The star formation history of early-type galaxies in the Fornax cluster
We have measured central line strengths and line-strength gradients for a complete sample of early-type galaxies in the Fornax cluster, comprising 11 elliptical and 11 lenticular galaxies, more luminous than M(_B) = -17. We find that the centres of Fornax ellipticals follow the locus of galaxies of fixed age in Worthey's models and have metallicities varying roughly from half solar to 2.5 times solar. Line-strength gradients indicate that elliptical galaxies do not show age gradients with radius but do exhibit a decrease of ~ 0.4 dex in [Fe/H] between the centre and one effective radius. The centres of lenticular galaxies however exhibit a substantial spread to younger luminosity weighted ages indicating a more extended star formation history. Metallicity gradients are generally shallower than for ellipticals. Five of the faint S0s have experienced a central starburst on top of an underlying older stellar population. Our conclusions are based on several age/metallicity diagnostic diagrams in the Lick/IDS system comprising established indices such as [MgFe] and Hβ as well as new and more sensitive indices such as C4668, Fe3 and Hγ(_A). The inferred difference in the age distribution between lenticular and elliptical galaxies is a robust conclusion as the models generate consistent relative ages using different age and metallicity indicators even though the absolute ages remain uncertain. The absolute age uncertainty is caused by the effects of non-solar abundance ratios which are not accounted for in the stellar population models. We find that Es are generally overabundant in magnesium where the most luminous galaxies show stronger overabundances. The luminosity weighted stellar populations of young S0s are consistent with solar abundance ratios, however the bulges of the two large S0s in our sample have [Mg/Fe] > 0. We have analysed in detail the sources of scatter in the Mg-crg relation by investigating the effects of age, metallicity and [Mg/Fe] variations. We find that young stellar populations are responsible for most of the scatter towards weak Mg-absorption. However, for the roughly coeval ellipticals the scatter at a given ctq is correlated with [Mg/Fe variations; metallicity and age effects seem to be less important. The young luminosity weighted ages of the faint S0s in the Fornax cluster are consistent with the recent discovery that the fraction of S0 galaxies in intermediate redshift clusters is a factor of 2-3 lower than found locally, and suggests that a fraction of the cluster spiral galaxy population has evolved into these faint S0s in the 5 Gyrs interval from z = 0.5 to the present. One of the proposed transformation mechanisms is the galaxy harassment picture. The properties of young S0s with large bulge to disk ratios in our sample are remarkably similar to the proposed end-products of galaxy harassment. However, we note that there are young disky S0s which are unlikely to be the result of harassment. Two of the faintest lenticular galaxies in our sample have blue continua and extremely strong Balmer-line absorption suggesting starbursts < 2 Gyrs ago.