At redshift z = 2, when the Universe was just three billion years old, half of the most massive galaxies were extremely compact and had already exhausted their fuel for star formation1,2,3,4. It is believed that they were formed in intense nuclear starbursts and that they ultimately grew into the most massive local elliptical galaxies seen today, through mergers with minor companions5,6, but validating this picture requires higher-resolution observations of their centres than is currently possible. Magnification from gravitational lensing offers an opportunity to resolve the inner regions of galaxies7. Here we report an analysis of the stellar populations and kinematics of a lensed z = 2.1478 compact galaxy, which—surprisingly—turns out to be a fast-spinning, rotationally supported disk galaxy. Its stars must have formed in a disk, rather than in a merger-driven nuclear starburst8. The galaxy was probably fed by streams of cold gas, which were able to penetrate the hot halo gas until they were cut off by shock heating from the dark matter halo9. This result confirms previous indirect indications10,11,12,13 that the first galaxies to cease star formation must have gone through major changes not just in their structure, but also in their kinematics, to evolve into present-day elliptical galaxies.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    et al. Mass assembly in quiescent and star-forming galaxies since z 4 from UltraVISTA. Astron. Astrophys. 556, A55 (2013)

  2. 2.

    et al. 3D-HST+CANDELS: the evolution of the galaxy size-mass distribution since z = 3. Astrophys. J. 788, 28 (2014)

  3. 3.

    et al. Stellar kinematics of z ~ 2 galaxies and the inside-out growth of quiescent galaxies. Astrophys. J. 771, 85 (2013)

  4. 4.

    et al. Deep absorption line studies of quiescent galaxies at z ~ 2: the dynamical-mass-size relation and first constraints on the fundamental plane. Astrophys. J. 754, 3 (2012)

  5. 5.

    et al. Submillimeter galaxies as progenitors of compact quiescent galaxies. Astrophys. J. 782, 68 (2014)

  6. 6.

    et al. Compact high-redshift galaxies are the cores of the most massive present-day spheroids. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 398, 898–910 (2009)

  7. 7.

    , & Discovery of a strongly lensed massive quiescent galaxy at z = 2.636: spatially resolved spectroscopy and indications of rotation. Astrophys. J. 813, L7 (2015)

  8. 8.

    et al. On sizes, kinematics, M/L gradients, and light profiles of massive compact galaxies at z ~ 2. Astrophys. J. 722, 1666–1684 (2010)

  9. 9.

    et al. Galaxy bimodality due to cold flows and shock heating. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 368, 2–20 (2006)

  10. 10.

    et al. Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer imaging of red and blue galaxies at z ~ 2.5: a correlation between size and star formation activity from compact quiescent galaxies to extended star-forming galaxies. Astrophys. J. 671, 285–302 (2007)

  11. 11.

    et al. Confirmation of the remarkable compactness of massive quiescent galaxies at z ~ 2.3: early-type galaxies did not form in a simple monolithic collapse. Astrophys. J. 677, L5–L8 (2008)

  12. 12.

    et al. The majority of compact massive galaxies at z ~ 2 are disk dominated. Astrophys. J. 730, 38 (2011)

  13. 13.

    et al. MOSFIRE spectroscopy of quiescent galaxies at 1.5 < z < 2.5. I. Evolution of structural and dynamical properties. Astrophys. J. 834, 18 (2017)

  14. 14.

    , & MACS: a quest for the most massive galaxy clusters in the Universe. Astron. J. 553, 668–676 (2001)

  15. 15.

    Improving the full spectrum fitting method: accurate convolution with Gauss-Hermite functions. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 466, 798–811 (2017)

  16. 16.

    The Global Schmidt law in star-forming galaxies. Astrophys. J. 498, 541–552 (1998)

  17. 17.

    Theoretical modeling of starburst galaxies. Astrophys. J. 556, 121–140 (2001)

  18. 18.

    From starburst to quiescence: testing active galactic nucleus feedback in rapidly quenching post-starburst galaxies. Astrophys. J. 792, 84 (2014)

  19. 19.

    et al. Constraining the low-mass slope of the star formation sequence at 0.5<z<2.5. Astrophys. J. 795, 104 (2014)

  20. 20.

    et al. The SAURON project—IX. A kinematic classification for early-type galaxies. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 379, 401–417 (2007)

  21. 21.

    et al. 3D Spectroscopy with VLT/GIRAFFE. IV. Angular momentum and dynamic support of intermediate redshift galaxies. Astron. Astrophys. 466, 83–92 (2007)

  22. 22.

    et al. Evidence for mature bulges and an inside-out quenching phase 3 billion years after the Big Bang. Science 348, 314–317 (2015)

  23. 23.

