The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is investigating claims that photos it published which point to sightings of the endangered night parrot were staged.
Former AWC ecologist John Young is credited with taking the first photograph of what has been dubbed the “world’s most mysterious bird” in Queensland in 2013. Last year Young said he had found a feather from the night parrot on Kalamurina Station, around northern Lake Eyre in South Australia, describing the July discovery as significant “beyond what I could have imagined”.
But since then his work has been called into question, including by Australian National University academic Penny Olsen, who has suggested in her new book, Night Parrot, that some of Young’s discoveries – most notably his 2013 photo – were staged.
The AWC announced on Thursday night that the organisation had launched an investigation.
Young, one of Australia’s most renowned field naturalists, resigned as an AWC senior field ecologist last month after questions were raised about the veracity of the photos, a spokeswoman said.
“AWC has removed content regarding the night parrot from our website,” the spokeswoman said. “We have received questions about the veracity of some of the content and we are investigating these matters.
“The night parrot content will not be republished until we receive the results of the independent investigation into the veracity of the work … Should the investigation reveal issues with the veracity of material published by AWC, we will correct the public record.”
AWC’s chief executive, Atticus Fleming, resigned in July. Young would take part in the investigation, the spokeswoman said. Guardian Australia has attempted to contact Young for comment.
During the 20th century, experts had feared the night parrot was extinct, with no confirmed sightings between 1912 and 1979. Until Young’s 2013 photograph, the only evidence of its continued existence had been two dead birds found in 1990 and 2006.
In 2016, AWC researchers led by Young announced a further population had been discovered in Diamantina national park, adjacent to the Pullen Pullen nature reserve where Young took the 2013 photograph.
At the time, Fleming said: “My immediate reaction was excitement – this is great, there are more birds out there than we thought.”
It is unknown how many night parrots survive, although some estimates still put their total numbers as low as 20. Last year a different group recorded and photographed a night parrot in Western Australia.
Young is no stranger to controversy. In 2006, his claims that he had discovered a new species of fig parrot in the rainforests of north-east New South Wales were challenged.
His 2013 photograph of the night parrot, the first ever of a live individual, sparked hopes that the bird population was larger than previously thought.
Last year’s discovery of a night parrot feather in South Australia was held up as the first evidence of the bird’s survival in that state in 170 years.
The birding magazine Audubon has reported claims that Young had captured the bird photographed in 2013. The magazine said readers had “noticed a cage-like mesh visible in the night parrot photo that John Young took in 2013 and provided to Audubon”. Young has long denied capturing the bird.
Olsen told Guardian Australia she welcomed the investigation.
“It’s the right thing to do. I don’t blame AWC for any of this.” she said. “John has always claimed that he just went out into the bush and called it in and he stood there and took the photos. I questioned that seriously in the book.
“We’ve always been suspicious of the nests he claimed to find in Diamantina national park. They don’t look right. The other night parrot researchers say they have not seen anything like them.
“I’m really happy to stick my neck and say they’re fabricated. They’re man-made.”
Olsen also “dismissed” the photograph of the feather found in South Australia.
“The photograph issued at the time was of this rather clean-looking rather light parrot feather perched on top of a very soiled zebra finch nest. It just didn’t look like it had been in the nest any length of time.”