PaO2, PaCO2 and pHa were measured via an extracorporeal loop in conscious snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) breathing air or hypoxic (10, 15% O2), hyperoxic (30% O2), or hypercapnic (2% CO2) gases. Turtles breathed into an inverted funnel ventilated with the test gas. Breathing was recorded with a differential pressure transducer. In all turtles, nonventilatory periods were interrupted by breathing episodes containing multiple breaths. In normoxia, PaO2 at the end of nonventilatory periods ranged from 22-128 mm Hg, although PaCO2 showed a less than 5 mm Hg variation about the mean. There was a positive correlation between PaCO2 at the end of the nonventilatory period and the number of breaths in the succeeding period of ventilation. PaCO2 at the end of nonventilatory periods did not change significantly in hyperoxia, although mean PaO2 was significantly increased. In hypoxia, on the other hand, mean PaO2 was significantly reduced and PaCO2 at the end of the nonventilatory period was slightly, but significantly lower. Nonventilatory periods were shorter when turtles breathed 15% O2 (9.3 +/- 1.2 min) or 10% O2 (5.5 +/- 0.3 min) than when they breathed air (17.6 +/- 3.4 min). The results indicate that, in undisturbed turtles, the most important stimulus triggering a breathing episode is the rise in PaCO2 to a critical value during the preceding nonventilatory period. An increase in hypoxic drive shortens the nonventilatory period. However, in normoxia, PaO2 at the end of many nonventilatory periods probably does not fall sufficiently to stimulate O2-sensitive chemoreceptors.