National Zoo nutritionist to reflect on exotic species, career firsts at WSU’s Halver Lecture

Maslanka with eagle owl
Helping improve health of mammals, reptiles, and birds at U.S. zoos and aquariums, Mike Maslanka, senior nutritionist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo, will give the Halver Lecture in Comparative Nutrition, Feb. 27, at WSU Pullman. Above, he encounters a Eurasian eagle owl at the National Zoo. This large, charismatic species is common in zoo educational programs.

As senior nutritionist for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo, Mike Maslanka solves diet-related riddles in a world of exotic and threatened species.

Maslanka will reflect on some of his greatest challenges and successes, which include studying whale sharks and milking exotic animals, at the annual Halver Lecture in Comparative Nutrition, 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27, at Washington State University’s Pullman campus.

“In comparative nutrition, the problems change, not just from one day to the next, but hour to hour and minute to minute,” Maslanka said. “There’s no one place in a book where you can look up all the answers.”

A manager, a problem solver, and frequently a sleuth of nutritional mysteries, Maslanka has kept a logbook of his daily casework for more than 25 years. For the Halver Lecture, he will turn to its pages to detail some of the toughest and most interesting wildlife nutrition cases of his career.

Since 2007, Maslanka has worked at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., home to more than 2,100 animals from nearly 400 species. He also oversees clinical nutrition at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., where scientists investigate nutrition and health in populations of cheetahs, black-footed ferrets, loggerhead shrikes, scimitar-horned oryx, Przewalski’s horses, and other animals.

Some exotic animal diets can be developed through comparison to those of domestic animals.

“Others are brand new, out of the blue, and you have to learn a lot,” Maslanka said. “I’ve had opportunities to work with a lot of firsts.” 

The National Zoo has one of the world’s largest collections of animal milk in the world. Maslanka’s team has milked birds, orangutans, and porcupines, among other animals. Scientists study the milk to improve their hand-rearing efforts.

“Sometimes it’s necessary to bottle-feed baby animals in the collection,” Maslanka said. “If we’re faced with doing it, we’d better make sure we’re doing it right.”

Maslanka with whale shark
Mike Maslanka, center, facing down, helps with a veterinary assessment of a newly arrived female whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium. During his more-than-25-year career studying diets and health in animals, Maslanka led pioneering field work on whale shark feeding habits.

Earlier in his career, while at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Maslanka was part of a pioneering effort to understand the diet of whale sharks. The length of a school bus and weighing up to 11 tons, these gentle giants open their six-foot mouths to filter plankton, shrimp, fish eggs, and other morsels from the ocean. Maslanka’s observations of free-ranging whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico helped fine-tune diets for the few captive ones in the U.S.

“We’re always assessing body condition,” Maslanka said.

Measuring and weighing animals and examining their skin, coats, adipose tissues, or poop helps nutritionists gauge their health. In the case of whale sharks, that means swimming the huge fish into floating stalls for inspection and measurement as helpers flow water across their gills.

“You enjoy the animals that present you with problems you can solve,” Maslanka said. “Throughout the process you learn something about them.”

Then there are those few species whose challenges stubbornly refuse to be solved despite decades of work. One of Maslanka’s first dietary assignments as a resident at the Chicago-area Brookfield Zoo was to help minimize kidney stones in Asian small-clawed otters. The problem still challenges scientists today.

Galapagos tortoise with Maslanka
Maslanka and peers spent a week defining diets of Galapagos tortoises. “We followed them around and sampled what they ate—applied and simple (work), yet very valuable.”

Migration offers another nutritional challenge for animal caregivers. Maslanka helps improve the diets of birds at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, where researchers address the decline of rare and iconic avian species.

“Some of our shorebirds migrate from the southern tip of South America to the Arctic,” he said. “We’ve learned that their gastrointestinal tract atrophies. When they reach Chesapeake Bay to forage, it takes a while to get their tract functioning.”

Keepers must understand and address these natural changes in birds, as well as in land animals that exhibit migratory restlessness several times a year. Animals store energy for migration in the form of fat. Diet and exercise help maintain a healthy condition, and nutritionists are constantly learning how to keep species’ diets in balance.

“It’s husbandry, nutrition, and veterinary care, all at the same time,” Maslanka said.

He encourages budding animal scientists to take an interest in nutrition beyond domestic animals and pets. More wildlife nutritionists are needed, but Maslanka wants newcomers to understand that the job is not easy. It’s complex but engaging and sometimes, a lot of fun.

“It takes uncommon dedication to be a lifelong learner,” he said. “We are passionate individuals who make discoveries every day to improve animal welfare and conservation.”

• The 2024 Halver Lecture, “Diary of a Comparative Nutritionist,” is 5-6 p.m. Feb. 27, at 116 Todd Hall, hosted by WSU’s Department of Animal Sciences. Through the support of the Halver family, this event is free and open to all.

Maslanka with rhino, Kenya
Helping discuss body condition scoring, Maslanka traveled to Kenya to assist with a course on black rhino husbandry, veterinary care, and nutrition. Learn more about his work with the Smithsonian Institution here.