Byline: Laura Diamond, Times-Union staff writer
As students wait to enter the cafeteria, they push their faces against a glass window and stare at the creatures living in the courtyard at Fort Caroline Middle School.
In a fenced-off area, six gopher tortoises slowly climb out of their burrows. They inch toward the sunny area and begin eating the collard greens laid out for them.
The animals came to the school in late August. Science teacher Mike Monlezun organized the donation of the animals and formed an after-school herpetology club for students interested in reptiles and amphibians.
Beyond spending time with the tortoises, the dozen students in the club study the seven snakes and two lizards that live in Monlezun's classroom.
"There's really nothing like this anywhere and it makes science more fun when you get to touch the animals," said Chris Garcia, a sixth-grader and member of the club.
By raising some of the tortoises at school, Monlezun hopes students will learn about the way different animals depend on each another.
While not an endangered species, gopher tortoises are in decline as developers build new housing projects within their habitat. This development threatens the tortoise and other animals.
Gopher tortoises dig burrows to live in. Once they leave the burrows, other animals move in. Researchers estimate that more than 300 other animals depend on the burrows.
Monlezun, who is president of the Jacksonville Herpetological Society, heard about a woman who was moving and had to get rid of 10 gopher tortoises. He contacted her and she agreed to donate six to the school -- one male and five females.
Ultimately, Monlezun wants to create a mini-ecosystem in the 1,000-foot fenced-in area. Only the tortoises live there now, but Monlezun plans to add snakes and other creatures.
"I want students to be able to experience science," Monlezun said. "I figured this would be a way to get them interested."
Students already study the tortoises and their habitats.
They will map the burrows the animals dig and try to determine how deep they go and whether they connect underground. The burrows can be 15 feet deep and 40 feet long. Students will use algebra to determine the angles of the burrows.
Monlezun plans to soon mark the six tortoises so students tell each one apart. Students will be assigned a tortoise to observe and note its habits, such as when the animal comes out of its burrow and when it eats. …