Alligators cannot breathe underwater. Alligators are not amphibians, and they do not have gills. Although they can’t breathe underwater, alligators can stay underwater for a long time by slowing their heartbeat to only two or three beats in a minute to conserve oxygen.
Alligators can stay underwater for a long time—they can remain conscious until their oxygen is almost out. Only then will it go back to the surface to breathe.
Does an Alligator Breathe Through Its Skin?
Unlike amphibians, alligators and other reptiles can not absorb oxygen from the water through their skin. The only way for an alligator to breathe is with its lungs, through its mouth or nose.
An alligator is not an amphibian. It is a reptile. Amphibians, like frogs, can breathe oxygen from the water, and they do it with their skin. As such, the amphibian needs to stay wet all the time. If they get too dry, they will die.
An alligator breathes through its lungs. Their respiration works similarly with humans and other land animals. However, they have a special ability, which shall be explored in the succeeding sections.
One reason people often think an alligator can breathe through its skin is that when they bellow, they create unique bubbling waves on the water’s surface. Alligators bellow by vibrating their backs and releasing air from their lungs, but they aren’t taking in any water or breathing.
How Long can an Alligator Stay Underwater?
An alligator can stay underwater for ten to fifteen minutes. This length of time is the average. Some will dive for an hour. Research indicates that they could take a two-hour dive if they wanted to.
Contrary to what people say, alligators do not hibernate underwater. When winter comes, alligators stay in the water, but only their bodies are submerged. Their snouts are out on the surface, just above the frozen water.
Alligators are large enough that they can stand upright in shallow water so that they don’t sink through the ice and drown.
How does Alligator Respiration Work?
An alligator’s respiration may work similarly with humans and land animals, but it does have special abilities. For example, studies show that they can breathe in a “unidirectional” manner.
It means that when they breathe, air flows in one direction as it loops through the alligator’s lungs. This kind of breathing pattern is what many scientists believe helped dinosaurs and the alligator’s ancestors to survive during the Great Extinction Event.
In the lungs of many animals, including humans and mammals, the airflow is similar to a tide in the sea. After inhalation, the air moves to several destinations until these destinations become smaller—down to the bronchi.
The air will eventually reach a dead-end, and examples of these dead-end areas are the alveoli. Once the air gets here, the oxygen enters the blood, and then carbon dioxide moves from the blood to the lungs.
Essentially, an exchange happens between oxygen and carbon dioxide. After that, the air from the lungs gets out through exhalation. This kind of breathing is directional.
It does not work like this with alligators, who breathe in a pattern known as unidirectional breathing.
In this kind of breathing, the gas exchange does not happen in the alveoli but in other tubes called “para-bronchi.” In this breathing mechanism, the air flows in one direction before it finally exits the animal’s lungs.
With alligators, the blood does not have to go to the lungs. Instead, the blood, which is rich in oxygen, is spread out in the body where oxygen is needed the most.
Related Article: Do Alligators Track Prey?
What are the Breathing Pattern of an Alligator?
An alligator breathes periodically. Studies show that it breathes periodically, sometimes taking several breaths at once and sometimes taking only a single breath, depending on how much oxygen they need. The breathing rate varies from a few seconds to a few minutes. Sometimes, they breathe only once in 20 to 30 minutes.
Here are some key points to remember about an alligator’s breathing:
- Alligators have varying heart rates, even in similar conditions.
- At lower temperatures, the heart rate becomes slower.
- Alligators have different respiratory responses from each one
- Heart rates are different from voluntary diving and surfacing
Alligators control their breathing. How they do it is not yet fully understood. Scientists are focused on the fact that if birds and alligators breathe unidirectionally, then the earliest ancestors of both species must have breathed the same way.
Related Article: How Fast Can Alligators Swim?
What is Unidirectional Breathing?
Unidirectional breathing means breathing one way only. Humans and many mammals breathe bi-directionally.
Bi-directional breathing means air goes in, and then it goes out—the same way it went in. In humans, the air goes through the trachea, then to the bronchi, then to the alveoli, where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide happens.
From here, the air goes back the same pathway as it entered. Then it is exhaled through the mouth or nostrils.
In alligators and birds, the air travels in a loop. What it means is that air is incoming ad outgoing at the same time. With a breathing capability like this, the alligator can:
- Facilitate the washout of stale air or gases from the lung
- Reduce the energy cost of breathing
- Prevent water loss as the animal breathes
- Prevent heat loss through vaporization
At first, scientists thought that unidirectional breathing could only happen if an animal has air sacs, and only birds have that. However, the study of two people, C. G. Farmer and Kent Sanders from Utah proved that air sacs are not needed for unidirectional breathing.
There is still a lot to learn. The breathing pattern of alligators was observed only through artificial means. The alligators were already dead when the experiment happened. Although some live tests were also done, there are still so many questions left unanswered.
Can an Alligator Drown?
Yes, an alligator can drown. Like land animals, it has air-breathing lungs which do not function when underwater. If they cannot access oxygen from the air, they will die.
In the wild, alligators are very unlikely to drown. They know their environment so well, and they are apex predators in the areas they inhabit.
Alligators do not breathe underwater. They are not like amphibians that can breathe with their skin, either. The alligator’s scutes or scales are too thick for air to penetrate.
Alligators, like many land animals, must breathe air. However, they do not breathe like humans. When humans breathe, the breathing is bidirectional. Alligators, however, use unidirectional breathing. On top of this, they can shut off the blood supply in other organs and tissues if need be.
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.