Smithsonian-Mason team keeps watch, so elephants can doze off


Because elephants only sleep three to four hours a night, and frequently wake during that time, their sleep is a precious commodity.

Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation student Eva Noroski and Mason alumna and Elephant Trails keeper Ashley Fortner stand side-by-side in front of an elephant enclosure at the National Zoo.   A small Asian elephant resting her trunk on the enclosure railing peeks in between the two women.
Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation student Eva Noroski (left) works with Mason Alumna and Elephant Trails Keeper Ashley Fortner to research elephant sleep patterns at the National Zoo. Photo by: Shelby Burgess/Strategic Communications/George Mason University

That’s why George Mason University senior Eva Noroski has spent a month this semester assisting 2017 Mason alumna and Elephant Trails keeper Ashley Fortner at the National Zoo, researching how these massive mammals can get optimal sleep.

“Sleep is super important for the elephants because they don’t actually do a lot of it,” said Fortner, who studied for a year at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation (SMSC).

“Eva’s work is actually directly, every day, impacting how we take care of the elephants.”

Noroski has been accessing footage from the Smithsonian’s camera system to monitor the elephants from 5 p.m. until 5 a.m., and logging what she observes. In particular, she’s tracking Kamala, a female elephant who has arthritis, which causes her difficulty in laying down and getting up.

“I’m trying to determine which elephants she sleeps best with, if she sleeps best by herself, if there are any social dynamics that appear during the night that I can let the keepers know about,” said Noroski, an environmental science major and conservation studies minor. “That’s all really significant information because their sleep is important to their health, and if any mammal is losing sleep, they could become more susceptible to illness.”

Noroski’s findings will help management create pairings that offer the best sleep for each of their five elephants, said Fortner, who graduated from Mason with a integrative studies degree and a concentration on applied global conservation.

When Noroski isn’t behind the computer, she can be found performing zookeeping tasks, and shadowing Fortner as she interacts with, trains, and completes wellness checks with the elephants.

“I have made great connections, not only with people here at the zoo, but also with my [SMSC] teachers who are active conservationists,” Noroski said. “They’re super willing to help students find opportunities as well as connect us with other people—that’s a really unique thing you can’t just get in any conservation program.”

That’s exactly why Fortner said she also “fell in love” with the SMSC program.

“It means so much,” Fortner said of being able to mentor students in the same way she was mentored. “Once I found my path, I found that having those practicums and hands-on learning experiences helped me make that decision.”

“For the mentor side of it, it’s giving back to the conservation community,” she said. “It was really important for me to not only take care of elephants and give back to conservation in that way, but to help people that also want to do this see that this is possible.”

Noroski, who grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said she chose Mason after researching schools with the best conservation programs.

Being at SMSC with a small cohort of students and teachers is one of the most rewarding parts, she and Fortner agreed.

“It’s a great program where you get really personal attention, as well as amazing practical experience that you will not just be able to find anywhere else,” Noroski said. “You are put in a position where you are pretty much handed useful, practical experience in the real working world.

“That’s invaluable when you’re an undergrad and trying to get your foot in the door,” she said.