13 Animals That Can Breathe Above and Below Water (With Videos)

Animals That Can Breathe Above and Below Water
Fact Checked and Reviewed by: Mark Rhodes, Ph.D. - Wildlife Biologist
Dr. Mark Rhodes holds an MS in Fisheries and Wildlife along with a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology. He helps maintain our editorial standards of accuracy and quality. You can read more about Dr. Rhodes here.

No matter how long humans can hold their breath when they’re underwater it doesn’t mean we can actually live or survive underwater, equally, there are certain species that struggle to breathe and ultimately survive when they are outside of water.

But is there an animal that can do both? Are there animals that can breathe above and below water?

Various animals mostly from amphibian species like frogs and newts, and certain fish, like the lungfish, can breathe above and below water using a combination of organs like gills, lungs, and skin. Additionally, there are animals that use their environment to breathe underwater, like the Anolis lizard or water spiders that use bubbles to breathe.

Different species have found a way to survive and live above and below water, so let’s take a look at these 13 animals, how they do it, and which animal can hold their breath the longest!

Is There Any That Can Animal Breathe on Land and in Water?

There are definitely animals that can breathe on land and in water, but it’s important to understand the breathing methods that each species or animal will employ in order to live in both environments.

Plenty of amphibian species have lungs that they can use to breathe when they are on land, and they also have gills that they use to breathe when they are in the water. There are also amphibians that don’t have gills and they use their skin to absorb the oxygen through the water.

There are also fish that can breathe both in and out of the water thanks to their gills and other accessory respiratory organs.

There’s definitely a lot of nuance to breathing, and in order for you to understand what I mean we can take a look at animals like insects or specific arachnids that use bubbles to breathe underwater.

Technically, they don’t absorb oxygen by being immersed in water, but they have found a loophole sort of speak to either prolong their stay inside a body of water or to live permanently in it.

Breathing can get confusing because there are also animals, like whales, seals, turtles, etc. that can live all their life or part of their life in water, but they can’t actually breathe underwater.

Holding your breath whether we’re talking about surviving a few minutes on land or in water and breathing underwater and on land are two different things, and we’re not going to examine the former instead we’re going to focus on the latter, the animals that can breathe both above and below water.

Animals That Can Breathe Above and Below Water

Breathing in and out of water is a trickier process and perhaps not exactly what you had imagined, but now that you have somewhat of an idea of how animals are capable of breathing above and below water let’s take a closer look at each critter and their breathing methods.

Tadpoles and Frogs

Frogs are probably the most well-known animals on this list that are capable of living both on land as well as in water, but how do they do it?

Well, that’s because they are amphibians, and certain animals in this category are able to live both on land and in water.

These specific amphibians actually have lungs, perhaps somewhat more primitive to ours, and they use them to breathe when they are on land, but when they are in the water they can also use their skin to breathe, a process known as cutaneous respiration. More so, if the oxygen in the water is too low they can use both their skin and their lungs.

Frogs can actually absorb oxygen through their skin and into their bloodstream when they are below water during hibernation.

What truly fascinated me about frogs is that these animals use different methods to breathe depending on what stage of their life they are at.

When frogs come out of their egg they are called tadpoles or polliwogs, and they are in the “aquatic larval stage of frogs“. During that stage of their life tadpoles have gills that they use to breathe underwater, but because gills are usually not enough most tadpoles also develop lungs and frequently surface to breathe air.

That being said, breaking through the water’s surface to breathe isn’t always possible, especially during the early stages of their life.

This led researchers to the astonishing discovery that “instead of breaching the water’s surface, the tadpoles were seen to bubble-suck.” Tadpoles will breathe using these bubbles until they are big enough to break through the surface and breathe properly.

So, not only are frogs able to breathe when they’re below water or above it during their mature stage, but they’ve also found a way to survive in and out of water during their tadpole stage!

Newt

While a newt is a salamander, not every salamander is a newt because while salamanders are usually aquatic animals, the term newt usually refers to salamanders that spend part of their lives living on land and in water.

So, in other words, a newt is a semiaquatic animal, and most of them will spend their lives in humid environments, and return to the water to breed and lay their eggs.

When newts are in their larvae stage, they use their gills to breathe, and when they become adults they use their fully-developed lungs. But in order to survive in the water, certain newts can also use their skin.

Axolotl

The axolotl is known for its alien appearance, as well as its Monalisa smile and I personally see it as a cute little creature that looks like a Pokemon.

But aside from their unique looks this Amphibian is also unlike other salamanders because they don’t go through a metamorphosis, instead, they remain in their larvae stage, which is called neoteny.

