One of the conundrums in extragalactic astronomy is the discrepancy in observed metallicity distribution functions (MDFs) between the two prime stellar components of early-type galaxies - globular clusters (GCs) and halo field stars. This is generally taken as evidence of highly decoupled evolutionary histories between GC systems and their parent galaxies. Here we show, however, that new developments in linking the observed GC colors to their intrinsic metallicities suggest nonlinear color-to-metallicity conversions, which translate observed color distributions into strongly peaked, unimodal MDFs with broad metal-poor tails. Remarkably, the inferred GC MDFs are similar to the MDFs of resolved field stars in nearby elliptical galaxies and those produced by chemical evolution models of galaxies. The GC MDF shape, characterized by a sharp peak with a metal-poor tail, indicates a virtually continuous chemical enrichment with a relatively short timescale. The characteristic shape emerges across three orders of magnitude in the host galaxy mass, suggesting a universal process of chemical enrichment among various GC systems. Given thatGCs are bluer than field stars within the same galaxy, it is plausible that the chemical enrichment processes ofGCs ceased somewhat earlier than that of the field stellar population, and if so,GCs preferentially trace the major, vigorous mode of star formation events in galactic formation. We further suggest a possible systematic age difference among GC systems, in that the GC systems in more luminous galaxies are older. This is consistent with the downsizing paradigm whereby stars of brighter galaxies, on average, formed earlier than those of dimmer galaxies; this additionally supports the similar nature shared byGCs and field stars. Although the sample used in this study (the Hubble Space Telescope Advanced Camera for Surveys/Wide Field Channel, WFPC2, and WFC3 photometry for the GC systems in the Virgo galaxy cluster) confines our discussion to R ≲ Re for giant ellipticals and ≲10 Re for normal ellipticals, our findings suggest that GC systems and their parent galaxies have shared a more common origin than previously thought, and hence greatly simplify theories of galaxy formation.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Space and Planetary Science