Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The formation of cluster elliptical galaxies as revealed by extensive star formation


The most massive galaxies in the present-day Universe are found to lie in the centres of rich clusters. They have old, coeval stellar populations suggesting that the bulk of their stars must have formed at early epochs in spectacular starbursts1, which should be luminous phenomena when observed at submillimetre wavelengths2. The most popular model of galaxy formation predicts that these galaxies form in proto-clusters at high-density peaks in the early Universe3. Such peaks are indicated by massive high-redshift radio galaxies4. Here we report deep submillimetre mapping of seven high-redshift radio galaxies and their environments. These data confirm not only the presence of spatially extended regions of massive star-formation activity in the radio galaxies themselves, but also in companion objects previously undetected at any wavelength. The prevalence, orientation, and inferred masses of these submillimetre companion galaxies suggest that we are witnessing the synchronous formation of the most luminous elliptical galaxies found today at the centres of rich clusters of galaxies.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Continuum emission from dust in and around seven high-redshift radio galaxies.
Figure 2: Submillimetre extent of the radio galaxies.
Figure 3: Observed alignment effects.
Figure 4: Comparison with hierarchical models.


  1. 1

    Ellis, R. S. et al. The homogeneity of spheroidal populations in distant clusters. Astrophys. J. 483, 582–596 (1997)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Dunlop, J. S. et al. Detection of a large mass of dust in a radio galaxy at redshift z = 3.8. Nature 370, 347–349 (1994)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Kauffmann, G. The age of elliptical galaxies and bulges in a merger model. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 281, 487–492 (1996)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    West, M. J. Anisotropic mergers at high redshifts: the formation of cD galaxies and powerful radio sources. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 268, 79–102 (1994)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Hughes, D. H., Dunlop, J. S. & Rawlings, S. High-redshift radio galaxies and quasars at submillimetre wavelengths: assessing their evolutionary status. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 289, 766–782 (1997)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Archibald, E. N. et al. A submillimetre survey of the star-formation history of radio galaxies. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 323, 417–444 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Reuland, M., Röttgering, H. & van Breugel, W. in Radio Galaxies: Past, Present and Future (Elsevier, in the press); preprint at 〈〉 (2003).

  8. 8

    Holland, W. S. et al. SCUBA: a common-user submillimetre camera operating on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 303, 659–672 (1999)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Graham, A., Lauer, T. R., Colless, M. & Postman, M. Brightest cluster galaxy profile shapes. Astrophys. J. 465, 534–547 (1996)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Mihos, J. C. & Hernquist, L. Gasdynamics and starbursts in major mergers. Astrophys. J. 464, 641–663 (1996)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Smail, I., Ivison, R. J., Blain, A. W. & Kneib, J.-P. The nature of faint submillimetre selected galaxies. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 331, 495–520 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Scott, S. E. et al. The SCUBA 8-m Jy survey I. Submillimetre maps, sources and number counts. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 331, 817–838 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Chambers, K. C., Miley, G. K. & van Breugel, W. Alignment of radio and optical orientations in high-redshift radio galaxies. Nature 329, 604–606 (1987)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    McCarthy, P. J., van Breugel, W., Spinrad, H. & Djorgovski, S. A correlation between the radio and optical morphologies of distant 3CR radio galaxies. Astrophys. J. 321, L29–L33 (1987)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Eales, S. A. A new theory for the alignment effect. Astrophys. J. 397, 49–54 (1992)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Smail, I. et al. A SCUBA galaxy in the protocluster around 52W002 at z = 2.4. Astrophys. J. 583, 551–558 (2003)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Pentericci, L. et al. A Chandra study of X-ray sources in the field of the z = 2.16 radio galaxy MRC 1138-262. Astron. Astrophys. 396, 109–115 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Hildebrand, R. H. The determination of cloud masses and dust characteristics from submillimetre thermal emission. Q. J. R. Astron. Soc. 24, 267–282 (1983)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Magorrian, J. et al. The demography of massive dark objects in galactic centers. Astron. J. 115, 2285–2305 (1998)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Kauffmann, G. & Haehnelt, M. A unified model for the evolution of galaxies and quasars. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 311, 576–588 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Page, M. J., Stevens, J. A., Mittaz, J. P. D. & Carrera, F. J. Submillimetre evidence for the coeval growth of massive black holes and galaxy bulges. Science 294, 2516–2518 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Smail, I. et al. Chandra detections of SCUBA galaxies around high-z radio sources. Astrophys. J. (in the press)

  23. 23

    De Breuck, C. et al. CO emission and associated HI absorption from a massive gas reservoir surrounding the z = 3 radio galaxy B3 J2330 + 393. Astron. Astrophys. 401, 911–925 (2003)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Papadopoulos, P. P. et al. CO(4-3) and dust emission in two powerful high-z radio galaxies, and CO lines at high redshifts. Astrophys. J. 528, 626–636 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Gorenstein, P. Empirical relation between interstellar X-ray absorption and optical extinction. Astrophys. J. 198, 95–101 (1975)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Reuland, M. et al. An obscured radio galaxy at high redshift. Astrophys. J. 582, L71–L74 (2003)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Ivison, R. J. et al. An excess of submillimeter sources near 4C41.17: a candidate proto-cluster at z = 3.8? Astrophys. J. 542, 27–34 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Omont, A. et al. Molecular gas and dust around a radio-quiet quasar at redshift 4.69. Nature 382, 428–431 (1996)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Dunlop, J. S. et al. Quasars, their host galaxies, and their central black holes. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 340, 1095–1135 (2003)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Percival, W. J., Scott, D., Peacock, J. A. & Dunlop, J. S. The clustering of halo mergers. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 338, L31–L35 (2003)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The JCMT is run by the Joint Astronomy Centre on behalf of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). J.A.S., J.S.D., I.R.S. and W.J.P. acknowledge funding from PPARC, the Royal Society and the Leverhulme Trust. The work of W.J.M.v.B. and M.R. was performed under the auspices of the US Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration by the University of California, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. A. Stevens.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Stevens, J., Ivison, R., Dunlop, J. et al. The formation of cluster elliptical galaxies as revealed by extensive star formation. Nature 425, 264–267 (2003).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing