The "wet" sol-gel and "dry" solid-state methods were used to prepare Ni-Ta-O mixed oxide catalysts. The resulting Ni-Ta oxides exhibit high activity and selectivity for the low temperature oxidative dehydrogenation of ethane to ethylene. The Ta/(Ni + Ta) atomic ratios (varying from 0 to 0.11 in "wet" sol-gel method, and from 0 to 0.20 in "dry" solid-state method) as well as the preparation methods used in the synthesis, play important roles in controlling catalyst structure, activity, selectivity and stability in the oxidative dehydrogenation of ethane. Electron microscopy characterizations (TEM, EELS mapping, and HAADF-STEM) clearly demonstrate that the Ta atoms are inserted into NiO crystal lattice, resulting in the formation of a new Ni-Ta oxide solid solution. More Ta atoms are found to be located at the lattice sites of crystal surface in sol-gel catalyst. While, a small amount of thin layer of Ta2O5 clusters are detected in solid-state catalyst. Further characterization by XRD, N2 adsorption, SEM, H2-TPR, XPS, and Raman techniques reveal different properties of these two Ni-Ta oxides. Due to the different properties of the Ni-Ta oxide catalysts prepared by two distinct approaches, they exhibit different catalytic behaviors in the ethane oxidative dehydrogenation reaction at low temperature. Thus, the catalytic performance of Ni-Ta-O mixed oxide catalysts can be systematically modified and tuned by selecting a suitable synthesis method, and then varying the Ta content. ©2015 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.