Letter | Published:

Strangulation as the primary mechanism for shutting down star formation in galaxies

Nature volume 521, pages 192195 (14 May 2015) | Download Citation


Local galaxies are broadly divided into two main classes, star-forming (gas-rich) and quiescent (passive and gas-poor). The primary mechanism responsible for quenching star formation in galaxies and transforming them into quiescent and passive systems is still unclear. Sudden removal of gas through outflows1,2,3,4,5,6 or stripping7,8,9 is one of the mechanisms often proposed. An alternative mechanism is so-called “strangulation”10,11,12,13,14, in which the supply of cold gas to the galaxy is halted. Here we report an analysis of the stellar metallicity (the fraction of elements heavier than helium in stellar atmospheres) in local galaxies, from 26,000 spectra, that clearly reveals that strangulation is the primary mechanism responsible for quenching star formation, with a typical timescale of four billion years, at least for local galaxies with a stellar mass less than 1011 solar masses. This result is further supported independently by the stellar age difference between quiescent and star-forming galaxies, which indicates that quiescent galaxies of less than 1011 solar masses are on average observed four billion years after quenching due to strangulation.

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We thank A. Gallazzi and her collaborators for making their SDSS DR4 version of the stellar ages and metallicities catalogues publicly available. We thank S. Lilly, A. Renzini, H.-W. Rix and M. Haehnelt for useful discussions. We acknowledge NASA’s IDL Astronomy Users Library, the IDL code base maintained by D. Schlegel, and the kcorrect software package of M. Blanton.

Author information


  1. Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, 19 J. J. Thomson Avenue, Cambridge CB3 0HE, UK

    • Y. Peng
    • , R. Maiolino
    •  & R. Cochrane
  2. Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0HA, UK

    • Y. Peng
    •  & R. Maiolino
  3. Institute for Astronomy, Royal Observatory Edinburgh, Blackford Hill, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ, UK

    • R. Cochrane


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Y.P. and R.M. co-developed the idea; both contributed to the interpretation and manuscript writing. Y.P. and R.C. contributed to the measurements and analysis.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Y. Peng.

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