Letter | Published:

A massive, quiescent, population II galaxy at a redshift of 2.1

Nature volume 540, pages 248251 (08 December 2016) | Download Citation


Unlike spiral galaxies such as the Milky Way, the majority of the stars in massive elliptical galaxies were formed in a short period early in the history of the Universe. The duration of this formation period can be measured using the ratio of magnesium to iron abundance ([Mg/Fe]) in spectra1,2,3,4, which reflects the relative enrichment by core-collapse and type Ia supernovae. For local galaxies, [Mg/Fe] probes the combined formation history of all stars currently in the galaxy, including younger and metal-poor stars that were added during late-time mergers5. Therefore, to directly constrain the initial star-formation period, we must study galaxies at earlier epochs. The most distant galaxy for which [Mg/Fe] had previously been measured6 is at a redshift of z ≈ 1.4, with [Mg/Fe] = . A slightly earlier epoch (z ≈ 1.6) was probed by combining the spectra of 24 massive quiescent galaxies, yielding an average [Mg/Fe] = 0.31 ± 0.12 (ref. 7). However, the relatively low signal-to-noise ratio of the data and the use of index analysis techniques for both of these studies resulted in measurement errors that are too large to allow us to form strong conclusions. Deeper spectra at even earlier epochs in combination with analysis techniques based on full spectral fitting are required to precisely measure the abundance pattern shortly after the major star-forming phase (z > 2). Here we report a measurement of [Mg/Fe] for a massive quiescent galaxy at a redshift of z = 2.1, when the Universe was three billion years old. With [Mg/Fe] = 0.59 ± 0.11, this galaxy is the most Mg-enhanced massive galaxy found so far, having twice the Mg enhancement of similar-mass galaxies today. The abundance pattern of the galaxy is consistent with enrichment exclusively by core-collapse supernovae and with a star-formation timescale of 0.1 to 0.5 billion years—characteristics that are similar to population II stars in the Milky Way. With an average past star-formation rate of 600 to 3,000 solar masses per year, this galaxy was among the most vigorous star-forming galaxies in the Universe.

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M.K. acknowledges discussions with J. Greene and E. Quataert. The data presented in this paper were obtained at the W. M. Keck Observatory, which is operated as a scientific partnership between the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Observatory was made possible by the financial support of the W. M. Keck Foundation. We acknowledge the cultural role that the summit of Mauna Kea has within the indigenous Hawaiian community. We acknowledge support from NSF AAG collaborative grants AST-1312780, 1312547, 1312764 and 1313171 and archival grant AR-13907, provided by NASA through a grant from the Space Telescope Science Institute. C.C. acknowledges support from NASA grant NNX13AI46G, NSF grant AST-1313280 and the Packard Foundation.

Author information


  1. Department of Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Mariska Kriek
    •  & Freeke van de Voort
  2. Department of Astronomy, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

    • Charlie Conroy
    •  & Jieun Choi
  3. Astronomy Department, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA

    • Pieter G. van Dokkum
  4. Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA

    • Alice E. Shapley
  5. Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of California, Riverside, California 92521, USA

    • Naveen A. Reddy
    • , Brian Siana
    •  & Bahram Mobasher
  6. Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093, USA

    • Alison L. Coil


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M.K., P.G.v.D. and C.C. wrote the primary Keck proposal. M.K. and C.C. led the interpretation. M.K. wrote the reduction pipeline, reduced the data, determined the stellar mass, measured the Lick indices and wrote the text. C.C. developed the SPS model, fitted the spectrum and derived the chemical evolution model. M.K., P.G.v.D., J.C., F.v.d.V. and N.A.R. did the observations. All authors contributed to the analysis and interpretation.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mariska Kriek.

Reviewer Information

Nature thanks T. C. Beers, C. Kobayashi and C. Maraston for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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