Olaf Fact Checked: Can Turtles Breathe Through Their Butts?

You’re probably here because you watched Frozen 2 have been haunted ever since by some of the facts that Olaf spouted throughout the film. I’m afraid to break it to you, but yes, it’s true—many aquatic turtles can breathe through their butts.

Some animals use lungs, others opt for gills, but when it comes down to it, all animals need oxygen. While aquatic turtles have lungs, they also rely on their cloacal bursae to get access to oxygen, particularly when they’re in the water. 

Two turtles on a log in a pond
Capri23auto / Pixabay

A cloaca is an orifice typically used for digestion and reproduction, but in this case, it acts as an alternate to lungs, which can require a lot of energy because their rib cages (aka their shells) don’t expand like humans when they breathe. 

The cloaca leads to vascularized sacs called bursa, which can be rapidly filled and emptied of water that can be used as a source of oxygen. In some turtles, this form of respiration can accomplish up to 68% of a turtle’s oxygen ingestion, which helps them stay underwater for longer periods of time. 

Dragonfly nymph on leaf
Illuvis / Pixabay

So, yes, Olaf was right. Many turtles can breathe through their back ends, but they aren’t the only species that have accomplished this feat. Both dragonfly nymphs and sea cucumbers have found alternative means to respirate via the ends of their digestive tracks. And who knows maybe they’ll get a shoutout if we ever get another Frozen sequel.