New Paper: Morphological Conformity in Galaxy Zoo

I’m delighted to report on the publication of the below paper, led by Justin Otter, a talented recent graduate of Haverford College who worked with me on this project since their Junior year (September 2017). Link to MNRAS abstract. Link to Arxiv version of accepted paper.


In this paper we used data from Galaxy Zoo 2 to investigate the idea of galactic “conformity” in galaxy morphologies.

What is Galactic Conformity?

Great question. It’s a fairly simple idea actually – the idea that satellite galaxies in groups are more likely to have similar properties to their central galaxy than a random galaxy in the Universe would. The satellites “conform” to the properties of the largest (central) galaxy in the group. So in a group with a star-forming central galaxy would be more likely to have star-forming satellite galaxies than a group with a passive (not star-forming) central galaxy.

What’s New in this Paper? 

The new thing here is looking at the star-formation and morphological properties of galaxies separately. So this comes right back to our discovery with the help of all of you at Galaxy Zoo (almost 10 years ago now!) that not all spirals are star-forming (blue), and not all ellipticals are passive (red).

Credit: Otter et al. 2020 (courtesy KLM)

Most studies looking into galactic conformity prior to our work had used star-formation properties to find the signal, and then interpreted the result as if it was a morphological change in the galaxies. This is obviously an over-simplification, and we (well actually it was Brooke who said it first!) wondered if this was driven by star-formation conformity or morphological conformity – and could you find the signal separately for the two.

So what did you find? 

Well we found conformity in both star formation and morphological type, but that the signal was stronger in star-formation properties. We also looked at satellites around red/passive and blue/star-forming spiral and elliptical central galaxies separately, and found the signal was largest around the red/passive elliptical central galaxies.

We made the following cartoon version of what we observed (note this is highly exaggerated – in all cases it was a small excess probability, not that all satellites around a central share its properties). All shapes of galaxies showed star-forming conformity, but there was only morphological conformity around ellipticals and blue spirals, suggesting that satellites of red spirals may have turned into ellipticals before the central galaxy

Credit: Justin Otter. A cartoon version of our observations

What does this mean for galaxy evolution? 

This all fits quite nicely into the picture where star-formation properties of galaxies can change quite easily, but it’s much harder to change morphology, so as a group evolves and/or accretes more satellites they are likely to change star-forming properties more easilly/quickly than the morphological properties.

So thanks again for the classifications which give us the data to do this work!

In case you’re curious, Justin is currently working as a Fulbright Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, and will return to the US for the next academic year to begin his PhD at John’s Hopkins University.

About karenlmasters

Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Haverford College, USA. Project Scientist for Galaxy Zoo. Spokesperson for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Busy having fun with astronomy!

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