After his return in 1932, Tanner attended Brigham Young University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1936. Tanner prepared a thesis about the snakes of Utah for his Master of Science in 1937.
He has been associated with Brigham Young University (Brigham Young University), in Provo, Utah for much of his life and has published extensively on the snakes and salamanders of the Great Basin. Tanner was the fourth of John and Lois Ann Tanner"s five children. Vasco M., one of Tanner"s brothers, was also a naturalist who taught at Brigham Young University. On January 4, 1935, in the Salt Lake Temple Tanner married Helen Brown, with whom he had three children.
Ottella died November 21, 2003.
He then began a doctorate, but was delayed by World World War II until 1946. At that time, Tanner was working as an assistant for Edward Harrison Taylor at Kansas University.
Wilmer obtained his Doctor of Philosophy in 1948 with a thesis on comparative anatomy of salamanders of Mexico and Central America. In 1950, Tanner joined the Brigham Young University faculty.
In 1961 it was reported that Tanner, then an associate professor of zoology and entomology at Brigham Young University, was in the midst of a four-year study of the effect on Utah wildlife from exposure to higher natural radiation (from petrified trees which can concentrate radioactive minerals), resulting in areas with a 10 to 20 microcurie higher radiation level per hour than is typical of the surrounding geography.
Tanner served as the curator of the Brigham Young University"s Life Sciences Museum from 1972 to 1979. In the late 70s, he helped process a large donation of samples and convinced the donor to fund a new building for the museum. The Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum opened to the public in 1978 and over the ensuing years increased staff were hired, educational exhibits developed and scientific activities funded.
Tanner published over 130 scientific articles, fifteen describing new species and genera.
He was the publisher of Herpetologica magazine for 18 years. He has also served as president of the Provo Energy Board.
Tanner was a member of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was one-time president of the Herpetologists" League.