    , & The average star formation histories of galaxies in dark matter halos from z=0–8. Astrophys. J. 770, 57 (2013)

  24. 24.

    et al. The many lives of active galactic nuclei: cooling flows, black holes and the luminosities and colours of galaxies. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 365, 11–28 (2006)

  25. 25.

    et al. Witnessing the birth of the red sequence: ALMA high-resolution imaging of [CII] and dust in two interacting ultra-red starbursts at z = 4.425. Astrophys. J. 827, 34 (2016)

  26. 26.

    et al. ALMA imaging of gas and dust in a galaxy protocluster at redshift 5.3: [C II] emission in “typical” galaxies and dusty starbursts ≈1 billion years after the Big Bang. Astrophys. J. 796, 84 (2014)

  27. 27.

    et al. Keck-I MOSFIRE spectroscopy of compact star-forming galaxies at z >~ 2: high velocity dispersions in progenitors of compact quiescent galaxies. Astrophys. J. 795, 145 (2014)

  28. 28.

    et al. Forming compact massive galaxies. Astrophys. J. 813, 23 (2015)

  29. 29.

    et al. The ATLAS3D project–XXV. Two-dimensional kinematic analysis of simulated galaxies and the cosmological origin of fast and slow rotators. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 444, 3357–3387 (2014)

  30. 30.

    et al. The cluster lensing and supernova survey with Hubble: an overview. Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser. 553, 668 (2012)

  31. 31.

    et al. The cluster lensing and supernova survey with Hubble (CLASH): strong-lensing analysis of A383 from 16-band HST/WFC3/ACS imaging. Astrophys. J. 742, 117 (2011)

  32. 32.

    et al. Hubble Space Telescope combined strong and weak lensing analysis of the CLASH sample: mass and magnification models and systematic uncertainties. Astrophys. J. 801, 44 (2015)

  33. 33.

    et al. Precise strong lensing mass profile of the CLASH cluster MACS 2129. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 466, 4094–4106 (2017)

  34. 34.

    et al. VLT/X-Shooter near-infrared spectroscopy and HST imaging of gravitationally lensed z ~ 2 compact quiescent galaxies. Astrophys. J. 777, 87 (2013)

  35. 35.

    et al. Deep rest-frame far-UV spectroscopy of the giant Lyman α emitter ‘Himiko’. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 451, 2050 (2015)

  36. 36.

    et al. An X-Shooter composite of bright 1 < z < 2 quasars from UV to infrared. Astron. Astrophys. 585, A87 (2016)

  37. 37.

    et al. The low-mass end of the fundamental relation for gravitationally lensed star-forming galaxies at 1 < z < 6. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 427, 1953–1972 (2012)

  38. 38.

    et al. A Bayesian approach to strong lensing modelling of galaxy clusters. New J. Phys. 9, 447–478 (2007)

  39. 39.

    et al. The Frontier Field Lens Modeling Comparison Project. Preprint at (2016)

  40. 40.

    Galactic stellar and substellar initial mass function. Publ. Astron. Soc. Pacif. 115, 763–795 (2003)

  41. 41.

    Star formation rates, galaxy morphology, and the Hubble sequence. Astron. Astrophys. 161, 89–101 (1986)

  42. 42.

    & A simple model for the absorption of starlight by dust in galaxies. Astrophys. J. 539, 718–731 (2000)

  43. 43.

    et al. Resolving the age bimodality of galaxy stellar populations on kpc scales. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 468, 1902–1916 (2017)

  44. 44.

    et al. The Indo-US Library of Coudé Feed Stellar Spectra. Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser. 152, 251–259 (2004)

  45. 45.

    et al. Coudé-feed stellar spectral library—atmospheric parameters. Astron. Astrophys. 525, A71 (2011)

  46. 46.

    , & Spatially resolved gas kinematics within a Lyα nebula: evidence for large-scale rotation. Astrophys. J. 799, 62 (2015)

  47. 47.

    Introducing ADAPTSMOOTH, a new code for the adaptive smoothing of astronomical images. Preprint at (2009)

  48. 48.

    et al. Resolved stellar mass maps of galaxies—I. Method and implication for global mass estimates. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 400, 1181–1198 (2009)

  49. 49.

    et al. Detailed structural decomposition of galaxy images. Astron. J. 124, 266–293 (2002)

  50. 50.

    et al. The SAURON project—V. Integral-field emission-line kinematics of 48 elliptical and lenticular galaxies. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 366, 1151–1200 (2006)

  51. 51.

    et al. Outflows from active galactic nuclei: kinematics of the narrow-line and coronal-line regions in Seyfert galaxies. Astrophys. J. 739, 69 (2011)

  52. 52.

    & Offset active galactic nuclei as tracers of galaxy mergers and supermassive black hole growth. Astrophys. J. 789, 112 (2014)

  53. 53.

    et al. The effect of mass ratio on the morphology and time-scales of disc galaxy mergers. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 404, 575–589 (2010)

  54. 54.

    et al. How do disks survive mergers? Astrophys. J. 691, 1168–1201 (2009)

  55. 55.

    , & Sizes and surface brightness profiles of quiescent galaxies at z ~ 2. Astrophys. J. 749, 121 (2012)

  56. 56.

    et al. Morphologies and color gradients of luminous evolved galaxies at z~1.5. Astrophys. J. 682, 303–318 (2008)

  57. 57.

    , & A disk galaxy of old stars at z~2.5. Astrophys. J. 605, 37–44 (2004)

  58. 58.