This means that they don’t lose the gills that they use to breathe underwater, and they are easy to spot because they look like small feathery horns coming out on each side of their head.

Aside from gills, they are also able to use their lungs and like frogs, they can also breathe through their skin.

That being said, axolotls are aquatic creatures, which means they spend their whole life underwater. But because they have lungs they can spend a certain amount of time on land, around an hour at best.

It’s also worth mentioning that depending on the oxygen levels in the water an axolotl can come up and use its lungs to breathe.

Anolis Lizard

While some amphibians have the remarkable ability to breathe oxygen in and out of the water thanks to their body, whether that be their skin, gills, or lungs, there are other animals that use the environment around them.

The Anolis lizard is a great example of that, because while these little lizards have lungs that they use to breathe outside of water, they can also “breathe underwater by trapping air in a bubble on their snouts.

Whenever the Anolis lizard feels threatened, they go underwater and they can stay there for 20 minutes by using this bubble. They actually do that by repeatedly breathing in and out of this bubble.

While this means that the semiaquatic Anolis lizard can survive in water, they don’t necessarily spend all their time in bodies of water, instead, they bask in vegetation hunting or they stay under tree bark, shingles, or in rotten logs.

Lungfish

It’s easy to assume that all fish can live and breathe underwater and they never need to resurface, at least not to breathe, but that’s not entirely true, and certainly isn’t true for the lungfish.

As the name suggests, lungfish have lungs, two lungs in fact, that can breathe air.

Of course, they do have gills that they also use to breathe underwater, but in order to survive they still have to resurface in order to breathe from their mouth, otherwise, they will drown.

Now, this might be enough to fascinate your mind, but you will be completely blown away to find out that the lungfish can survive out of water for up to four years.

So, if the water in the area where they live dries up, all they have to do is dig themselves into the mud and breathe through their lungs, until the water returns again!

Clingfish

Now the clingfish might not be the best example on our list, but I still think they are worth mentioning because they have also developed a way to basically breathe even when they are not submerged in water.

So, the northern clingfish only relies on its gills to breathe underwater, but because it’s often found in tide pools, they use their pelvic fins like suction cups. So, they basically glue themselves onto rocks.

If and when the tide dries out, the clingfish use their suction cups to trap moisture and they use their gills to breathe this way until the tide rolls back again.

The amphibious Chilean clingfish, however, use a different method when they come out of the water.

According to A.W. Ebeling of the Department of Biological sciences these fish “breathe air held in their gill cavities, probably through their gills. As they come out of the water, fish gulp air, then stop all opercular movements to seal their cavities.”

So, the clingfish has found a way to keep breathing no matter what!

Mudskipper

The mudskipper of the goby family is an amphibious fish that can survive in and out of water.

When they are in the water they use their gills just like any other fish, but when they are out they absorb the oxygen through their skin and mouth lining.

The most important thing for a mudskipper that’s been stranded ashore is staying moist because drying out is what kills them not the inability to breathe outside of water.

That’s why they have another trick up their sleeves, that’s carrying water in their gill chambers which also helps them breathe and stay moist for up to two days.

Intertidal Crabs

The fish and amphibians on our list aren’t the only animals that can breathe above and below water, and crabs have different mechanisms that help them survive when they are on land.

Some terrestrial and hermit crabs actually have both lungs and gills. Their lungs are called branchiostegal lungs and when they can’t use their gills to breathe, their body is capable of transitioning from an aquatic to a terrestrial dwelling thanks to these lungs.

The crabs that don’t have lungs rely on their gills at all times, but they still have a way of surviving even when they are out of the water by keeping their gills moist.

The blue crab, for example, can survive out of water for at least 24 hours because it has special articulating plates around its gills.

The blue crab is not the only species of crab that has articulating plates, other crabs will also suck in water and use these plates to close off their gills and keep them from drying out, while simultaneously using that water to breathe.

Woolly Sculpin

The woolly sculpin is another fish on our list that lives in tide pool areas, near bedrock, and the sand, but the reason why they made it here is their ability to breathe out of the water and survive for up to 24 hours!

That’s because “woolly sculpins, when on land, obtain 71 percent of their oxygen through their gills and oral membranes and 29 percent by breathing through their skin, called cutaneous respiration.” explains Martin a doctoral student at the University of California.

That might sound impossible, because as most of us know fish can’t use their gills when they are out of the water, instead they suffocate. That’s because gills that are exposed to air for too long can collapse.

