A massive, quiescent galaxy at a redshift of 3.717


Finding massive galaxies that stopped forming stars in the early Universe presents an observational challenge because their rest-frame ultraviolet emission is negligible and they can only be reliably identified by extremely deep near-infrared surveys. These surveys have revealed the presence of massive, quiescent early-type galaxies1,2,3,4,5,6 appearing as early as redshift z ≈ 2, an epoch three billion years after the Big Bang. Their age and formation processes have now been explained by an improved generation of galaxy-formation models7,8,9, in which they form rapidly at z ≈ 3–4, consistent with the typical masses and ages derived from their observations. Deeper surveys have reported evidence for populations of massive, quiescent galaxies at even higher redshifts and earlier times, using coarsely sampled photometry. However, these early, massive, quiescent galaxies are not predicted by the latest generation of theoretical models7,8,9,10. Here we report the spectroscopic confirmation of one such galaxy at redshift z = 3.717, with a stellar mass of 1.7 × 1011 solar masses. We derive its age to be nearly half the age of the Universe at this redshift and the absorption line spectrum shows no current star formation. These observations demonstrate that the galaxy must have formed the majority of its stars quickly, within the first billion years of cosmic history in a short, extreme starburst. This ancestral starburst appears similar to those being found by submillimetre-wavelength surveys11,12,13,14. The early formation of such massive systems implies that our picture of early galaxy assembly requires substantial revision.

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Figure 1: Spectrum of ZF-COSMOS-20115 in the near-infrared K band.
Figure 2: Allowed age and formation timescales of ZF-COSMOS-20115.
Figure 3: Stellar mass assembly history of ZF-COSMOS-20115.


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K.G. acknowledges support from Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Program grants DP130101460 and DP160102235. G.G.K. acknowledges the support of the Australian Research Council through the award of a Future Fellowship (FT140100933). I.L. acknowledges an NL-NWO Spinoza Grant. C.S. acknowledges an NWO-Top 2 Grant. This paper is based primarily on observations taken at the W. M. Keck Observatory and we acknowledge the important cultural role that the summit of Mauna Kea has within the indigenous Hawaiian community.

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K.G. led the project, directed the observations, measured the equivalent width, performed the star-formation history modelling analysis and wrote the paper. C.S., T.N. and T.Y. reduced the MOSFIRE data. C.S. did the optimal one-dimensional stacking and extraction of the spectra, assisted by I.L. G.K. did the mask design and assisted with the observing. Other authors assisted with the observations and commented on the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Karl Glazebrook.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Reviewer Information Nature thanks J. Dunlop, R. Genzel and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Imaging in the visible and near-infrared of ZF-COSMOS-20115.

The left panel shows a close-up view with Hubble (0.2-arcsec spatial resolution) and the right panels show wider-field and lower-resolution images from ground-based telescopes. The legend on each panel shows (from left to right) the mapping of blue, green and red colour channels to the named filters. The galaxy’s flux rises strongly in the near-infrared, peaking at a wavelength of 2 μm (left and top right—a strong red source), and is undetected in the visible part of the spectrum below a wavelength of 0.8 μm (bottom right).

Extended Data Figure 2 Illustration of the equivalent width measurement.

The red line shows the flux per unit wavelength (fλ) in 19.5 Å (observed frame) spectral bins, the blue points are the clean regions of the spectrum used for continuum fitting, the blue line is the continuum fit, and the yellow-shaded areas represent the Balmer line regions summed for the equivalent width measurement.

Extended Data Figure 3 SED and model fits of ZF-COSMOS-20115.

The fit is performed with PEGASE.2, and is constrained by the spectroscopic redshift and equivalent widths obtained from the MOSFIRE spectrum. a, The SED in AB magnitude (equivalent to logfv). b, The same SED in fλ. In both plots the SED is shown as a function of logλ, and the points with error bars show the photometry measurements and their respective 1σ uncertainties. The black line is the best-fit model, which has tsf = 50 Myr and tobs = 700 ± 255 Myr (that is, effectively forming in a near-instantaneous burst at z = 5.8). The age is strongly constrained by the peak at 2 μm in fλ and the decline redwards. We also note the galaxy is a well detected source in the Spitzer/IRAC 3–6 μm images, and although the point spread function there is coarse and does not allow us to resolve the galaxy, the fluxes suffer negligible flux contamination from neighbouring galaxies.

Extended Data Figure 4 Illustration of the most important parameter degeneracy in the model fitting, between tobs and tsf.

The colour scale shows the probability distribution of Monte Carlo models that fall into each bin. Very short tsf is preferred, although there is a tail of probability towards longer tsf and tobs. The dashed blue lines show lines of constant quiescence time tqu = tobstsf. This figure shows the same degeneracy trend as in Fig. 2; this is because the photometric age constraints have similar sensitivity to the Balmer lines as does the spectrum, via the strong Balmer break between the Hlong (1.7 μm) and Ks (2.2 μm) bands.

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Glazebrook, K., Schreiber, C., Labbé, I. et al. A massive, quiescent galaxy at a redshift of 3.717. Nature 544, 71–74 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature21680

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