The effects of anoxic submergence (20 h at 5 degrees C) and subsequent 24 h aerobic recovery on the antioxidant systems of six organs were examined in freshwater turtles, Trachemys scripta elegans. Both xanthine oxidase and xanthine dehydrogenase were detected in turtle tissues with xanthine oxidase composing 36-75% of the total activity. Turtle organs displayed high constitutive activities of catalase (CAT), superoxide dismutase (SOD), and alkyl hydroperoxide reductase (AHR). Measurements of lipid peroxidation damage products (conjugated dienes, lipid hydroperoxides, thiobarbituric acid reactive substances) showed minimal changes during anoxia or recovery suggesting that natural anoxic-aerobic transitions occur without the free radical damage that is seen during ischemia-reperfusion in mammals. Anoxia exposure led to selected decreases in enzyme activities in organs, consistent with a reduced potential for oxidative damage during anoxia: SOD decreased in liver by 30%, CAT decreased in heart by 31%, CAT and total glutathione peroxidase (GPOX) decreased in kidney (by 68 and 41%), and CAT and SOD decreased in brain (by 80 and 15%). AHR, however, increased 2 and 3.5 fold during anoxia in heart and kidney respectively. Most anoxia-induced changes were reversed during aerobic recovery although brain enzyme activities remained suppressed. Some specific changes occurred during the recovery period: SOD increased from controls in heart by 45%, AHR increased to 200 and 168% of control values in red and white muscle respectively, and total GPOX decreased from controls in heart and white muscle by 75 and 77% respectively. The results show that biochemical adaptation for natural anoxia tolerance in turtles includes well-developed antioxidant defenses that minimize or prevent damage by reactive oxygen species during the reoxygenation of organs after anoxic submergence.