We present a comprehensive analysis of the spatially resolved stellar population properties of 26 early-type dwarf galaxies (dEs) in the Virgo cluster. Using Lick/IDS absorption line indices we derive simple stellar population (SSP) equivalent age, metallicity and [α/Fe] abundance ratio. In particular, we focus on the comparison of the stellar populations between the central nucleus and the surrounding galactic main body. The stellar populations of the nuclei are, for most dEs, significantly younger than those of the respective galactic main bodies, with an average difference of 3.5 Gyr. We find only five dEs with significantly older nuclei than their galactic main bodies. Furthermore, we observe most dE nuclei to be more metal rich compared to their host galaxies. These age and metallicity behaviours are shown by almost all dEs brighter than Mr=−17 mag.
The metallicity of both nuclei and galactic main bodies correlates with the total luminosity of the dEs. However, the metallicity of the nuclei covers a larger range (+0.18 to −1.22 dex) than that of the galactic main bodies, which all have subsolar metallicity. The ages of dE nuclei show a statistically significant correlation with the local projected galaxy density within the cluster, such that younger ages are predominantly observed outside of the high-density central cluster region. The α-element abundance ratios are consistent with solar for both nuclei and galactic main bodies.
We also examine the presence of radial gradients in the SSP parameters for a subset of 13 dEs (up to 1.2 kpc or 15 arcsec radius). We notice two different types of gradients, namely smooth profiles that include the nucleus, and profiles where a break occurs between the nucleus and the rest of the galaxy. Nevertheless, an overall trend of increasing age and decreasing metallicity with radius exists, consistent with earlier studies. The α-abundance ratio as function of radius is consistent with no gradient.
Possible formation scenarios for the nuclei of dEs are discussed. The young and metal-enhanced population of nuclei suggests that these might have formed at later epochs, or the termination of star formation activity in the nuclei might have occurred relatively late, perhaps due to continuous infall of gas into the central potential well. Our stellar population analysis suggests that the merging of globular clusters is not an appropriate scenario for the formation of most dE nuclei, at least not for the brighter dEs. We speculate that there might be different formation processes which are responsible for the formation of dEs and their nuclei depending on their luminosity.