Hi, I’m Tom Saunders.
Broadly speaking, I’m interested in entomology, biological control, and taxonomy. I’m particularly interested in parasitoid wasps and the opportunities they present for controlling pests in a more sustainable way.
I’m passionate about public engagement with science.
I believe that scientists have a responsibility to communicate their research to the public, and the way that they go about this is more important than ever. Researchers can contribute valuable context to debates about controversial issues. They can encourage a greater level of public interest in the natural world by showing parts of it from new perspectives. And they can work together with communities to design innovative citizen science projects that generate new opportunities for answering the questions we all care about most.
I’m interested in how software can enhance the scientific process.
There are so many digital tools available to help with science from the conception of an idea, to the publishing of a manuscript. These tools not only save huge amounts of time, they also provide new ways of doing things that were previously only dreamed about. One of my favorites is Zotero – a reference/document management system that offers powerful features for every part of the knowledge creation process.
I enjoy cooking, photography, and reading about history.
PhD | Improving methods of non-target testing for biological control agents
B3 collaboration between New Zealand’s top research organisations and MPI. The primary focus of my research is to improve the methodology used to assess the risk of non-target impacts resulting from release of biocontrol agents. Understanding these risks are essential in order to comply with environmental legislation in New Zealand. Regulators often have to make decisions about whether to approve an application or not based on a relatively narrow set of behavioural evidence. On their own, behavioural tests are a necessary yet insufficient tool for reliably assessing an organisms ecological host range, that is, the number of species it will actually attack in the field. I will integrate a combination of methods to produce results that will aid decision-makers in their risk assessments of BCA non-target impacts. A variety of traditional and cutting edge chemical ecology methods will be used to investigate a case study involving an Asian parasitoid wasp which attacks a highly invasive stink bug which is not yet established in New Zealand.
The brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB), Halyomorpha halys Stål (Hemiptera: Pentatomidae), is a subtropical species of stink bug native to East Asia. It infests a wide range of cultivated host plants, causing significant economic losses through feeding damage and the vectoring of plant pathogens. As a result of recent range expansions, BMSB breeding populations have been detected in North America and Europe. It has caused millions of dollars in losses to apple growers in the US alone, and is expected to continue causing serious economic damage to producers unless a successful intervention is developed. Halyomorpha halys has been intercepted at the New Zealand border many times, and there is a risk that it may establish successfully and cause significant economic damage in the process.
Trissolcus japonicus Ashmead (Hymenoptera: Platygastridae), is an egg parasitoid of pentatomid bugs and has a very high parasitism rates against BMSB in its native range (up to 70%). Since 2007, it has been the focus of a classical biocontrol research program against H. halys in the United States. However, before any biological control agent (BCA) can be released in New Zealand, it must be demonstrated that the new organism will not pose a significant threat to native flora, fauna, or ecosystems. New Zealands’ pentatomid fauna consists of only 8 species, four of which are introduced. Hypsithocus hudsonae Bergroth (Heteroptera: Pentatomidae), or the black alpine shield bug, is a genetically distinct endemic species known from only five alpine and sub-alpine habitats in Central Otago. Hypsithocus hudsonae is one of the last remaining species required to undergo assessment of potential non-target impacts of T. japonicus in New Zealand.
MSc | Optimising Capture Methods for the Evaluation of Parasitoid Wasp Diversity
Thesis publicly available @ ResearchSpace.
My masters research focused on improving the ways that parasitoid wasps are caught, in order to help researchers studying their ecology or diversity. Parasitoid wasps are mega-diverse, ecologically dominant, but poorly studied components of global biodiversity. Despite their intensive application within pest management as biocontrol agents, little is known about native species. To understand their basic biology they must be collected in sampling programs. However, invertebrate surveys are increasingly subject to funding and time constraints that often preclude complete faunal inventories. In order to maximise the efficiency and reduce the cost of their collection, I proposed the application of optimal sampling techniques within a Rapid Biodiversity Assessment framework. Two sites in the Waitakere Ranges were sampled three times over the summer to determine the relationship between sampling effort and observed species richness. Statistical techniques such as rarefaction and non-parametric estimators were used to predict true species richness and to evaluate the completeness of sampling. Results showed that an intensive Malaise-trapping regime over the summer could capture two-thirds of parasitoid wasp species present. I provided sampling recommendations to guide optimal usage of Malaise traps for both ecological studies and faunal inventories. I also described a new species of native parasitoid wasp, representing the first New Zealand species from the genus Lusius (Ichneumonidae: Ichneumoninae). Morphological measurements confirm the new species represents a significant range expansion for the genus.
