A coincidence of disturbed morphology and blue UV colour : Minor-merger-driven star formation in early-type galaxies at z~ 0.6
We exploit multiwavelength photometry of early-type galaxies (ETGs) in the Cosmological Evolution Survey (COSMOS) to demonstrate that the low-level star formation activity in the ETG population at intermediate redshift is likely to be driven by minor mergers. Splitting the ETGs into galaxies that show disturbed morphologies indicative of recent merging and those that appear relaxed, we find that ~32 per cent of the ETG population appears to be morphologically disturbed. While the relaxed objects are almost entirely contained within the UV red sequence, their morphologically disturbed counterparts dominate the scatter to blue UV colours, regardless of luminosity. Empirically and theoretically determined major-merger rates in the redshift range z <1 are several times too low to account for the fraction of disturbed ETGs in our sample, suggesting that minor mergers represent the principal mechanism driving the observed star formation activity in our sample. The young stellar components forming in these events have ages between 0.03 and 0.3 Myr and typically contribute ≤ 10 per cent of the stellar mass of the remnant. Together with recent work which demonstrates that the structural evolution of nearby ETGs is consistent with one or more minor mergers, our results indicate that the overall evolution of massive ETGs may be heavily influenced by minor merging at late epochs and highlights the need to systematically study this process in future observational surveys.