When you think of reptiles, what comes to mind? It’s not uncommon to picture a snake slithering across the hot desert sand or a lizard crawling through a dense forest.
We often associate reptiles with terrestrial environments, and with their tough, scaly skin and long sharp claws, it’s easy to assume that they’re limited to living on land. But despite their reputation as land-dwelling critters, the truth is there are many reptile species that have adapted to life in the water.
So, does this mean that reptiles can swim?
Many species of reptiles have evolved to become highly skilled swimmers. From sea turtles and crocodiles to water snakes and monitor lizards, these creatures have developed unique physical and behavioral adaptations that allow them to navigate, dive, and hunt for food underwater. Some reptiles can even hold their breath underwater for hours at a time!
If you’re looking to learn about the fascinating world of water-loving reptiles, you’ve come to the right place! In this article, we’ll dive into the basics of reptile swimming, explore how these creatures move through the water, and discover some of the most impressive reptiles that call the water their home.
Let’s get started!
Can All Reptiles Swim?
While many reptile species have adapted for life in the water, not all reptiles are capable swimmers.
For instance, some arboreal reptiles, like chameleons, are specifically suited for life in the trees.
They have prehensile tails and mitten-like feet that can grip onto branches, making it easy for them to climb. However, these special features don’t help them in the water, so chameleons aren’t able to swim well.
Similarly, most reptiles that live in arid desert habitats, like leopard geckos and desert tortoises, are not well-equipped for swimming. Their bodies are designed to conserve water and tolerate high temperatures, rather than to navigate through aquatic environments.
Interestingly, though, it’s been discovered that all snakes are capable of swimming due to their unique method of undulating motion that propels them through the water (more on that below).
How Do Reptiles Swim?
When it comes to movement in the water, reptiles move through the water in a way that’s different from fish or other aquatic animals.
While fish use their fins to push themselves through water, reptiles like lizards and crocodiles mostly rely on their muscular legs and long, powerful tails to propel themselves forward. Sometimes they use their arms as well.
Turtles, on the other hand, use their webbed feet (freshwater turtles) or flippers (sea turtles) as they glide through the water with grace. Their front legs act as paddles creating movement in the water while their hind legs help them to steer.
But sea turtles have another interesting swimming behavior when it comes to helping them move through the ocean. They’ve been known to take advantage of flowing water currents to help them conserve energy and escape predators while traveling long distances.
But some of the best reptile swimmers are snakes, which have a unique swimming style called “lateral undulation”. This means that they move their body in a wave-like motion from side to side, allowing them to move smoothly and efficiently through the water.
Another thing that sets reptiles apart from other swimmers is their ability to hold their breath for long periods of time.
Some species, like sea turtles and crocodiles, can stay underwater for up to several hours!
This is thanks to their evolutionary abilities to conserve oxygen by slowing down their heart rates and redirecting blood flow to nonessential organs.
Can Reptiles Swim Long Distances?
The distances reptiles can swim varies greatly depending on the species, their size, and their behavioral patterns.
Some reptiles, like sea turtles and marine iguanas, are capable of swimming hundreds or even thousands of miles during their migrations.
Crocodiles and alligators can cover large distances looking to find food, a mate, or new territories.
While other reptiles, like lizards and snakes, may only swim short distances to cross bodies of water, hunt for prey, or escape predators.
Can Reptiles Breathe Underwater?
The short answer is no, reptiles can’t actually breathe underwater. Unlike fish, which have gills that extract oxygen from water, reptiles have lungs designed to extract oxygen from the air.
This means that if they were to spend too much time underwater without coming up for air, they would eventually drown.
Even reptiles that have evolved to live entirely in aquatic environments, like sea turtles and crocodiles, still need to come up for air at times. This is why you’ll often see them poking their heads out of the water.
18 Reptiles That Can Swim
Now that we know some of the basics of reptile swimming, let’s get into a few different species of reptiles that can swim!
As mentioned above, all snakes are capable of swimming. They use lateral undulation, moving in a wave-like motion, almost as if they’re slithering through the water.
Several aquatic snake species have even evolved to have streamlined bodies and flattened tails that push them through the water as a paddle would.
From venomous sea snakes to constricting anacondas and pythons, these are some of the most interesting snakes that can swim:
1. Sea Snakes
Most sea snakes are highly venomous and can be found in the waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
They have evolved to live their entire lives in the water, with oar-like tails and valves in their nostrils that close to prevent water from entering their lungs.
They also have special skin modifications that can absorb oxygen in the water and diffuse it into their blood. They can also get rid of carbon dioxide the same way – pretty cool!
Sea snakes can swim up to 2.5 miles per hour, and some have been recorded at depths of up to 800 feet! They mostly prefer to stay up where it’s shallower, though, and swim along the water’s surface.
Have you ever seen a sea snake swim? Check out the video above showcasing the mesmerizing movement of sea snakes underwater, and learn more cool facts about them!