    , & Compact quiescent galaxies at intermediate redshifts. Astrophys. J. 796, 92 (2014)

  59. 59.

    et al. NGC 1277: a massive compact relic galaxy in the nearby Universe. Astrophys. J. 780, L20 (2014)

  60. 60.

    et al. A stellar velocity dispersion for a strongly-lensed, intermediate-mass quiescent galaxy at z=2.8. Astrophys. J. 819, 74 (2016)

  61. 61.

    et al. IMAGES III. The evolution of the near-infrared Tully-Fisher relation over the last 6 Gyr. Astron. Astrophys. 484, 173–187 (2008)

  62. 62.

    et al. The evolving interstellar medium of star-forming galaxies since z=2 as probed by their infrared spectral energy distribution. Astrophys. J. 760, 6 (2012)

  63. 63.

    et al. CLASH: precise new constraints on the mass profile of the galaxy cluster A2261. Astrophys. J. 757, 22 (2012)

  64. 64.

    et al. 3D spectroscopy with VLT/GIRAFFE. IV. Angular momentum and dynamic support of intermediate redshift galaxies. Astron. Astrophys. 466, 83–92 (2012)

Download references


S.T., J.Z., G.M., N.Y.L., C.L.S., C.G.-G. and M.S. acknowledge support from the ERC Consolidator Grant funding scheme (project ConTExt, grant number 648179). C.G. acknowledges support from the VILLUM FONDEN Young Investigator Programme (grant number 10123). G.M. acknowledges support from the Carlsberg Foundation and from the VILLUM FONDEN Young Investigator Programme (grant number 13160). S.Z. and A.G. acknowledge support by the EU Marie Curie Career Integration Grant “SteMaGE” number PCIG12-GA-2012-326466 (call identifier FP7-PEOPLE-2012 CIG). J.Z. acknowledges support of the OCEVU Labex (ANR-11-LABX-0060) and the A*MIDEX project (ANR-11-IDEX-0001-02) funded by the ‘Investissements d’Avenir’ French government programme managed by the French National Research Agency (ANR). We thank M. Yun and R. Cybalski for providing the deep Spitzer data, and D. Watson and F. Valentino for discussions.

Author information


  1. Dark Cosmology Centre, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Juliane Maries Vej 32, København Ø, 2100, Denmark

    • Sune Toft
    • , Johannes Zabl
    • , Nicholas Y. Lee
    • , Carlos Gómez-Guijarro
    • , Mikkel Stockmann
    • , Georgios Magdis
    •  & Charles L. Steinhardt
  2. Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie (IRAP), Université de Toulouse, CNRS, UPS, F-31400 Toulouse, France

    • Johannes Zabl
  3. Université Lyon, Université Lyon 1, Ens de Lyon, CNRS, Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon UMR5574, F-69230 Saint-Genis-Laval, France

    • Johan Richard
  4. Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica–Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Largo Enrico Fermi 5, 50125 Firenze, Italy

    • Anna Gallazzi
    •  & Stefano Zibetti
  5. Department of Astronomy, New Mexico State University, 1320 Frenger Mall, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88003-8001, USA

    • Moire Prescott
  6. Dipartimento di Fisica, Università degli Studi di Milano, via Celoria 16, I-20133 Milano, Italy

    • Claudio Grillo
  7. European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-Straße 2, 85748 Garching bei München, Germany

    • Allison W. S. Man
  8. Institute for Astronomy, Astrophysics, Space Applications and Remote Sensing, National Observatory of Athens, GR-15236 Athens, Greece

    • Georgios Magdis


  1. Search for Sune Toft in:

  2. Search for Johannes Zabl in:

  3. Search for Johan Richard in:

  4. Search for Anna Gallazzi in:

  5. Search for Stefano Zibetti in:

  6. Search for Moire Prescott in:

  7. Search for Claudio Grillo in:

  8. Search for Allison W. S. Man in:

  9. Search for Nicholas Y. Lee in:

  10. Search for Carlos Gómez-Guijarro in:

  11. Search for Mikkel Stockmann in:

  12. Search for Georgios Magdis in:

  13. Search for Charles L. Steinhardt in:


S.T. conceived the study, was the Principal Investigator of the XSHOOTER programme, performed the Galfit analysis and produced Figs 2, 3, 4 and Extended Data Figs 3, 4 and 6. S.T. and J.Z. wrote the paper. J.Z. reduced the XSHOOTER data, performed the pPXF analysis and lensing model systematic error analysis. J.Z. also produced Fig. 1 and Extended Data Figs 5 and 7. A.G. performed the stellar population synthesis modelling of the spectrum and photometry. S.Z. performed the emission line analysis, produced the resolved stellar population maps and Extended Data Fig. 2. J.R. performed the lensing analysis, and source plane reconstruction. M.P. performed the Markov chain Monte Carlo dynamical modelling and produced Extended Data Fig. 8. C.G. produced the colour composite HST images in Fig. 1 and Extended Data Fig. 1. A.W.S.M. performed the Galfit Markov chain Monte Carlo analysis. G.M. derived the SFR limit from the MIPS data. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sune Toft.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

About this article

Publication history







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.