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A high abundance of massive galaxies 3–6 billion years after the Big Bang


Hierarchical galaxy formation is the model whereby massive galaxies form from an assembly of smaller units1. The most massive objects therefore form last. The model succeeds in describing the clustering of galaxies2, but the evolutionary history of massive galaxies, as revealed by their visible stars and gas, is not accurately predicted. Near-infrared observations (which allow us to measure the stellar masses of high-redshift galaxies3) and deep multi-colour images indicate that a large fraction of the stars in massive galaxies form in the first 5 Gyr (refs 4–7), but uncertainties remain owing to the lack of spectra to confirm the redshifts (which are estimated from the colours) and the role of obscuration by dust. Here we report the results of a spectroscopic redshift survey that probes the most massive and quiescent galaxies back to an era only 3 Gyr after the Big Bang. We find that at least two-thirds of massive galaxies have appeared since this era, but also that a significant fraction of them are already in place in the early Universe.

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Figure 1: Stellar mass–redshift distribution for our galaxies.
Figure 2: Colour–redshift distribution for our galaxies.
Figure 3: Mass density in stars versus redshift.


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This work is based on observations obtained at the Gemini Observatory, which is operated by AURA under a co-operative agreement with the NSF on behalf of the Gemini partnership: NSF (US), PPARC (UK), NRC (Canada), CONICYT (Chile), ARC (Australia), CNPq (Brazil) and CONICET (Argentina); it is also based on observations made at the Las Campanas Observatory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. K.G. and S.S. acknowledge funding from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation; S.S. is on leave of absence from the Osservatorio Astronomica di Roma, Italy. R.A. acknowledges funding from NSERC and from the Government of Ontario through a Premier's Research Excellence award. H.-W.C. acknowledges support by NASA through a Hubble Fellowship grant from the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under NASA contract.

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Correspondence to Karl Glazebrook.

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Glazebrook, K., Abraham, R., McCarthy, P. et al. A high abundance of massive galaxies 3–6 billion years after the Big Bang. Nature 430, 181–184 (2004).

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