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Early stages of nitrogen enrichment in galaxies: Clues from measurements in damped Lyman 

By M. Centurión, P. Molaro, G. Vladilo, C. Péroux, S. A. Levshakov and V. D'Odorico


We present 4 
new measurements of nitrogen abundances and one upper limit in damped Ly α  absorbers (DLAs) obtained by means of high resolution ($FWHM \simeq 7$ km s-1) UVES/VLT spectra. 
In addition to these measurements we have compiled data from all DLAs with measurements of nitrogen and α-capture elements (O, S or Si) available in the literature, including all HIRES/Keck and UVES/VLT data for a total of 32 systems, i.e. the largest sample investigated so far. We find that [ N/α] ratios are distributed in two groups: 75% of the DLAs show a mean value of $\rm [N/\alpha] = -0.87$ with a scatter of 0.17 dex, while the remaining 25% shows ratios clustered at $\rm [N/\alpha] = -1.45$ with an even lower dispersion of 0.05 dex. The high $\rm [N/\alpha] \simeq -0.9$ plateau is consistent with the one observed in metal-poor $\ion{H}{ii}$ regions of blue compact dwarf (BCD) galaxies ($\rm [N/\alpha] =-0.73 \pm 0.13$), while the [ $\rm N/\alpha] \simeq -1.5$ values are the lowest ever observed in any astrophysical site. These low [ N/α] ratios are real and are not due to ionization effects. They provide crucial evidence against the primary production of N by massive stars as being responsible for the plateau at $-0.9/$ -0.7 dex observed in DLAs and BCD galaxies. 
 The transition between the low-N ($\rm [N/\alpha]\simeq-1.5$) and high-N ([ $\rm N/\alpha] \simeq -0.9$) DLAs occurs at a nitrogen abundance of $\rm [N/H] \simeq -2.8$, suggesting that the separation may result from some peculiarity of the nitrogen enrichment history. The $\rm [N/\alpha ] \simeq -1.5$ values and their low dispersion are consistent with a modest production of primary N in massive stars; however, due to the limited sample, specially for the low-N DLAs, we cannot exclude a primary origin in intermediate mass stars as responsible for the low N abundances observed.

Topics: cosmology: observations, galaxies: abundances, galaxies: evolution, quasars: absorption lines
Publisher: EDP Sciences
DOI identifier: 10.1051/0004-6361:20030273
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