2. Water Snakes
Water snakes are a diverse group of nonvenomous snakes that are found in freshwater habitats around the world.
These snakes are excellent swimmers and can often be seen gliding on the surface or swimming through deeper bodies of water.
Some water snakes, like the northern water snake, can stay submerged underwater for over an hour and a half!
Water snakes feast mainly on fish, frogs, and small vertebrates, and like to bring their food to the surface to eat.
During the day, they might slither into nearby bushes or hang from tree branches over the water. If disturbed they will slip back into the water and swim away.
3. Cottonmouths (Water Moccasin)
Cottonmouth snakes, also known as water moccasins, are highly venomous semi-aquatic snakes.
They don’t spend as much time submerged as other snakes, and for that reason, they have thick, buoyant bodies that help them to float on the water’s surface.
Another unique feature of cottonmouths is their ability to detect prey using infrared sensors located in their snout.
This makes it easy for them to hunt in murky water and is especially helpful in complete darkness.
At all ages and sizes, pythons are excellent swimmers. They have high endurance and can swim for long distances, and have even been caught swimming miles offshore by fishermen.
Pythons will usually swim at the surface, but are capable of diving and can hold their breath for up to half an hour underwater.
Most species of pythons are native to Africa, Asia, and Australia, but in recent years they have become an invasive species in Florida.
They’re often found in or around the water of the Everglades, where they represent a large threat to native wildlife.
Anacondas are some of the largest snakes in the world and are found in the rivers and swamps of South America.
Green anacondas in particular are well adapted to aquatic life and can spend up to 50 minutes submerged underwater.
One unique adaptation of these large aquatic snakes is that their eyes and nostrils are located on the top of their heads. This helps them to be able to breathe and watch for prey while hiding and waiting in the water.
Once caught, they will often eat their food while submerged, because the buoyancy helps with proper positioning for swallowing.
Did you know that some lizards are excellent swimmers? Many lizard species have adjusted to life in the water quite well, and some can even run on top of it!
Let’s take a closer look at some lizards that thrive in aquatic environments:
1. Asian Water Monitors
These aquatic giants are found throughout the tropical regions of South and Southeast Asia and are the second-largest lizard species in the world.
As their name suggests, they are great swimmers and can live in both freshwater and saltwater habitats.
They use their powerful tails to propel themselves through the water in a lateral wave-like motion.
Asian water monitors are able to swim long distances and can hold their breath underwater for 30 minutes at a time.
They have a unique raised fin that grows along their tail, which helps them to steer through the water.
2. Mertens’ Water Monitors
The Mertens’ water monitor, also known as the Australian water monitor, is found in coastal and inland waters across parts of northern Australia.
They are moderately large and well adapted to water, able to hold their breath for up to 30 minutes when submerged.
Like crocodiles, their nostrils are located on top of their head, so they can sit partially submerged in water. They also swim using the same lateral wave-like movement.
They also have special valves in their nostrils that close when they are swimming, allowing them to spend more time under the surface.
3. Nile Monitors
Similar to the Asian and Australian water monitors, Nile monitors are water-loving lizards.
They swim using the same technique as other monitors and crocodilians, using their strong legs and tails to propel them through the water.
One of the Nile monitor lizard’s most impressive features is its ability to hold its breath for long periods of time underwater.
These scaly swimmers can stay under the surface for up to an hour, which is longer than most other monitor lizards.
They are also quite powerful and can run fast on land, making them a double threat to wildlife in the area.
4. Chinese/Asian Water Dragons
Chinese water dragons, also known as Asian water dragons, are very proficient swimmers. They are also commonly owned as pets.
They have muscular tails with flattened sides that are designed to help cut through the water. They push their arms and legs up against their bodies, helping them to glide through the water faster.
These colorful creatures are skilled hunters and are able to hunt for food, like fish, underwater for up to 20 minutes at a time.
If you own one as a pet, it’s a good idea to provide them with a large water feature for them to wade or swim in.
5. Marine Iguanas
Marine iguanas, found in the Galapagos Islands, are known for their unique ability to swim and forage underwater.
These iguanas have flattened tails that allow them to swim like a Chinese water dragon, and sharp claws that allow them to grip slippery rocks when near the surface.
With their impressive diving abilities, they can be submerged underwater for more than 45 minutes while searching for and feasting on algae.
They can also travel long distances between islands and are the only lizard in the world that feeds in the sea.
6. Basilisk Lizards
Basilisk lizards are also often called the “Jesus Christ lizard” because they have a very unique ability to run on top of the water.
They have long toes with fringes of skin that create pockets of air, allowing them to skim across the water’s surface for short distances.
This is often a technique used when escaping predators or looking for food.
Aside from walking on water, basilisk lizards are also great swimmers. They can move through the water with quick speed and agility and remain submerged for up to 10 minutes.
7. Water Anoles
Water anoles are small but mighty lizards that have a really impressive trick up their sleeves when it comes to being underwater.
