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by Nicole Elmer, May 2020

W. (William) Frank Blair was a zoologist who developed an international reputation in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology. He conducted major research projects on subjects such as the genus Bufo and its parallels in the faunas of desert regions in North and South America. The latter project led to his involvement in the International Biological Program, a fifty-seven-nation project sponsored by the International Council of Scientific Unions, which had as its major goal the achievement of a better understanding of the world's ecosystems.

Blair was born on June 25, 1912, at Dayton, Texas, the eldest of the five children of Percy Franklin and Mona Clyde (Patrick) Blair. His family moved to Westville, Oklahoma, in 1916 and to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1922. Blair graduated from Tulsa Central High School in 1930 and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Tulsa in 1934. He married Fern Antell, a librarian at the University of Tulsa. They would have no children.

Blair obtained his bachelor’s degree at the University of Tulsa in 1934, his master’s degree in 1936 from the University of Florida, and his PhD at the University of Michigan in 1938. As part of his dissertation, Blair made contributions to the developing concepts of mammalian home range. When World War II began, Blair was drafted and spent most of his time in the Air Force Altitude Training and Survival Programs. He was honorably discharged as Captain, and resumed his work at the University of Michigan. He was offered a position at UT Austin in 1946 which he accepted, and was promoted to professor in 1955.

In his research, Blair expanded his prior emphasis on mammals to all vertebrates. He noted there was a need to have a new identification guide, and with some colleagues developed the widely-used Vertebrates of the United States. 

 Bufo woodhousii
 Woodhouse's Toad, Bufo woodhousii (Photo: LA Dawson, Austin Reptile Service)

In the 1950s, Blair noticed that the mating call of frogs and toads played a role in mate selection. He noted that breeding calls typically varied by geography, and the sounds varied depending upon the level of overlap with related species: related, overlapping species have greater differences between their calls than related, non-overlapping species. His interest in these isolation mechanisms led to a 1959 symposium and subsequent publication of Vertebrate Speciation under his editorship.

During this same time, Blair initiated a program to study the ability of anuran genera to produce viable hybrids. His research focused on species within the genus Bufo, and the studies accumulated in the 1972 volume, Evolution in the Genus Bufo.

Blair, his wife, and an army of grad students surveyed his 10 acre homestead for Texas Spiny Lizards (Rusty Lizards; Sceloporus olivaceus) for eight months a year for five years. They observed over 3000 individuals during one of the worst droughts in central Texas history (1952-1956). The result was The Rusty Lizard: A Population Study. This was one of the first studies that allowed a researcher to calculate age-specific fecundity and survival for a species because he was able to catch all of the animals on the property and follow them over the course of a 5-year period.  

In the early 1960s, Blair focused on the parallels between the animal communities of North and South America, especially the xeric (dry) regions. He demonstrated that food-chain relationships (trophic levels) were similar among inhabitants of the American deserts, even though the food web equivalents on the two continents were often not closely related and had different evolutionary histories.

Blair became Professor Emeritus in 1982, the same year his wife passed away. Blair died shortly after on February 9, 1984. His ashes were scattered over the grounds of his ten acres, Blair Woods, on the site of Fort Colorado. At his request the land was donated to the Travis Audubon Society, which established the site as a natural preserve for ecological studies.

Blair Hubbs 
 Clark Hubbs (left) and W. Frank Blair at a 1951 dinner honoring Dr. John Patterson

Blair was heavily involved in many panels and committees, including on the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Committees. He was a member of many commissions with the goals to serve the public through science, and was elected to numerous scientific society offices. He was also a member of five National Science Foundation Advisory Panels. In additional to activity on university committees, he was the first director of the Brackenridge Field Lab when it became an official university field laboratory in 1967. He also founded the Texas Natural History Collections (now the Biodiversity Collections) in the late 1940s. The collection at the time focused on herps, birds, and mammals. The collections expanded to include fish when Dr. Clark Hubbs was hired.

In a memorial, Blair was noted for his active interest in motivating his students through field trips, informal advising and group discussions, and activities for the ecology students and junior faculty. Blair rarely co-authored papers with his students, and did this as a way to foster their independence as researchers. He also believed in practices of ecosystem sustainability, and was an avid supporter for biological field research.