some aquatic turtles, like painted turtles, can sleep while floating motionless on the water’s surface. Their slowed metabolism lets them nap this way for an hour or more before needing to submerge.

Do sea turtles sleep while swimming?

Research shows sea turtles can sleep underwater while drifting slowly along, propelled by gentle fin movements. Their swimming motions become more limited, frequent and automatic during sleep.

Do baby turtles sleep more than adults?

Yes, baby turtles need more total sleep, up to 18 hours daily. As they grow, their sleep needs decrease but hatchlings still require plenty of rest.

Do turtles make noises when sleeping?

Some turtles may snore by inhaling air rapidly while napping on land. Underwater, no respiratory noises would be heard. Most turtles are very quiet sleepers.

Do turtles need special lighting at night?

Offering total darkness at night supports a turtle’s natural circadian rhythms and melatonin release for optimal slumber. Night lights should be avoided.


Our deep dive into turtle slumber reveals fascinating insights. While all turtles require sleep, their ability to nap underwater depends on specialised adaptations found in aquatic and marine species. Land turtles, in contrast, could never sleep submerged. Careful habitat provisions must allow aquatic and terrestrial turtles to get the rest they require.

Understanding the unique sleep habits of turtles can inspire wonder about the diversity of the natural world. Whether napping on sandy banks or underwater crevices, turtles find ways to get their necessary shut-eye. After millions of years evolving across varied ecosystems, turtles have slept down to an art – or a science! With these insights, turtle lovers can support proper rest to keep these creatures thriving.