When swimming, water anoles create a bubble of air that clings to their face, allowing them to breathe the oxygen within the bubble.
This is known as “scuba diving” because it allows them to stay underwater for up to 16 minutes at a time.
Water anoles are also agile hunters, using their keen eyesight to track and catch small aquatic prey such as insects and tadpoles, when in the water.
Turtles are known for their aquatic nature, so they fit right into the topic at hand.
From sea turtles to freshwater turtles in ponds or aquariums, these interesting reptiles have a unique way of experiencing life in the water:
1. Sea Turtles
Sea turtles have adapted to live their entire lives in the water, thanks to a variety of unique features they’ve developed over time.
With streamlined shells and paddle-like flippers, they’re able to effortlessly glide through the water.
Plus, they have special glands near their eyes that expel excess salt from their bodies, helping them to survive in the salty ocean.
But maybe the coolest adaption of any aquatic reptile is their ability to take “naps” on the ocean floor.
To do this, sea turtles are able to slow down their heart rate and reduce blood flow to essential organs, allowing them to hold their breath underwater for up to several hours.
They also have high levels of hemoglobin in their blood which allows them to store oxygen in their bodies for longer periods of time.
Pretty cool, huh?!
2. Freshwater Turtles
Red-eared sliders, painted turtles, map turtles, side-neck turtles, and alligator snapping turtles are some freshwater turtle species that live in recreational lakes or ponds.
Many of these breeds are also often kept in large aquarium setups as pets.
Freshwater turtles are primarily aquatic and can hold their breath underwater for 30-45 minutes.
While they mostly breathe through their lungs, some species are also capable of what’s called cloacal respiration, where they can extract oxygen from water using specialized tissues in their back end.
These turtles enjoy basking in the sun on a warm rock or log, but they like to spend most of their time in the water.
They also have the fascinating ability to retract their heads and limbs into their shells to protect themselves from predators.
When it comes to swimming reptiles, these species are masters of the water. Crocodiles, alligators, Caimans, and Gharials are some of the most powerful swimmers in the animal kingdom.
Let’s learn more about these crocodilian species below:
Crocodiles are some of the largest reptile species in the world, with the saltwater crocodile being the largest living reptile on the planet. They are apex predators and one of the most fearsome predators that live in the water.
When swimming, crocodiles will press their legs back against their bodies and use their powerful tails to propel themselves through the water in a lateral wave-like motion.
They can swim at speeds of up to 18-20 miles per hour and can hold their breath underwater for over an hour.
Crocodiles also have several unique features that allow them to survive in an underwater environment.
For example, they have special valves in their throats called the palatal valve which allows them to open their mouth underwater without letting water into their lungs.
They can also slow down their heart rate to just 2-3 beats per minute. This is a very beneficial capability that allows them to sit patiently in the water while waiting for prey to come to the water’s edge.
Another cool adaptation is that their eyes, nostrils, and ears are all located on the top of their heads. This enables them to effectively see and hear while remaining mostly submerged underwater.
Alligators are freshwater reptiles known for their impressive swimming and hunting abilities. While they tend to be a bit clumsy on land, they’re well-adapted to life in the water.
Just like crocodiles, alligators have muscular bodies and powerful tails to help them swim. They also have webbed feet and long snouts so they can move through the water easily.
Some other physical features they share are that their eyes, nose, and ears are all on the top of their heads. They also have watertight flaps on their eyes and ears that prevent water from entering when submerged.
Alligators are great divers and can hold their breath while diving for up to 20 minutes. When resting, they’ve been known to hold their breath for multiple hours at a time, especially in colder water.
Caimans are members of the alligator family and can be found in bodies of freshwater around Central and South America.
With the exception of the black caiman, most caimans are smaller than crocodiles and alligators. But they still share a lot of their physical features, like their long jaws, powerful tails, and thick, scaly skin.
Like other crocodilians, caimans’ eyes and noses are also located at the top of their heads, which helps them to see and breathe while the rest of their body sits underwater.
They are expert hunters with keen senses and the ability to hunt in the water at night.
Gharials are a type of crocodilian strictly native to the rivers of India and neighboring countries.
Unlike other crocodilians, gharials have more of a slender build, making them better suited for hunting and swimming in flowing rivers.
Adult male gharials can also grow a unique bulge on the tips of their snouts, which they then use to communicate with underwater.
Another difference between gharials and other crocodilians is that gharials have a diet consisting almost exclusively of fish.
Their extremely narrow snouts allow them to swiftly snap down on fish that swim by, and their long sharp teeth are designed to help them grip and hold onto their slippery prey.
So, there you have it! A fascinating look into several different reptile species and subspecies that are excellent swimmers.
From snakes and lizards that can glide across the water’s surface, to turtles and crocodilians that can submerge themselves for hours at a time – these reptiles prove that there’s more to their world than just living life on land.
Whether they use their streamlined bodies or their powerful legs and tails, each of these reptiles has their own unique way of swimming and surviving in an underwater world.