Not when it comes to the woolly sculpin, because this fish has larger gills, and their thick structure keeps them from collapsing. So, that’s how this species of fish is able to breathe both under and above water.

Climbing Perch

While some fish look like they are quite capable of surviving out of the water and breathing the air we’re breathing, it may come as a surprise that this little regular-looking fish can also do it.

The climbing perch is an amphibious freshwater fish that’s native to Asia and it’s considered an invasive species.

This fish has an accessory air-breathing organ that they can use when they are out of the water, which allows them to survive not just for a couple of hours but several days, as long as they stay moist.

These accessory air-breathing organs are lungs, which means that the climbing perch has both gills and lungs to survive in and out of water.

The reason why they need lungs is that these fish need to be able to breathe when they crawl across dry land using sharp spines that are located on the extendable cover of their gills. This way they can travel from one waterhole to the next.

Snakehead Fish

The snakehead fish is the last fish species on our list that can breathe outside and within the water.

They can do that by using a suprabranchial organ, which is a supra-branchial chamber that is situated over the gills.

This organ allows the snakehead fish to breathe oxygen directly from the air like us by gulping it in through its mouth.

Just like the climbing perch, the snakehead fish can also travel on land by wriggling its body almost like a snake to get from one pond or stream to another.

This is an easy enough task to accomplish since this species can breathe out of the water and survive for up to four days!

Aquatic Insects

Since aquatic insects mostly live underwater it might be easy to assume that they have a certain organ like gills that helps them breathe like most fish, or that they at least have lungs when that they can use when they are on land, but that’s not the case.

So, when they are on land they breathe by taking in oxygen through the tiny holes or spiracles that are located along the sides of their bodies.

When they decide to go underwater they use the same tiny holes to trap air in them, and use them like an oxygen tank.

There are other insects that use their special spiracles mounted on the tips of spines to pierce the leaves of underwater plants and breathe the oxygen from the formed bubbles.

There are also aquatic insects that carry a bubble of air with them when they are underwater and use that to breathe.

It’s also worth mentioning that some of these insects spend part of their life or most of it underwater using these methods.

Diving Bell Spiders

The diving bell spider is the type of arachnid that spends its entire life underwater, but it can’t actually breathe like fish do.

As Professor Seymour and Dr. Hetz explain, “each spider constructs a net of silk in vegetation beneath the surface and fills it with air carried down on its abdomen and rear legs. The spiders spend their entire lives submerged and even lay their eggs in their diving bells.”

This little upside-down bubble house actually behaves like a gill by basically absorbing oxygen from the surrounding water and diffusing the carbon dioxide.

The spider still has to go to the surface to replenish the dome-shaped bubble, which it can do once a day.

Of course, this spider can’t simply stay in the bubble forever, it needs to hunt and even travel to the surface. So how does the diving bell spider breathe outside of her home?

Well, the water-repellent hairs on the spider’s body trap a thin layer of air and it basically serves as scuba skin.

So, theoretically, if the water spiders wanted to go and live on land they could breathe the air and survive, but instead, they prefer to use their makeshift breathing tanks and live below water!

What Animal Can Hold Their Breath the Longest?

While the animals on our list are capable of surviving both in and out of water, you might be wondering if there are animals that can survive staying underwater for a record-breaking time.

Well, when it comes to mammals the Cuvier’s beaked whale can hold its breath for 222 minutes, which is a record for diving mammals.

Despite what some people might think, whales can’t breathe underwater, instead, they swim up to the surface to breathe in through their blowhole that is located right on top of their heads. Once they’ve taken a good breath they dive back in.

While the Cuvier’s beaked whale can hold its breath for this long, there’s another animal that can hold it for longer. This animal belongs to the arachnid species, and it’s a scorpion.

Scorpions breathe through their book lungs, this is a type of breathing organ that is very similar to gills. If a scorpion ends up submerged, the book lungs can help it hold its breath for at least 2 days.

I also want to mention the loggerhead turtles, and while they can’t hold their breath as long as the Cuvier’s beaked whale, they can significantly surpass that number during hibernation.

The loggerhead turtle can hibernate on the bottoms of frozen bodies of water, and they can hold their breath for more than 10 hours!

Closing Thoughts

It’s incredible to see how different animals use their natural environment to breathe above and below water.

For me, the diving bell spider is simply the cutest example of that and in a way, humans use a similar technique to explore the deep waters, the scuba set!

It’s also amazing to see how the environment itself and years and years of evolution have given certain species the ability to breathe oxygen whether they are underwater or not.

So, if you’ve ever wondered which animals are able to survive in and out of the water then we hope this list has satisfied your curiosity!