Poison Frogs & Volunteering

Poison Frogscontributed by: Sarah McGrath

I discovered early on that I was fascinated with the animal kingdom and enjoyed being out in nature.  My mother signed me up as a Jr. Curator with the Greensboro Science Center during high school and it was there that I found my affinity for reptiles and amphibians.  I loved working in the herpetology lab and learning about the various reptiles and amphibians that inhabited each unique terrarium. As a zoology student at North Carolina State University, I attended a career fair where a representative from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Tullie Johnson, was handing out pamphlets on museum volunteer and internship positions. I decided to give it a shot and applied to become a volunteer.

I volunteered with Living Collections during my sophomore year and gained experience with a wide variety of species there, focusing on salamanders and turtles. During my senior year I applied to the internship program at the museum and began work on a project centered on poison dart frog husbandry.  Poison frogs were a group of amphibians that I had no previous experience with, and because of my recent study abroad experience in Brazil, I was excited to begin a project focused on the husbandry, or captive management, of a species endemic to the Brazilian Amazon known as Adelphobates galactonotus.  Poison frogs are amazing creatures known for their charismatic bright colors.  The museum has a large exhibit which demonstrates different species in a naturalistic habitat.  Poison frogs, also known as poison dart or poison arrow frogs, are also known for their toxicity.  The use of toxic secretions from frogs by some South American tribes to poison their weapons has dominated many people’s perception of these colorful amphibians.  One of the best parts of my internship was talking to the public during exhibit feedings and explaining that dart frogs are not poisonous in captivity because it is their diet in the wild that allows them to secrete toxins.

I began volunteering in 2010.  Now, a college graduate, my experiences at the museum began my career in herpetology.  I have held herpetological technician positions with other organizations and am currently working with another science museum in Nantucket.  I am looking forward to continuing my education and obtaining a graduate degree to further my study of reptiles and amphibians, focusing on herpetological conservation.

History of the Volunteer Program

Volunteers have been a vital part of the Museum for more than a century!  Come take a walk with me down memory lane, let’s see how it all began…

Allow me to introduce you to who could likely be considered the Museum’s earliest exhibit hall docent, Colonel Fred A. Olds.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him?  His statue stands on the front steps of our neighbor, the North Carolina Museum of History, and if you’ve ever traveled down Dixie Trail near NC State University, you may recall passing Fred A. Olds Elementary School.  Colonel Olds (1853-1935) was a lifelong history enthusiast, spending much of his life collecting items connected to North Carolina’s past.  In 1902, his private collection of historical artifacts merged with the State Museum’s (now known as the NC Museum of Natural Sciences) and thus gave rise to the Hall of History (which would later grow into today’s NC Museum of History).  With his love of people, especially children, combined with being a master storyteller, Colonel Olds apparently spent a good bit of time in the Hall of History captivating Museum visitors with his enthusiasm and awe about social history – history about the people and for the people.

In 1934, coinciding at about the time that Colonel Olds’ health was failing, the State Museum partnered with the local chapter of the Junior League.  In this arrangement, League members provided tour guide services to visiting school groups and prepared written materials relating to the various Museum exhibits.  The members of the Junior League considered their volunteer services to be a fitting tribute to the memory of Colonel Olds who passed away at the age of 81 and was buried in downtown Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery.


Colonel Fred A. Olds statue in front of NC Museum of History, photo NCMNS/Linda Saah

Now, let’s flash forward to the late 1970’s when the real fun began for Museum volunteers!  Mary Ann Brittain had recently joined the Museum’s staff as the new Curator of School Services (later retiring as the Director of School Programs) and began developing those fun and engaging animal-based programs that we know as Curiosity Classes.  The demands of these popular hands-on programs gave rise to the Museum’s Volunteer Program.  In January of 1978, fourteen volunteers completed the Museum’s first docent training course of six 2-hour training sessions, enabling these new docents to deliver programs on birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians to visiting school groups.  The Museum was now in a position to offer more programs and to do so in a better way, and this still holds true today thanks to volunteers!


Tullie Johnson leading Curiosity Class, Feb 1990, photo NCMNS/archives

Those early days brought rapid growth to the Volunteer Program.  Exhibit Hall Docents came on-board “to greet, entertain, and educate museum visitors” throughout the exhibit halls on the weekends.  A Junior Naturalists program was established in which local youth created and maintained a “life wall” where native live animal specimens were exhibited.  The successful Junior Curators program also began and still flourishes today, attracting teen volunteers who possess an intense interest in the natural sciences and animal husbandry.

These days, the Museum relies heavily on volunteers to help serve the million or so visitors the Museum now receives annually.  Volunteers have opportunities throughout the Museum from working behind the scenes in Research & Collections or caring for the Museum’s numerous live animals to working in the limelight educating and interacting with visitors from around the globe.  We are deeply indebted to Museum volunteers past, present and future for their time, talents, and love of natural history.

~~ Compiled by Linda Saah using the following resources:  the April 1978 issue of “Whalebones: the Newsletter of the State Museum of Natural History”; a manuscript by Eloise F. Potter “The North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences, 1879-1990”; and phone conversation with Mary Ann Brittain; as well as these websites: http://www.ncdcr.gov/ncmoh/AboutUs/History.aspx and http://oldses.wcpss.net/who-was-fred-a-olds.html

For more about the history of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, go to: http://naturalsciences.org/about-us/museum-history

To learn more about the Volunteer Program at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, go to:http://naturalsciences.org/volunteer

Volunteer Opportunities

A variety of volunteer opportunities are available at the Museum, from working behind the scenes on fossil preparation to presenting natural science programs to visiting school groups.

To explore and learn more about the Volunteer Program after submitting your application, you must attend an “Introductory” session.  The sessions are offered twice monthly—2nd Saturday at 10 am or following Tuesday at 1 pm.  At the introductory session you’ll learn about the volunteer program, benefits, current volunteer opportunities, select an area to volunteer, and meet area supervisors.