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The evolution of brightest cluster galaxies in a hierarchical universe

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We investigate the evolution of brightest cluster galaxies (BCGs) from redshift z ~ 1.6 to z = 0. We upgrade the hierarchical semi-analytic model of Croton et al. with a new spectro-photometric model that produces realistic galaxy spectra, making use of the Maraston stellar populations and a new recipe for the dust extinction. We compare the model predictions of the K-band luminosity evolution and the J – K, V – I, and I – K color evolution with a series of data sets, including those of Collins et al. who argued that semi-analytic models based on the Millennium simulation cannot reproduce the red colors and high luminosity of BCGs at z > 1. We show instead that the model is well in range of the observed luminosity and correctly reproduces the color evolution of BCGs in the whole redshift range up to z ~ 1.6. We argue that the success of the semi-analytic model is in large part due to the implementation of a more sophisticated spectro-photometric model. An analysis of the model BCGs shows an increase in mass by a factor of 2-3 since z ~ 1, and star formation activity down to low redshifts. While the consensus regarding BCGs is that they are passively evolving, we argue that this conclusion is affected by the degeneracy between star formation history and stellar population models used in spectral energy distribution fitting, and by the inefficacy of toy models of passive evolution to capture the complexity of real galaxies, especially those with rich merger histories like BCGs. Following this argument, we also show that in the semi-analytic model the BCGs show a realistic mix of stellar populations, and that these stellar populations are mostly old. In addition, the age-redshift relation of the model BCGs follows that of the universe, meaning that given their merger history and star formation history, the ageing of BCGs is always dominated by the ageing of their stellar populations. In a ΛCDM universe, we define such evolution as "passive in the hierarchical sense."
Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Astrophysical Journal
Volume759
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2012

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