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Ongoing assembly of massive galaxies by major merging in large groups and clusters from the SDSS

We investigate the incidence of major mergers creating massive (Mstar > 1011 M⊙) galaxies in present-day (z≤ 0.12) groups and clusters. Using a volume-limited sample of 845 groups with dark matter halo masses above 2.5 × 1013 M⊙, we isolate 221 galaxy pairs with ≤1.5 r-band magnitude differences, ≤30 kpc projected separations and combined masses above 1011 M⊙. We fit the r-band images of each pair as the line-of-sight projection of symmetric models and identify 38 mergers by the presence of residual asymmetric structure associated with both progenitors, such as non-concentric isophotes, broad and diffuse tidal tails and dynamical friction wakes. In other words, at the resolution and sensitivity of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), 16 per cent of massive major pairs in dense environments have mutual tidal interaction signatures; relying on automated searches of major pairs from the SDSS spectroscopic galaxy sample will result in missing 70 per cent of these mergers owing to spectroscopic incompleteness in high-density regions. We find that 90 per cent of these mergers are between two nearly equal-mass progenitors with red-sequence colours and centrally concentrated morphologies, in agreement with numerical simulations that predict that an important mechanism for the formation of massive elliptical galaxies is the dissipationless (gas-poor or so-called dry) major merging of spheroid-dominated galaxies. We identify seven additional massive mergers with disturbed morphologies and semiresolved double nuclei; thus, 1.5 ± 0.2 per cent of Mstar≥ 5 × 1010 M⊙ galaxies in large groups are involved in the major merger assembly of massive galaxies. Mergers at the centres of these groups are more common than between two satellites, but both types are morphologically indistinguishable and we tentatively conclude that the latter are likely located at the dynamical centres of large subhaloes that have recently been accreted by their host halo. Based on reasonable assumptions, the centres of group and cluster-sized haloes are gaining stellar mass at a rate of 2–9 per cent per Gyr on average. Our results indicate that the massive end of the galaxy population continues to evolve hierarchically at a measurable level, and that massive mergers are more likely to occur in large galaxy groups than in massive clusters.