• galaxies: clusters: general;
  • galaxies: elliptical and lenticular, cD;
  • galaxies: fundamental parameters;
  • galaxies: stellar content;
  • infrared: galaxies

We present near-infrared K-band spectroscopy of 21 elliptical or cD brightest cluster galaxies (BCGs), for which we have measured the strength of the 2.293-μm CO stellar absorption feature. We find that the strength of this feature is remarkably uniform among these galaxies, with a smaller scatter in equivalent width than for the normal elliptical population in the field or clusters. The scatter for BCGs is 0.156 nm, compared with 0.240 nm for Coma cluster ellipticals, 0.337 nm for ellipticals from a variety of other clusters, and 0.422 nm for field ellipticals. We interpret this homogeneity as being the result of a greater age, or more uniform history of star formation in BCGs than in other ellipticals; only a small fraction of the scatter can be caused by metallicity variations, even in the BCGs. Notwithstanding the small scatter, correlations are found between CO strength and various galaxy properties, including R-band absolute magnitude, which could improve the precision of these galaxies as distance indicators in measurements of cosmological parameters and velocity flows.