Jeff Beane isn’t what you’d typically call a “people person.”
As manager of the N.C. Museum of Natural Science’s herpetology collection, he works with the thousands of dead snakes, salamanders, turtles and frogs that float in jars at a West Raleigh lab.
He spends much of his free time radio-tracking snakes or counting road kills. He’ll admit with deadpan humor that he finds most of the species he’s encountered in decades of exploration more interesting than humans.
Yet much of his tireless work, which has earned him several conservation awards, has a distinctly human element. Whether he’s writing magazine articles, speaking to museum groups, or patiently helping a caller identify a backyard visitor, Beane is continually educating people about the natural world he loves.
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Earlier this month, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission honored Beane with one of its most prestigious awards – one in a line of honors for both his scholarship on reptiles and amphibians, known collectively as “herps,”and his work in raising public awareness of conservation issues.
Jeff Hall, a biologist with the commission who nominated him, says Beane was among the first to raise the alarm over the disappearance of native river frogs, and his studies have shed light on the habits and prevalence of a number of native species. Yet Hall notes that Beane’s outreach efforts have greatly magnified his impact.
If everyone he has contact with was able to absorb just a small fraction of his love for nature, this world would be a much better place.
Jeff Hall, a biologist with NC Wildlife Resources Commission
“[Beane] understands that it is critical that the larger conservation community and the general public be well informed about ‘herp’ and to care about the natural world, so he takes every opportunity to share his knowledge and passion,” Hall says. “If everyone he has contact with was able to absorb just a small fraction of his love for nature, this world would be a much better place.”
For the love of snakes
Beane grew up in Asheboro, and says he always enjoyed the outdoors. His father loved to fish, and he would tag along, spending much of his time looking for frogs and snakes.
He was also fascinated with the way people misunderstood and feared animals, particularly snakes.
“I was always taught to be afraid of snakes, but no one told me why,” he says. “As soon as I could read, I figured out that everything everyone was saying was wrong.”
Beane recalls coming to the state science museum, then a small affair housed in the old agriculture building, when he was a schoolchild. He says he was both fascinated and dismayed as his class rushed through the exhibits.
“I wanted to stay there forever,” he says.
He worked a few summers at the Asheboro zoo, and earned a zoology degree from N.C. State University. He later earned a certificate in taxidermy, thinking he might make that his career.
But in 1985, he lucked into a part-time job as a technician in the science museum’s collection. It was, and remains, his dream job.
While his position has long been full time and he has moved up the ranks, his overall duties are the same as they were 30 years ago: preserving and cataloging specimens, helping people use them for research, as well as doing his own research to shed light on their significance.
“What we really do is document the natural history of the state,” he says.
For a time, he oversaw different parts of the collection, amassing expertise in areas such as arthropods, fish and mammals. He took over the herpetology collection in 1995, and his expertise in that arena belies his lack of advanced degrees.
He was the lead author of the most recent edition of the comprehensive book “Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia,” and has written dozens of papers – both scientific ones and others aimed at a popular audience – about amphibians and reptiles in the state.
His work studying the Southern hognose snake over 28 years resulted in a paper published last year that was among the most detailed study of that species ever done.
State agencies and other groups often call on him with questions about native amphibians and reptiles, and he’s also quick with answers to the regular people who call in with questions about all manner of animals.
He rattles off obscure details easily: the name for the neck fan some lizards display is called a “dewlap,” for instance, or the fact that this week marked the 40th anniversary of the last time a river frog was seen in North Carolina.
The specimens kept at his lab, which shares a site with Prairie Ridge Ecostation, include more than a million species, most from North Carolina but some from as far away as Asia. Some were brought in after being hit by cars, while most were part of other collections acquired by the museum.
Humans are just another species going through time.
Beane works long days, and admits that the way he spends his free time bears a strong resemblance to his time at work.
“When I go on vacation, I look at animals, I take pictures of them, and I pick up specimens,” he says. “It’s hard for me to separate my life from what I do for a job. It’s more like a calling.”
One of his current projects includes installing radio transmitters to track the activity and home range of various native snakes – a time-consuming endeavor that has yielded coveted information about an animal whose habits are difficult to track.
He’s also doing a survey on a stretch of road less than a mile long, which he walks periodically to record every dead vertebrate he sees to create a database that could be used for research. Another initiative he’s part of is trying to gather information on bog turtle habitats in an effort to protect them.
He edits the newsletter of the N.C. Herpetological Society, and serves as vice president of the Wake County Audubon Society, taking part in the group’s annual 24-hour animal count and helping to arrange monthly speakers.
When it comes to the latter, he says he seeks to expand the group’s interests beyond birds. When he writes for Wildlife in North Carolina magazine, put out by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, he tries to write about species other than bass and deer.
“I just try to reach people and teach them things they wouldn’t know otherwise,” he says. “I like to make sure people are still learning.”
Beane doesn’t try to persuade the humans he encounters to preserve nature for their grandchildren. He figures the more they know about the world around them, they’ll want to save it.
“The world deserves to exist for what it is, for its own sake,” he says. “Humans are just another species going through time.”
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Jeffrey Charles Beane
Born: August 1960, Asheboro
Residence: Raleigh (with a weekend home in Moore County)
Career: Collections manager of Herpetology, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences
Awards: Thomas L. Quay Wildlife Diversity Award, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, 2015; Extra Effort Award, N.C. Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, 2014; Wildlife Conservationist of the Year, Governor’s Conservation Achievement Award, N.C. Wildlife Federation, 2012
Education: B.S. zoology, N.C. State University; taxidermy diploma, Montgomery Community College
Notable: The herpetology collection Beane oversees, as well as fish and invertebrate specimens, are housed separately from the rest of the museum’s collection because the quantity of flammable liquid required to preserve them is considered a safety hazard for a public building.