I encouraged greater collaboration between ecologists and taxonomists, in order to make more efficient use of resources, data, and expertise unique to each discipline. My masters is the first attempt to quantify sampling effort in relation to parasitoid wasp diversity in New Zealand. It shows that very high sampling effort fails to catch all species present. Parasitoid wasps are known to be keystone species that show promise as indicators of environmental quality and as surrogates for the diversity of other taxa. The development of optimal sampling strategies will therefore provide an important foundation for their future study.
Field Assistant, Marie-Caroline Lefort, Unitec Environmental & Animal Sciences
Collection of paper wasp nests to support research on larval diets.
Entomologist, FlyBusters Antiants (FBA Consulting)
Lab identification and processing of ant samples for the National Invasive Ant Survey.
Field Assistant, Theo Van Noort, University of Auckland
Servicing malaise traps at several sites to identify Vespula spp. abundance.
MSc Project, Optimising Methods for the Capture of Parasitoid Wasps
Intensive Malaise-trapping over the summer period at two Auckland sites.
Sorting, preparation, and identification of several thousand Hymenoptera specimens.
Application of statistical techniques to assess sampling efficiency and propose sampling recommendations.
Description of a new species of Parasitoid Wasp from New Zealand.
Field Assistant, Dr Christina Painting, University of Auckland
Overnight behavioural observations, photographing of harvestmen.
Summer Scholar, Landcare Research
Collection of Asian paper wasp nests for a study published in Ecology & Evolution on larval diets.
Collection and rearing of caterpillars on Kanuka for a preliminary study on parasitoid-host relationships among native lepidoptera.
Identification of hymenoptera in trap samples, specimen databasing, and imaging specimens for ID.
Argentine Ant Eradication Project, Landcare Research & Auckland Council
Application of toxic baits in physically demanding terrain.
Monitoring with non-toxic baits, hand searches, ant identification in the lab.
Summer Scholar, Landcare Research
Organisation, barcoding, and data entry for 3,500 hymenoptera specimens in the New Zealand Arthropod Collection.
Capture of high resolution images of wasps using specialist microscopy tools and software, for inclusion in the Key to Ichneumonidae of NZ.
Compilation of NZ hymenoptera bibliography including full-text articles through deployment of ‘Zotero’ citation/document management software.
Saunders, T. E. & Ward, D. F. (2016) Quantification of trapping effort for the efficient sampling of parasitoid wasps. Joint Graduate School of Biosecurity & Biodiversity Seminar Day, University of Auckland.
Saunders, T. E. & Ward, D. F. (2016) Aliens in our backyard: Optimising capture of parasitoid wasps. Ecology, Evolution & Behaviour TalkFest Day, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.
Saunders, T. E. (2016) Auckland Ecology Lab Group: Chair for 15/06/2016 Session. Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, University of Auckland.
Saunders, T. E. & Ward, D. F. (2014) Its a trap: How does sampling effort influence the recorded diversity of parasitoids? School of Biological Sciences Thesis Proposal Day, University of Auckland.
Saunders, T. E. & Ward, D. F. (2012) Ichneumonidae of New Zealand. Joint Graduate School of Biodiversity & Biosecurity Summer Scholar Presentation Day, University of Auckland.
3 Minute Thesis 2016 (Finalist) | “Uncovering New Zealand’s Alien Wasps” (YouTube)
Exposure Postgraduate Poster Competition 2016 (1st in School, 9th in Faculty)
Liggins Institute ‘Meet-a-scientist’ Programme
03/08/2016: Auckland Girls Grammar