After the Fall: The Dust and Gas in E+A Post-starburst Galaxies

A. Smercina, J. D.T. Smith, D. A. Dale, K. D. French, K. V. Croxall, S. Zhukovska, A. Togi, E. F. Bell, A. F. Crocker, B. T. Draine, T. H. Jarrett, C. Tremonti, Yujin Yang, A. I. Zabludoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


The traditional picture of post-starburst galaxies as dust- and gas-poor merger remnants, rapidly transitioning to quiescence, has been recently challenged. Unexpected detections of a significant interstellar medium (ISM) in many post-starburst galaxies raise important questions. Are they truly quiescent, and if so, what mechanisms inhibit further star formation? What processes dominate their ISM energetics? We present an infrared spectroscopic and photometric survey of 33 E+A post-starbursts selected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, aimed at resolving these questions. We find compact, warm dust reservoirs with high PAH abundances and total gas and dust masses significantly higher than expected from stellar recycling alone. Both polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH)/total infrared (TIR) and dust-to-burst stellar mass ratios are seen to decrease with post-burst age, indicative of the accumulating effects of dust destruction and an incipient transition to hot, early-type ISM properties. Their infrared spectral properties are unique, with dominant PAH emission, very weak nebular lines, unusually strong H2 rotational emission, and deep [C ii] deficits. There is substantial scatter among star formation rate (SFR) indicators, and both PAH and TIR luminosities provide overestimates. Even as potential upper limits, all tracers show that the SFR has typically experienced a decline of more than two orders of magnitude since the starburst and that the SFR is considerably lower than expected given both their stellar masses and molecular gas densities. These results paint a coherent picture of systems in which star formation was, indeed, rapidly truncated, but in which the ISM was not completely expelled, and is instead supported against collapse by latent or continued injection of turbulent or mechanical heating. The resulting aging burst populations provide a "high-soft" radiation field that seemingly dominates the E+A galaxies' unusual ISM energetics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number51
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • galaxies: ISM
  • galaxies: evolution
  • galaxies: interactions
  • galaxies: starburst


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