Diary of a comparative nutritionist

Mike Maslanka

The 2024 Halver Lecture Series enabled the department to bring Mike Maslanka to Pullman in February when he spoke to a diverse and interested audience. He is the senior nutritionist and head of the Department of Nutrition Science at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, which is home to more than 2,200 animals representing almost 400 species. He leads one of the broadest and most respected zoo nutrition programs in the world.

Maslanka’s road to the National Zoo may be somewhat unexpected. He received a BS in forestry and wildlife science from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. His interest in nutrition began as an undergraduate student after his involvement in research at the university’s dairy, which ultimately lead to an MS in nutritional physiology from the Department of Animal Science at University of Minnesota where he worked closely with dairy cows. After graduate school, he completed a zoo nutrition residency at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Prior to joining the team at the National Zoo, Maslanka worked at zoos in Memphis and Fort Worth, and was the nutritionist at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.

Importance of Nutrition

During his lecture, Maslanka recounted several diet-related clinical cases from notes he has collected thus far in his career and of interest from a comparative nutrition perspective.

“Anyone who is working with a live animal collection has to focus on nutrition because it is integral to every single day of their existence and is imperative for their welfare,” Maslanka said. During his residency program at the Brookfield Zoo, Maslanka recalled that their team wanted to figure out why a small group of vampire bats at the zoo was not thriving. He explained that vampire bats must consume blood meals at least every 48 to 72 hours to avoid starvation. So, the bats were fed anticoagulated blood at 110% of their body weight every day. Even though they had plenty to eat, the bats still weren’t doing well. The team was baffled. Was the anticoagulant diluting the energy content of the blood? Was the roost space too large or not maintained at the correct environmental conditions? Maslanka and the rest of the team dug deeper and realized that this cauldron of bats was assembled from several smaller groups of ‘misfit’ bats. Vampire bats are very social and food sharing is important. The bats that do not leave the roost are fed by their ‘friends.’ They determined this group of vampire bats wasn’t a family and was therefore floundering. Ultimately, the bats were transferred to a different location to improve their social structure.

“Natural history plays a huge role in managed care,” he said. “Sometimes we recognize it early. Initially, we didn’t dig deep enough to consider the social component for the struggling vampire bats.”

While at the Georgia Aquarium, Maslanka tried to determine why a couple of whale sharks in the exhibit were not eating. He focused on their diet and consulted the Nutrient Requirements of Fish, published by the National Research Council and the 2nd Edition of Fish Nutrition, writ-ten by the late Dr. John Halver, the benefactor of the Halver Lecture. Unfortunately, both publications are geared toward fish production. He needed to know what a whale shark, the world’s largest fish, eats in the wild?

“If you want the answer, sometimes you’re not going to find it in a book,” he said. “If there isn’t enough information in the literature then you have to go out in the field to find answers.”

Swimming with Whale Sharks

Whale shark

So, the man who couldn’t swim endured sea-sickness aboard a boat amid the world’s largest feeding aggregation of whale sharks in the ocean off the Yucatán peninsula. He and the team used plankton tows to collect samples right next to feeding sharks and used a microscope to deter-mine what they were eating. He noted the whale sharks fed for eight hours and each shark consumed about 25 kg of zooplankton a day. Armed with this knowledge, Maslanka went back to Georgia and purchased 100,000 copepods, a planktonic crustacean. Excited that he had found the solution to the whale sharks’ anorexia, he poured the copepods into the water and watched the sharks reject the food source and then witnessed $70,000 worth of copepods get sucked into the water filtration system. Maslanka and his team then tube fed the whale sharks countless times to unsuccessfully save their lives.

“Necropsy is the last lesson an animal teaches us. This provides a ton of value,” Maslanka said. “We performed the first clinical necropsy of a whale shark, documenting new anatomical structures. The challenge of solving anorexia led to new discoveries that may assist us in the future.”

World’s Largest Animal Milk Repository

A unique contribution the National Zoo provides to the zoo world is that it maintains the largest repository of animal milk in the world, containing more than 16,000 samples. The Cincinnati Zoo reached out to Maslanka in 2017 for help fol-lowing the premature birth of a hippopotamus calf now known as Fiona. Unfortunately, there was no hippo milk in the collection and zoo staff members had to learn how to milk a hippo so they could analyze the milk’s nutrient composition and replicate the formula to the best of their ability. Fiona is now a thriving, normal hippo and is only one example of how the scientists at the milk repository help save and preserve endangered animals.

Maslanka closed his presentation with some advice for the audience that included WSU students, staff, and faculty, and the late Dr. John Halver’s sons, John and Peter.

“We work with animals but to be successful you must work with people and be good at it. Many people made my stories possible. Consider that it is a little about the animals and a lot about the people. Continue to build relationships and make sure that they are functional because that is how we save species.”

The Halver Lecture is funded by the family of the late Dr. John E. Halver, III (1922 – 2012), a WSU alumnus who receive a BS in chemistry at Washington State in 1944. He is known as the “Father of Fish Nutrition” because of his nutrition research with salmon that established the basis of commercialized fish feed.