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​​Do Lizards Breathe Through Their Nose?

If you are a fan of lizards, or just interested, you may be wondering how and where they breathe from… 

Do lizards breathe through their nose?

Yes, lizards do breathe through their noses. They draw in the air much the same way as you’d expect, by drawing air into their nose, where it passes through the palate, down the throat, and finally into the bronchi.  

So, now you know. But, how do they actually breathe? Is it true that they can breathe through their skin? How often do they breathe? Keep reading for these answers, and much more…

How does a lizard breathe?

A brown lizard.

A brown lizard.

A lizard breathes by drawing air into their lung like most animals, though it is an interesting fact that most of them cannot breathe while running. You’ll notice that we said most, and this brings us to the Monitor lizard, which utilizes a species-specific technique of pumping air into their throats by the means of sacs that are located there.

With the exception of speedy reptiles like the Monitor Lizard, breathing will always be achieved while still and by inhaling air through the nose and down the throat to their lungs and since they cannot breathe while running, this is why you see lizards darting about in short, but quick dashes followed by quick stops. They’re catching their breath!

Can lizards breathe through their skin?

While you may have heard that lizards can breathe through their skin, this is incorrect, although some amphibians look a bit like lizards and can certainly do this. Many desert lizards can draw in water through microtubules in their skin and this is another possible source for the misconception that some lizards can breathe that way.

How often do lizards breathe?

While it will vary by species, a 1975 study of the Dwarf Gecko measured a typical breathing rate of 24 – 39 breaths per minute, depending on how warm it is outside. For instance, around 70 degrees, the Geckos breaths per minute will likely be closer to 24, but as the temperature rises up to around 81 degrees or above then the rate was a steady 39 breaths per minute.

 If you compare it to a human, you might be surprised, as a healthy adult only tends to take about 12 breaths per minute!

Does a lizard have a nose?

Lizards not only have noses, but their noses come with some additional functionality which they share with snakes. Aside from their normal scent receptors, they have another receptor knows as ‘Jacobsen’s organ’.

Lizards use this organ by flicking out their tongues, much like snakes do, to get a tiny sample of odor particles. These samples get flicked to the Jacobson’s organ, telling the lizard all kinds of useful things by means of instant chemical analysis.

This helps them to locate hidden food, sense nearby predators, and also to read chemical cues that a potential mate might be ready to reproduce.

How long can a lizard hold its breath underwater?

A lizard partially submerged in water.

A lizard partially submerged in water.

While most lizards aren’t going to be able to hold their breath for very long, in Costa Rica there is an anole that has evolved a defense mechanism of diving from a tree into the water, where it is able to ‘breathe’ underwater by means of a trapped air bubble on top of its head!

This bubble functions like a tiny scuba tank, and the lizard has a number of smaller air pockets adhering to its skin, allowing this anole to stay underwater for up to 16 minutes at a time. The record goes to Marine Iguanas, however, who can hold their breath underwater for as long as 30 minutes at a time!

Can lizards breathe and walk?

No. Most lizards cannot do this, although there are some exceptions. The reason for this is that the muscles that help a lizard’s lungs to inflate efficiently are the same ones that it uses for walking.  Some of the faster lizards, however, like monitors, have got a workaround for that.

The Australian perentie is an example of this, able to run about 20 miles per hour in pursuit of its prey. While the lizard is running, sacs in its throat are pumping air into the lungs, making this lizard a distance runner rather than a sprint runner like its cousins.

How fast do lizards breathe?

Depending on the temperature, it will be 24 to 39 breaths per minute, with warmer temperatures raising the rate from the base of 24 as the temperature rises. If you’d like a little comparison, adult humans breathe about half or a little under that, at 12 breaths per minute. Pigeons are closer to lizards, clocking in at around 25 to 30 breaths per minute.

This fast rate of breathing is very important for lizards, due to the ‘walk or breathe’ limitation inherent in most lizard species. After they make those lightning-fast sprints to catch a tummy bug or escape a foe, they must stop and rest to get their oxygen levels back to normal. This makes fast breathing both a practical and an optimal solution for lizards.

Why do lizards breathe fast?

Lizards breathe fast out of necessity. As the musculature that they use when they are walking is the same for pumping air into their lungs, most lizards have to stay still to breathe. While this makes them seem ‘slow’, we’ve all seen how fast they can move, but this is limited to short sprints with a quick stop so that the lizard can catch its breath.

If you’ve noticed how a lizard moves, by twisting their bodies as their feet push and pull them forward, then you’ve seen the muscles we are talking about at work. They serve to rotate the ribs and when they are not doing this, they are flexing to oxygenate the lizard’s lungs.  

How are some lizards able to breathe underwater?

When it comes to lizards staying submerged for long periods of time, there are two that come most often into a conversation. The only one that technically ‘breathes’ underwater doesn’t do it by the means of gills like a fish does, or by absorbing oxygen through the skin like an amphibian.

The ‘Scuba-diving’ anole uses bubbles of air that stick to its snout! By means of breathing and rebreathing this bubble, the anole is able to get every bit of oxygen from it and use it like a 16-minute scuba tank.

This is quite useful for the anole, as this defense can hide them for long enough that predators give up and go away. While Marine Iguanas can stay under longer, with 30-minute sessions being quite common, they accomplish this the old-fashioned way… by simply holding their breath.

How do lizards breathe under sand?

The ‘Algerian Sandfish’ is a type of skink that has evolved as a means of breathing under the sand, as an efficient means of hiding both from predators and from the oppressive desert heat. By undulating its muscles and tucking in its limbs, this lizard can paddle with its hands to gracefully swim through the sands and it can breathe air particles trapped between grains of sand.

While you’d think that this would result in a nose full of sand, the Sandfish is also equipped for that, and their respiratory tract is shaped in such a way that it can catch offending sand particles before they get to the lungs, which the lizard can expel by means of sneezing.

This makes sand-swimming sound a little less fun, but regardless of the sneezing that’s a pretty impressive trick for this little skink of the desert sands!


Hi, this is me with my daughter and my Lizard friend. I hope you enjoy my research. Please feel free to check out my "About Me" page to find out more about me.